Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Life and moods of Lake Chapala - Part 2

Evening sun glimmers over the darkening waters of Lake Chapala. The Lake's water level rises and falls over time. In the photo above, taken in the summer of 2008 from the Ajijic pier, the water is high, but not at flood stage. The long retaining wall of Amistad Park is visible in the upper right of the photo. This is probably the optimum level of the Lake, and the shore is at its prettiest. In this posting, we'll look at some of the changes that have occurred in just the last 2 1/2 years we have lived in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. In the last section below, I included some photos expressing some of the different moods of the Lake.

Dry land fronts Amistad Park in an earlier year. When we arrived in 2007, I took this photo of the same area of the Lake at a much lower level. In the early 2000s, the Lake was even lower than this picture shows. At that time, one could walk as much as a mile out from the current Lake shore without ever getting wet feet. There were fears at that time that the Lake might be reaching a point of no return. A burgeoning Mexican environmental movement roused a public outcry. Mexican officials at the local, state, and federal level recognized the economic losses that would accompany the loss of the Lake and began to take action. Lake Chapala is fed by the Lerma River and the water exits through the Santiago River. Both rivers are located at the extreme eastern end of the Lake. Over many years, the Lerma has been sapped of its upstream water for agricultural purposes. It has also been the recipient of large amounts of industrial pollutants from factories along its course, as well as the runoff of agricultural chemicals. The public uproar forced government action to allow more water to reach the Lake, although it is not clear whether pollutants have significantly decreased.

Amistad Park, pre-flood. This photo captures the quiet loveliness of Amistad Park prior to the flood of 2008. This area was one of my favorites along the shore. The park was kept immaculately clean by local attendants. Large shade trees created a cool refuge for warm days along the shore. Families with children picnicked on the grass. Then the water rose.

Amistad Park, flooded. In the span of a few days, the water level suddenly rose. Brown water filled the park, killing some of the old shade trees. What had apparently happened was an excessive release of upstream water from far-away dams. I have never determined who made the decision, but clearly there was a breakdown in communication. Local governments around the Lake had spent considerable money to plant gardens and improve the Lake's shore. All that was wiped out by the flood. The Chapala city government (Ajijic' parent jurisdiction) has since rebuilt the park and added an attractive malecon walkway where the Amistad Park retaining wall once ran along the Lake. Unfortunately, in the process, they cut down many of the wonderful old shade trees, and uprooted the grassy areas. Perhaps at some point they will finish their interminable project, but in the meantime, the feel of the old park is gone forever.

Lirio chokes Chapala harbor waterfront (2007). Another recurrent problem at the Lake is the growth of lirio, or water hyacinth (eichhornia crassipes), an invasive species. Apparently, in the late 19th Century, hacienda owners on the east end of the Lake decided to introduce the lirio as a decorative plant in their fish ponds. Lacking any native check on its spread, the lirio grew explosively. Soon vast areas of the Lake were covered. Miles-long strings of the floating plant drifted with the winds. Lirio built up along the shoreline, extending out hundreds of yards. One study showed that 25 lirio plants could become, over a single season, 2 million separate plants covering 10,000 square meters of water surface. Ironically, the upstream agricultural runoff actually nourishes lirio, and the plant can absorb heavy metals from industrial pollution, making it too toxic for other uses. Breaking up the plants actually helps them propagate. By the late 1950s almost 20 percent of the Lake's surface was covered. One novel, if unsuccessful, strategy for combatting lirio was to import manatees (large water-dwelling mammals from Florida). Local Mexicans soon discovered that the huge animals were a fine source of protein, and the manatees quickly disappeared. Finally, authorities resorted to poison, which cleared out the lirio for a time, but posed other threats

Chapala waterfront, lirio free (2009). The photo above was taken in January of 2009. Workers raked the dead lirio up on shore and trucked it away, leaving the harbor pleasingly open. However, the lirio returned that summer and had to be cleaned out again. Many societies have learned, to their regret, that introducing non-native species can have a disastrous effect on a local environment with no natural defenses. I suspect that authorities in the Lake Chapala area will be dealing with lirio for a long time to come.

The changing moods of Lake Chapala

Cumulus clouds roil over the Lake, building up to a dramatic thunderstorm. During the summer rainy season, the skies can be dramatic. The weather can change quickly from blue sky and sunshine to dark, boiling masses of clouds, and back again to sunshine. Although winter is favored by many Lakeside residents, Carole and I like summer best.

A hole in the sky. Sometimes, on a dark, cloudy day, a blue hole will open in the clouds, allowing golden beams to shine down. After a time, the hole closes again, and the gloom returns.
Thunderstorm sweeps across the South Shore. The Lake is so large that different parts can have completely different weather at the same time. Even as close as five miles away, it may be raining while the sun shines brightly where we are. Summer thunderstorms are quite dramatic. Brilliant flashes of lightning and deafening drumrolls of thunder can continue for hours at a time. Sheets of rain come as a tremendous downpour, drowning out all other sounds. Fortunately, most of this happens late at night. Daytime storms are very rare. Still, the storms can have disastrous effects, forming rivers down steep cobblestone streets. Because the stones are held in place by dirt, they are often washed away, requiring regular repairs during the rainy season. In August 2007, a storm resulted in a trumba, or waterspout. These are like small tornados of water pulled up from the Lake surface. One such trumba dropped its load on the water-soaked slopes of the mountains overlooking San Juan Cosala, a small town just to the west of Ajijic. A huge mud slide came roaring down the arroyos of the mountain, destroying many homes and other property. Fortunately no one was killed, but many were injured and many Mexican families lost everything. I was proud that the expat community pitched in with money and other kinds of help in the relief effort. (Photo by Joel Gomez)

Summer thunderheads mix with the brilliant light of a sunset. It's always fun just to sit and watch the sky change from hour to hour and day to day. Sometimes, when I am doing some small routine task such as carrying out the garbage, I will stop and observe and wonder at the show unfolding before me.

Low cloudbank obscures the peak of Mt. Garcia on the South Shore. When this was taken, lirio still lined the North Shore. The leafless tree above now stands several yards from shore, in clear water. This tree usually attracted several large white egrets which liked to perch on the limbs. During a visit to the Lake while preparing this posting, I noticed that the tree has been cut down, another victim of "progress".

And now for something completely different. I had fun taking what was a rather boring photo, and adding some drama through the magic of digital photography and a computer photo program. I wanted to see what would happen when I pushed the color as far as I could. The result was an eerie, icy blue. I have never found a place for this photo before, although various others have admired it. This seemed like the right posting to use it. The dead trees in the picture above have also been removed, their skeletal arms no longer reaching for the sky.

Steep mountain slopes drop precipitously to the water. Most of the population around the Lake is concentrated on the North Shore between Jocotopec at the western tip to Chapala, about 15 miles to its east. The photo above was taken near Mezcala, east of Chapala, looking east. The shore is little populated here, because there is so little level land. A few small farms and fishing villages dot the North Shore for the next 30 milest.

Setting sun turns the Lake's surface a shimmering gold. We get wonderful sunsets here, almost every day. A fellow photographer once remarked to me that Ajijic photo contests should outlaw sunset entries, because beautiful photos are just too easy to take.

End of a quiet summer day. The sun has disappeared and light is fading, but there was just enough to catch the feeling of the last moments before dark.

I hope you have enjoyed my 2-part series on the life and moods of Lake Chapala. If you'd like to leave a comment, you can do so below, or email me directly. If you use the comments section below to ask a question, remember to leave your email so I can reply.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. What a gift to all of us. Besides being an interesting read, I appreciate learning more about this lovely space on earth.

    Feliz Navidad

    Don and Diane

  2. Jim and Carol, thanks for sharing your interesting travels.
    I just have to ask you this do you stay healthy!
    One hears so much about travelers picking up intestinal parasites and so forth, and my spouse and I have been the recipient of these invisible critters.
    Perhaps you two simply have some genetic advantage!

    Happy travels.

  3. Dear Anonymous- We occasionally pick up a little "tourista", but no parasites so far. We are very careful about washing our hands regularly and/or using antiseptic gel. We rarely eat street food, and then only the kind that is cooked and if the server seems to have a regular clientele. Carole uses the antiseptic drops on produce she buys, and makes sure that all dishes are thoroughly dry before using them. Other than that, we just live normally. Sorry you have had uninvited "guests".

    Jim Cook

  4. Hi Jim... thanks so much for the beautiful pictures of Lake Chapala. I heard an interesting story once about Manatees being brought in to combat the water hyacinths. Then, the locals, fearing they were spirits, killed them. Do you know anything about this or know where i could find out more? thanks

  5. Dear Anonymous- I too, have heard about the Manatees. The story I heard was that they were brought in to control the lirio (water hyacynth). However, apparently the local folks noticed that Manatees make good eating, and a lot of it. They rapidly disappeared. I don't know if this is true or not, but it fits with another comment a Mexican friend made when I asked why there is little or no game in the mountains overlooking Ajijic. He said "when you put edible game next to a large population of poor people, what do you think is going to happen?"

    Thanks for your interest, Jim

  6. Happened onto your site again as I was trying to gather information for a talk about the trumba that almost decimated Mezcala may years ago. So far , no luck. Once again I compliment you on this very fine blog. Thank you so very much, I again learned new information about our paradise

  7. Please put me on your mailing list


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim