Juanacatlán Falls, long a natural resource for residents, Mexicans, and tourists, now a dumping ground for industrial waste and a source of pain for many
The Santiago River, referred to in the regional language of Nahuatl as “Río Chignahuapan,” translated as “the power of the nine rivers,” was the backbone of a thriving indigenous community near Guadalajara, Mexico. Providing a water resource for the towns of El Salto and Juanacatlán, this community grew into an industrial hub for Guadalajara. After years of abuse and lax enforcement of environmental laws, the Santiago River is now one of the most polluted rivers in Mexico. The overpowering stench from waste and toxins disposed into the river permeates residents’ homes and bodies, leading to increased cancer risk and other health complications. Using research from my undergraduate thesis, complemented by satellite imagery, we will explore the cost of industrialization in the communities along the Santiago River.
Traveling to Juanacatlán: From Past to Present
Juanacatlán Falls—once-famous for tourism, leisure, and resources for many Mexicans—are weak and dirty, evoking a feeling of sadness and pain rather than of pride and joy as they once did.
The waterfall, which stood powerfully at 20 meters tall and 130 meters wide, was a natural resource for residents, industrial development, and tourism. Juanacatlán Falls was a source of pride for many Mexicans, especially those of Juanacatlán. In the 1800s and early-to-mid 1900s, the Santiago River used to be a place of gathering and enjoyment for the community. People swam in the river, washed their clothes in the river, played in the river, and did other activities using the river’s water and resources.
The communities alongside the popular waterfall made Juanacatlán a tourist site for those around Mexico and foreigners to admire the sight of Juanacatlán Falls, also known as “el Niágara Mexicano” or “The Mexican Niagara Falls.” The waterfall was a source of beauty and inspiration for many, often inspiring works of literature, art, and music about it and the town of Juanacatlán. There are stereocards, postcards, and other forms of art, often highlighting the beauty of the falls and its waters, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Juanacatlán, a city of approximately 18,000 residents, is located east of the Santiago River; across to the west lies El Salto, with a population of over 230,000 residents.
The Santiago River starts at Lake Chapala, spanning 460 kilometers through the states of Jalisco and Nayarit, and emptying into the Pacific Ocean.
Industrial History and Identity
The waterfall was essential to the development of the municipalities of El Salto and Juanacatlán. In 1892, the waterfall’s power was used to create the first hydroelectric plant in the republic of Mexico, and the second in the world. In the following years, the waterfall helped Juanacatlán and El Salto form their industrial identities, which they carry today. Eventually, the Rio Grande Textile Factory was created in 1896, and became the largest textile operation in all of Jalisco, signifying the rise of industrialization in the area.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Mexican government created the Program of Industrial Parks and Cities. El Salto was one of four initial industrial parks in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Zone. Because of El Salto’s resources, location, and industrial history, it seemed like the ideal site for an industrial park. Additionally, there were several companies established in the municipality that progressed its industrial development and aided its direct functional relationship with Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco. However, with this came the onset of pollution and contamination in the area, as noted by some residents in interviews I conducted in the summer 2022:
“Sería cuando empezó la contaminación, puede ser o no. Sí, por eso. Sí, en empezó ya fuerte en los 60. Los años 60.”
(That would be when the contamination started, may or may not be. Yes, that’s why. Yes, it started already strong in the 60s. The 60’s.)
“Alrededor de 1960. Hoy tenemos 170 porque fue cuando empezaron a aparecer las industrias aquí.”
(Around 1960. Today we have 170*, because that’s when industries started to appear here).
*Refers to the number of industries
More companies and industries would pop up in El Salto in the 1970s, intensifying pollution in the area. By 1979, the power of the Juanacatlán Falls would weaken significantly and turn into a dumping ground for industrial practices. Today, there are more than 750 industrial facilities along the Santiago River, with notable companies such as IBM, Nestlé, Honda, Huntsman, José Cuervo, and many others. Many of these industries and their practices contribute to the river’s pollution and, in turn, residents’ health and quality of life.
As more than 1,000 pollutants pump into the Santiago River, they result in harmful effects for the water, environment, and many life forms. The abundance of green, visible on the satellite imagery, are lilies, which are a result of hyper fertilization. The waste dumped into the river can result in excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. This can cause an overabundance of water lilies to appear, as noted in the image below, with significantly more vegetation in 2016 compared to 2003. An overgrowth of water lilies can result in ecosystem disruption, causing food chain imbalance which can kill off other species of water plant.
Juanacatlán Falls and its waters, while weak, continue to crash below into the Santiago River, and sadly, cause more harm to residents and the environment.
In the image above, there is a trail of white foam, a common occurrence of the Santiago River today. The foam occurs when water falls from the Juanacatlán waterfall. With the water’s high level of surfactants, like phosphates and other alkaline compounds, they can create white foam when they come in contact with air, grease, and other particulate matter. The foam, with its elevated levels of surfactants, can present a danger to aquatic life, the environment, and human lives.
For animals and aquatic life, surfactants can enter the bodies and create “aquatic toxicity effect.” With fish, surfactants can enter their bodies through their gills, and spread to body tissues and organs. The contaminated fish can negatively affect the food chain, affecting other animals and humans that consume them. For the water environment, surfactants can lead to hypoxia and the death of microorganisms, disrupting the aquatic ecosystem. As for humans, skin irritation can occur and disrupt the body’s normal physiological functions.The continual accumulation of surfactants can make it difficult to break down in the human body, as well as in the environment. So, while treating the contaminated water can be a solution, the excess of surfactants can make it difficult for wastewater treatment processes to be effective.
Another adverse effect is the release of a neurotoxin called hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S), which is created as the water from the waterfall crashes. The gas is colorless, poisonous, flammable, and smells of rotten eggs. The smell can permeate the homes of residents, even with closed doors and windows, varying in intensity depending on weather and other factors. Hydrogen sulfide gas can cause adverse health consequences for residents, who cross the Juanacatlán Falls bridge daily via walking, biking, or in vehicles. Some effects of prolonged exposure include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, fatigue, headaches, declined memory, irritability, and poor motor function.
River Governance and Political Action
CONAGUA, Comisión Nacional del Agua or National Commission of Water, is the primary agency that regulates what industries dump into the river. But enforcement appears inefficient and ineffective. For instance, only one inspector monitors industrial dumping laws for the entire state of Jalisco. When there is an issue, fines issued can oftentimes be too low to sway industries. This can create frustration for residents and the local municipal government, as noted by the Juanacatlán municipal president in my interview with him:
“También es la omisión de los inspectores ambientales aquí hay un gran problema. Hay una gran ausencia de parte de la CONAGUA y de los inspectores que ellos tienen que verificar que las aguas ya están en la norma mexicana, ya están regulados. La industria como el tema urbano, pues viertan sus aguas a los cauces de una calidad, ya han regida por norma no? Cosa que no se hace y quien prácticamente es responsable de hacerlo, pues el gobierno federal es la CONAGUA.”
(There is also the omission of the environmental inspectors, here there is a big problem. There is a great absence on the part of CONAGUA and of the inspectors who have to verify that the waters are meeting with the Mexican norm, that they are meeting regulation. The industry, as well as the municipality, should discharge their wastewater into the riverbeds at a certain quality, they are already regulated by the norm, right? Something that is not done and who is practically responsible for doing it, the federal government, it is the CONAGUA.)
While the pollution affecting the Santiago River results in unfortunate conditions that negatively affect its residents, some choose to organize and create change to better their conditions and environment. In 2008, community members from Juanacatlán and El Salto formed Un Salto de Vida (USV) or A Leap of Life, a grassroots organization that conducts meetings, demonstrations, and other activities to address the impacts of the Santiago River’s pollution. Through my research, I was able to see how USV and local residents have taken back their power to achieve environmental justice through self-determination, providing a model for how, one day, the power of the nine rivers can be restored to the Santiago River.