Our Water Matters

Amazing waters of Cuatro Ciénegas

Nestled in a valley of thorny brush about six and a half hours south of Boquillas lie the azure waters of Cuatro Cienégas. Derived from the Spanish word for “wetlands,” there are far more cienégas in the area than just four. Instead, the name appears to refer to the water features found at the four cardinal points at the furthest reaches of the valley: Poza Azul, Playitas, Rio Mezquites, and Poza de la Becerra.

Like much of North America, Cuatro Cienégas was covered during the Cretaceous period by the Western Interior Seaway. The wetlands formed by the remnants of this ancient seabed are dotted with basins locally known as pozas. According to Valeria Souza, a preeminent expert on the wetlands with the Institute of Ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, “The chemical composition of this water is very similar to what the ocean would have been like some 3.5 billion years ago.” One of the first things you notice about these pozas is the intense blue color. Souza explains that this color is due to the lack of nutrients to support life. The lifeforms that do persist, however, are organisms that have learned to exist over hundreds of millions of years without nutrients. These rare populations, called stromatolites, optimize the use of the nutrients available by forming dense microbial mats or “reefs from the past,” according to Souza. Like their contemporary cousins, ancient stromatolites used sunlight to combine the salts in saline water with carbon dioxide to produce food and released oxygen into the atmosphere. The stromatolites of today are living examples in our midst of the first lifeforms to develop photosynthesis. In other words, the organisms that populate the pozas of Cuatro Cienégas are as old as life itself.

Cuatro Cienégas also holds scientific interest for agencies, such as NASA, who have collaborated with Souza and other scientists to unlock the secrets of earliest life on our planet to better understand how life may have developed (and gone extinct) on other worlds, such as Mars.

Héctor Arocha, scientific director of Genesis 4 c , a state-of-the-art laboratory and museo vivo (living museum) in the charming town of Cuatro Ciénegas de Carranza, is working not only to understand the evolution of the origins of life, but also to “isolate and characterize the extremophiles [microorganisms that live in extreme conditions]” that exist in the waters of Cuatro Ciénegas. Some of these microorganisms possess unique antimicrobial properties that could be used to develop drugs to fight bacterial and fungal infections, such as so-called “superbugs” that have developed resistance to current antibiotics. But the mission of Genesis 4 c also has a social component, according to Arocha: “To make the next generations aware of the biological importance of Cuatro Ciénegas as one the most microdiverse places on Earth and to promote its conservation.”

In truth, stromatolites are not much to look at. But Cuatro Ciénegas holds many other delights for the human eye, including 18 species of fish, 12 of which are endemic to the region, along with four kinds of turtles and numerous snails and amphibians. The arid valley is also home to Grusonia bradtiana, a white, tubular cactus locally known as viejito that carpets the desert floor in often impenetrable thickets. There are gypsum dunes, much like White Sands in New Mexico, a huge marble quarry, and dramatic mountains surrounding the valley that are dotted with woodlands at higher elevations, where white-tail deer, wildcats, and black bear abound.

As with so many of our most valuable ecosystems, Cuatro Ciénegas is under threat. According to Arocha, “Overexploitation of the aquifer [is a huge issue]. We’ve been giving the water away to other communities for over 100 years through a system of canals that extend more than 50 miles out of Cuatro Ciénegas … But foundations and the municipal and state governments have joined forces to restore the wetlands.” Although the prospects might appear quite gloomy, my overall impression was of a community committed to saving what’s left of this amazing biosphere — not only for their own descendants, but also for the survival of humanity and the future of the planet.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as board chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He earns his living as a translator of technical documents from German to English for the German and Swiss pharmaceutical and medical-science industries. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]