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Decades of agricultural practices threaten ancient oasis that survived multiple global extinction events: 'At risk of disappearing'

Scientists warn the area could suffer catastrophic damage if nothing is done.

Scientists warn the area could suffer catastrophic damage if nothing is done.

Photo Credit: iStock

Agricultural activities in northern Mexico are draining water from an important wetland, putting it at risk of disappearing, Reuters reported.

What's happening?

Cuatro Ciénegas is an ancient oasis within Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert, with 170 freshwater pools that provide habitat to essential species of fish, snails, turtles, and bacteria. However, Reuters cited a 2023 report from the Mexican Institute of Water Technology that found that the site has lost 40% of surface pools and lagoons since 1985.

In fact, water extractions from local aquifers that feed the pools have increased 400% in the last 25 years, mostly because of livestock husbandry and the irrigation of water-reliant crops like alfalfa. 

Now, scientists warn the area could suffer catastrophic damage if nothing is done. 

"Cuatro Cienegas is at risk of disappearing," sustainable agriculture researcher Valeria Souza said. "It has survived two global freezes and five global extinctions, but it hasn't survived us 50 years."

Why is disappearing water at Cuatro Ciénegas concerning?

Losing Cuatro Ciénegas would be a loss for science, as Reuters noted it's the most crucial wetland in the Chihuahuan Desert. Researchers say that studying this unique freshwater ecosystem could help them understand Earth's origin, climate change, and even the chances of life on Mars.

Plus, it is habitat to at least 885 species, 38 of which are found nowhere else on the planet. These include the Coahuilan box turtle, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists as endangered. The site is also one of the most diverse areas with dragonflies in North American deserts.

Disappearing pools at Cuatro Ciénegas are one of many water woes we face globally. For instance, Mexico City residents are struggling to access drinking water after years of bad infrastructure, and rising global temperatures have caused many taps to run dry. Meanwhile, leaky faucets in Italy waste enough water each year to meet the needs of 43 million people.

What's being done about water loss at Cuatro Ciénegas?

Mexico's National Commission of Protected Natural Areas said it has spearheaded efforts to protect Cuatro Ciénegas, including setting up alliances to substitute water-guzzling plants, monitoring water quantity and quality, and promoting more sustainable farming practices.

Though you may live hundreds of miles away from Cuatro Ciénegas, you can still make a difference when it comes to water waste in your own community. Some ways to conserve water include checking your toilet for leaks, taking shorter showers, installing water-saving showerheads, and integrating native plants into your yard.

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