The Lost Lakes of Mendoza

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Ben Shirley wades into the disappearing wetlands of Mendoza province.

As with so many popular myths, the local belief that Mendoza is a desert can be easily contested. Sure, it is a land with a dry crust, but from the peak of the largest mountain range on the planet to the wetlands below, via reservoirs and rivers, the province is blessed with huge amounts of what has become a valuable commodity – fresh water. To be more precise, fresh, mountain melt water. Cordon Del Plata – a range of peaks covered in snow all year round (and which can be seen from the city), and Aconcagua mountain and park, together must be the largest single snow-trap known in the natural world.

Like all resources, and especially given the dry climatic conditions in the region, this water means wealth and power. In Mendoza Cipolletti dam, inaugurated in 1890, and Potrerillos dam, completed in 2001, combined with the gentle inclination of Mendoza’s desert plains away from the mountains have allowed the irrigation of huge areas for intensive farming. The downside of this human thirst for water has been the slow drainage of the provnce´snatural reservoirs, the wetlands.

The wetland or swamp, has a bad reputation that is undeserved. It is an epicenter for wildlife. It provides food and materials for all. Its eco-system stores high levels of carbon dioxide. Its watery habitat creates life itself at a primeval level. The wetland also plays a fundamental role in controlling floods and droughts, acting as a giant sponge. For example, US engineers said mismanagement of the wetlands was the underlying cause of the flooding of New Orleans in 2005.

Over the past century, approximately 60% of wetlands areas worldwide have been lost. In the city of Ramsar in Iran, in 1971, the first worldwide wetland convention took place, setting out basic guidelines for authorities, environmentalists and educators. The Wetland Foundation works restoring and preserving and promoting the so-called Ramsar sites. Argentina is bestowed with a good proportion of Ramsar approved wetland areas, including South America’s two largest aquatic bird habitats; the Mar Chiquito (‘little sea’) in Cordoba and Lake LLancanelo in southern Mendoza.

LLancanelo means green spearhead in the local Huarpe language as such is the colour and shape of the lake when viewed from the higher ground of the surrounding stunted volcanic hills. The 60,000 hectare nature reserve is home to an estimated population of 150,000 birds of which there are 165 different species including flamingos and 10 types of duck. However in recent years water levels have dropped drastically and in 2014 the lake briefly dried-out. Its delicate ecosystem is threatened by oil drilling and cattle ranching and invasive plant species like tropical plant Tamarind have infiltrated the surrounding soil.

At Mendoza’s other Ramsar site the problems are even more urgent. For over 50 years, the Guanacache Lakes, in the Lavalle district to the north of the capital, have been starved of water. The reserve covers a phenomenal area of 340,000ha in Mendoza, 240,000ha in San Juan province to the North and almost 400,000ha in San Luis to the East. The full name is correspondingly the Guanacache (a Huarpe indian word meaning ‘man who admires the descending water’), Desaguadero (‘water outlet’) and Bebedero (‘watering hole’) Lakes. The lakes are supposed to be fed by the Mendoza and San Juan rivers but the dams and irrigation infrastructure have changed everything.

The story of the wetlands is the history of Mendoza itself. The Huarpe Indians lived here. They fished and hunted and built houses, boats and baskets. They found clay for pottery and planted corn. They traded with tribes from the North and South. The population grew. Sudden change came in 1480AD with the the Inca occupation. The northerners had mastered irrigation and agriculture on the steep slopes up and down the whole mountain range. Water channels on the gentle slopes were easily dug and the first irrigation system was put in place, diverting river water from its path towards the lowlands to irrigate principally pumpkin, corn and quinoa. Llamas were introduced and their wool made better clothing for further exploring the mountains. In 1560BC the Spanish arrived and in their wake missionaries, soldiers and explorers. Originally the Europeans worked alongside the Huarpes, copying their techniques and expanding farming and fishing. 200 years later they had taken control and populated the land. The lakes were intensively fished and the land was intensively farmed. Agriculture consumed the water. Construction and the railways consumed the oak forests surrounding the lakes. By 1950 the water stopped reaching the lakes. In the 1820s a law was passed essentially outlawing the independent Indians, stating that every man, woman and child required a ‘patron’. Another law from this era encouraged the draining, drying out and development of water-logged land. Like the lakes, the Huarpes began to fade from history.

In recent years there has been a mild revival in Huarpe culture. The authorities have built schools and infrastructure for the dozen or more communities and the 6000 remaining inhabitants. An annual festival is organised called the Fiesta of the Lakes of the Virgin of Rosario (the Spanish name for the wetlands). It is a religious folk festival with asado and typical dishes in abundance, wine and music. Church services and processions form part of a three-day-long throng.

If you are in Mendoza and have the time for a unique adventure, visit Lake LLancanelo for a demanding specialist eco-tourism adventure. The lake is 500km south of Mendoza city, near the mountain town of Malargue. Or, for a taste of Huarpe culture go to Guanacache lakes and wetlands 35km to the east of the city.

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