Environment & Water

Aerial view of the U.S. and Mexico border.

Teams on both sides of the border are fostering binational solutions to address climate change in the Southwest.

April 24, 2020

The Sonoran Desert is ground zero for climate change.

The 100,000-square-mile area along the United States-Mexico border has experienced drought, ravaging floods, wildfire and dust; climate change is expected to make the region hotter and drier, triggering irreversible changes to the ecosystem. Both countries are also experiencing rapid growth and pressing social problems that are made worse by a rapidly changing climate.

Researchers on both sides of the border are engaged in efforts to better understand how a warming planet would impact plants, animals, water resources and natural disasters. In 2014, the Consortium for Arizona-Mexico Arid Environments, or CAZMEX, was created to bring together researchers from both sides of the border to monitor physical, biological and social dynamics in the Sonoran Desert; create sustainable strategies to adapt; and promote partnerships between the public and private sectors to achieve the goals.

“In any regions where there are borders, but especially along the United States-Mexico border, the landscape does not adhere to political boundaries,” says Benjamin Wilder, CAZMEX coordinator and director of the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, Ariz. “We share deep connections physically, biologically and culturally and there is inherent traction within the research community when we cross borders and work together.”

A field of solar panels in the desert.

Enhancing the Sustainability of Arid Environments

CAZMEX, also known as the Binational Consortium for Regional Scientific Development and Innovation, is housed at the University of Arizona. It aims to strengthen existing partnerships and forge new collaborations between researchers at UArizona and universities across Mexico, and address shared challenges associated with rapid growth and social problems, both of which are exacerbated by climate change.

In tackling the issue of climate change in the Sonoran Desert, researchers have the opportunity to make a bigger impact on U.S.-Mexico relations, according to CAZMEX director Christopher Scott.

“CAZMEX is all about building and strengthening communities of practice and impact through science crossing borders, particularly at a time when barriers and distrust seem increasingly common in our shared borderlands region,” Scott says. “Solutions and responses to climate and other challenges need to be multi-national and interdisciplinary; CAZMEX supports both.”

The strategic themes for these research cohorts are drought and other climate extremes, water resources and management, ecosystem processes, food systems, renewable energy, social and institutional dynamics and governance, and economic development.

Funding from the Mexican Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT); Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice; UA; and the Brown Foundation allow scientists to study the socio-ecological region. 

The funding requires a 50/50 match between CONACyT and UArizona partner institutions and provides seed money to support important climate change projects; scientists are expected to seek out other funding to support their research.

A closeup of a Saguaro cactus.

Sequencing the Saguaro

Over the last five years, CAZMEX has supported scientists exploring a range of climate-related topics; their research ranges from using solar power for desalination in remote rural areas to mimicking future atmospheric projections to assess the impact of carbon levels on tree populations.

One landmark project brought together researchers from UA, Arizona State University and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to map the genome of the saguaro cactus. Using next generation sequencing methods to decipher the saguaro was essential to understanding the evolution of the iconic cactus species and how it adapts to extreme environments. Their research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provided the first step for using the saguaro as a model to better understand how both the saguaro and other columnar species of cacti might adapt to climate change.

Image of Biosphere 2, a large white domed building.

Biosphere 2 at the University of Arizona.

Fostering Science-based Solutions

The findings coming out of CAZMEX continue to contribute to the growing field of knowledge about the impact of climate change in the Sonoran Desert. To further ensure that science-based solutions continue gaining traction, CAZMEX is also working to equip emerging scientists to address climate change.

An annual binational Integrated Arid Environments winter school provides hands-on training to 30 graduate students and junior scientists based on CAZMEX strategic themes; the locations for winter school rotate between Arizona and Mexico. The consortium also established a grant mechanism to leverage CONACyT-supported research projects and post-doc fellowships.

“Programs like this are responsive to what students want to learn,” Wilder says, “and teach them to better explain their science while providing a mechanism for them to experience different cultures and engage in cross-border scholarship.”

Rows of solar panels in the desert.

The possibilities for solar, which is under-utilized in Mexico, have started to shine brighter.

April 24, 2020

Although the Sonoran Desert has an abundance of sunshine and vast expanses of open land—the essential elements for a successful solar installation—renewable energy has historically been underutilized in the region. Fortunately, Mexico’s renewable energy future looks vastly different than its present.

Until 2013, when then-president Enrique Peña Nieto succeeded in amending the constitution to open up the energy market to private companies, two state-owned utilities, Petroleos Mexicanos (oil) and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (electricity), powered the entire nation. The reform led to the creation of an independent utility, Centro Nacional de Control de Energía and provided transmission rights to private companies.

Energy reform is a key element in achieving renewable energy targets in Mexico. Currently, the country generates an estimated 23 percent of its power from renewable energy such as wind, hydropower, geothermal and solar power, according a 2018 report.

With the 2012 adoption of the General Climate Change Law, the nation committed to sourcing at least 35 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2050, which still falls far below the current average of 50 percent across Latin America.

“Solar is a big thing right now but it’s not up to its full potential,” says Christian Davila-Peralta, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona. “We have a lot of resources, especially in solar, that [are not being used]; we have to exploit the fact that we have a single utility line so we could produce enough [solar] energy in the north for all the country.”

Davila-Peralta blames both infrastructure and red tape for slow adoption. CENACE, he explains, requires all solar installation sites to have internet access with a fixed IP address, which is expensive and unavailable in certain areas; licensed technicians are required to certify installations for entities, like businesses, and the wait times are long. There is also a perception that solar installations required complicated paperwork to establish.

Shining a Light on Solar

Despite the struggles, solar power is becoming more common. The trade war between the United States and China has diverted cheap solar panels to Mexico, making solar more affordable. There is also a growing awareness that solar provides energy independence and bolsters national safety.

“Right now, the government has been investing in a lot on natural gas…which is good because they are greener than the ones that we used to have with direct oil or carbon,” Davila-Peralta says. “The problem is that Mexico is not a huge producer of natural gas so we depend on the natural gas sale with the U.S. and [if those lines are closed], we only have three days of [electricity] storage. Our economy can collapse in three days if you just close the lines.”

Advanced solar technologies could bring new opportunities to Mexico and researchers on both sides of the border or laying the groundwork to develop the future of solar.

At the UA, Roger Angel, a professor and founder of REhnu, a corporation developing solar power generators, is exploring how mirrors can be used to collect light as an alternative to conventional photovoltaic panels. The idea, he explains, is that light could be concentrated, making solar power less expensive and more powerful than silicon.

Angel is also conducting research to determine how to generate electricity after the sun goes down. The mirrors can be directed to heat up a substance like liquid salt that is stored at 500-600 degrees in a tank and, in the evenings, a turbine drives an electric generator to produce power.

The research is being conducted in conjunction with the Consortium for Arizona-Mexico Arid Environments (CAZMEX) and the University of Sonora and carried out in a test facility near Hermosillo, Mexico.

“The need gets ever stronger to do something to get off carbon,” Angel says. “We have this joint project to make what should fundamentally be a cheaper way to … get more solar energy into the system; if we want to meet the 2050 targets for CO2 … we need to get solar energy use up to 20 percent during the day and an additional 10 to 15 percent of power coming from stored solar energy at night. Sonora has this incredible resource and we need to use that.”

Thanks to long-awaited progressive energy reform in Mexico and cross-border collaborations to develop new technologies and bolster national energy security, Davila-Peralta believes the future of clean energy in Mexico is bright.

“A lot of research in solar at the University of Arizona can be applied directly to create value down in Mexico by means of technology transfer, business development and professional development,” he says. “Sonora is the place to develop proof of concept.”

Border Wall

The 2,000-mile stretch of land that divides Mexico from the U.S. is rich in native species. But what happens when their range is disrupted? Here’s a look at the impact barrier-creation has had thus far.

Feb. 19, 2021

The politics of the wall gets most of the attention, but the environmental impact and adverse effects on wildlife on the border are monumental. These major environmental disruptions may permanently alter the landscape, putting a fragile ecosystem at even greater risk.

“Even before the border wall, the border’s biodiversity was already threatened by continued pressure of population growth, urban expansion and climate change,” says Margaret Wilder, Associate Professor, School of Geography and Development and Center for Latin American Studies Environment & Natural Resources 2. “So, the border fence and now the border wall strike another massive blow to this fragile and important ecological system that we live in and love.”

Wilder goes on to describe four key effects of the wall on native species and wildlife: First is what she describes as the “tightening of the noose of pressure the wall contributes to the trifecta of growth/urban sprawl and climate change” that the region is already experiencing. Second are the “direct impacts on species.” Next is the devastating impact on scarce water sources and, lastly, the significant strain on the “long-term cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico on border environment issues,” threatening a nearly century-long partnership on “collaborative solutions to the most vexing water and environmental issues.”

A Wall Runs Through It

The Arizona-Mexico border is 2,000 miles long, and only follows a natural feature when it meets the Rio Grande river in Texas. Up until that point, says Jeffrey Banister, Director, The Southwest Center Associate Research, Social Scientist, Editor, and Research Professor Southwest Center, Journal of the Southwest, and School of Geography and Development, it’s “just a line in the sand.”

“[The wall] is just running right across these landscapes without any connection to them. In fact, it's in stark contrast to them,” he says. “So, you could imagine all the damage that's being done by having all those crews out there; the machinery and what they're blasting; and they’re pumping groundwater. By the time they're done, according to the current plan, almost all of Arizona will have border wall.”

And a tall one, in some places 30 feet high, making it impossible for wildlife to travel beyond it, essentially trapping countless animals. This poses profound problems for the myriad species that exist in these spaces — like those that “need a great distance to subsist and to reproduce,” says Banister. “Like the jaguar, which requires a very broad range to mate and hunt … a lot of native species move across, back and forth across that line in the sand, and their natural range is being greatly truncated.”

According to Wilder, the wall is “a sort of nail in the coffin of an ecological region under pressure, under siege,” she says. “The border wall undermines nearly 100 years of cooperation between the two countries to preserve and share water resources and to protect the environment and species, for the health and benefit of all.

“In one stroke, the wall may deliver a crushing blow to these efforts,” she says, “and the ecology of the region is likely to be damaged and changed forever.”

Wilder goes on to cite the fact that at least 36 environmental laws have been waived to allow the construction of the border fence and wall, including major federal laws like the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Protection Act and so many more.

But Banister cites organizations — such as the Malpai Borderlands Group, which was founded by ranchers who live and work primarily in Southeast Arizona and Southwest New Mexico — and individual landowners and ranchers who are “fighting good fights,” he says, and challenging the federal government in the courts.

“There are many, many people working for the people and communities and landscapes in Southern Arizona right now,” says Banister, “across the state, really.”

Wilder, however, says it’s up to all of us, now that the votes have been cast, to continue to urge lawmakers to remove the wall.

“The voters of the United States chose to make changes in their elected representatives to restore our longstanding environmental protections of the last 50 years,” she says. “Let’s take down the wall.”

Santa Rita mountains

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, a team of scientists and volunteers is committed to rebuilding flourishing plant and animal communities through a network of collaboration.

Feb. 19, 2021

Misconceptions about the borderlands abound in national discussion. There’s the impression that the area is desolate. That it’s a scary place. That it needs to be controlled. “When I think of the border, I think of this large region that has many different biomes,” says Ben Wilder, director of the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill. “There’s this natural flow of species, plants and water that runs north and south that is bisected by this arbitrary line.”

Efforts to restore the borderlands are as diverse as the ecosystem itself. Just as each species of bird, bat and agave plays a role in the success of the region, the work to conserve these lands requires biologists, anthropologists, horticulturists, geographers, social workers and more. In a word, it requires people.

“All the work being done to restore the area requires people, partnerships, mutual understanding and trust,” says Wilder, who co-founded Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers, or N-Gen, an organization designed to bring together researchers who are actively working to preserve and study the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. “These relationships don’t materialize out of thin air. They require opportunities to come together and grow.”

N-Gen is one such opportunity that brings together over 900 members from 40-plus disciplines spread across 21 regions of the Sonoran Desert—practically the textbook definition of a cross-disciplinary effort. In 2018, 96 of its members participated in the first ever Border BioBlitz—an effort to document as many plant and animal species as possible along the border. The group recorded 881 species across 2,768 observations. “This data gives an alternate face to the borderlands—it’s not a desolate place,” Wilder says. “It also gives researchers access to quantifiable data and helps train the next generation of researchers and citizen-scientists.” (The 2020 event has been postponed due to the pandemic.)

Collaboration is a common thread in the borderlands restoration community. Nonprofits work with federal agencies who work with universities who work with researchers who work with local volunteers. The Patagonia, Arizona-based nonprofit Borderlands Restoration Network (BRN) brings together multiple organizations to rebuild ecosystems, creating a “restoration economy” that combines collaboration with investment in the local community.

“Some people thought we were here to put them out of work, but the truth is the opposite,” says David Seibert, PhD, co-founder of BRN. “We hire people and put them to work. We’ve shown people that there are places for them in restoration. We need lawyers, accountants, law enforcement. I think we’ve proven that we’re pro-opportunity and pro-taking care of the places we live.”

One of the ways BRN is doing that is through its native plant program. Francesca Claverie, manager of the program, estimates that the program produces over 100,000 plants a year, which support special projects, like the Mansfield Mine clean-up efforts in the Santa Rita Mountains and the restoration of Emory oaks in Smith Canyon near Patagonia. “If you can get an oak tree established, it’s set for hundreds of years,” Claverie says. “It offers shade and hosts insects and birds—it’s so incredible.”

BRN’s native plant program is also involved in a bi-national effort being led by Bat Conservation International. The goal? To plant 1 million agaves in the U.S. and Mexico over the next 10 years. The reason? These agave are crucial nectar sources for the Mexican long-nosed bat and the lesser long-nosed bat, but they are dwindling in numbers due to climate change and increased development. The plants are also harvested in the wild to make Bacanora, a type of agave spirit specifically made in Sonora, Mexico, further reducing the nectar available for the bats.

“In order to produce Bacanora, you need to use the sugars in the base of the plants, which means the plants aren’t allowed to flower,” Claverie says. “These agave only flower once, and then they die. When they don’t flower, they don’t provide food for the bats.”

For its part, BRN is collecting native seed and growing thousands of agave for the restoration efforts. It’s also working on a bat-friendly certification for Bacanora producers, in partnership with Colectivo Sonora Silvestre, a group of recent biology graduates from the University of Sonora in Hermosillo, Mexico.

“There’s so much good work happening, from mid-size nonprofits like us to one-woman nonprofits who are doing a lot,” Claverie says.

And the progress they’re all working toward—increased biodiversity, the protection of at-risk pollinators and the removal of invasive plants, to name a few—is happening against a backdrop of militarization of the border.

“By the end of the current phase of construction of the border wall, nearly all of Arizona’s shared border with Mexico will be sealed off, blocking the processes and flows that sustain the Sonoran Desert landscape—flows of water, wildlife and humans will now be truncated,” says Jeffrey M. Banister, PhD, director of the UA’s Southwest Center.

Banister is working on a project called The Borderlands Observatory, which highlights the effects of border militarization on the borderlands and brings together the Southwest Center, the School of Geography, the Southern Border Communities Coalition, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the BRN and an array of community organizations. The group will work with activists and nonprofits engaged in border advocacy and present their stories and research to the world in the hopes of sparking even more collaboration among those working in this space.

“It’s easy to get bogged down when the borderlands are under siege,” Wilder says. “But there are heroes everywhere. And when you find people who have shared interests, who are dedicated to the area, the collaborations just pop.”

Aerial view of a river near the US-Mexico border.

A relationship between researchers on both sides of the border sheds light on the impacts of a dam project on the Mayo River, particularly on the Guarijío indigenous people residing in the foothills of the Sierra Madre.

Feb. 19, 2021

The Guarijío people live in the southwest corner of Sonora near the border of Sinaloa, where the foothills of the Sierra Madre fold into the coastal plain bordering the Gulf of California. It’s a striking landscape, one that lies semi-arid for parts of the year and then erupts into a tangle of verdant vines and tropical overgrowth after the summer rains and the Pacific cyclones soak the Rio Mayo. The Guarijío have occupied the remote reaches of this land for hundreds of years, having fled to the foothills to escape the Spanish colonists.

These days, however, their hold on this land — their culture, their livelihood, their way of life — is being threatened due to an infrastructure project known as the Los Pilares dam on the Rio Mayo.

UArizona’s Jeffrey Banister, director of the Southwest Center and associate research professor in the School of Geography and Development, knows this threat well. He has been working to share the efforts of his friend and colleague, Dr. Teresa Valdivia Dounce of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who has fought alongside the Guarijío to stop the construction of the dam. It’s a fight that has pitted many in this impoverished indigenous group against corrupt governmental foes — a fight that has spurred death threats for some of those opposed. As the Los Pilares dam nears completion, we chatted with Banister about the Guarijío’s plight — and about what that plight represents for Mexico at large.

Revista: You lived in nearby Alamos and the coast of Sonora for four years, and then returned while researching water politics for your dissertation — you understand the Los Pilares project well. Tell us who is pushing for the dam and why.

Jeffrey Banister: A dam was built on the river for the Lower Mayo irrigation district in the mid 1950s. Around 2010, people started pushing for a second dam on the Mayo, as every few years the district gets terrible floods. There also isn’t enough water in the district for the amount of land they’d like to be under cultivation. The thinking, then, is that the second dam will allow them the storage capacity and water control to avoid the flooding.

It’s a pretty typical story in the big irrigation districts in Mexico that there are a handful of small interests running the show: the national water commission, the water users’ association, big ag. These infrastructure projects are typically big pork-barrel projects: lots of money for contractors, lots of kickbacks, etc.

Revista: A similar situation arose in the 1950s?

JB: It did. Then, in the 1970s, my colleague and friend Teresa Valdivia Dounce went to the Guarijío territory with the National Indigenous Institute as a young anthropologist and activist. She helped them get their land back — it really took someone from the outside who was literate in the way she was literate to push through the bureaucratic red tape. And so here we are again, decades later: The new dam will flood out a large portion of the same communities that the government ceded back to them in that land struggle. Teresa and some other allies who’ve been visiting the Guarijío all of these years have continued helping them through the formal channels, trying everything they can to stop this.

Revista: Have they experienced any success?

JB: It went all the way to the Supreme Court and the court basically ruled against it, but they kept building it — at this point, it’s about 85 percent complete. The head of the national water commission ended up at a meeting in the Guarijío country to talk about what was happening with them, and surrounding this meeting were what you might call sicarios, standing around with automatic weapons — that’s how crazy it’s gotten. They’re on the side of the group who wants it to go through — at this point, it’s going to happen.

Revista: And what will happen when it’s 100 percent complete?

JB: The Guarijío’s agricultural practice is based on a tradition of floodplain farming, meaning that it’s not only based on locations near the river, but on the rhythm of the river. With the dam, that will disappear for a lot of these communities. If the dam gets full for any length of time, it’s going to create a dead zone of all the vegetation around it, flooding out at least two or three of their communities. It will flood their cemeteries, their hunting sites. Their livelihood possibilities are going to be limited, and they’re already right there on the edge. It’s a major threat to their culture.

Revista: Were the Guarijío people consulted before construction began?

JB: The government has been saying all along that they had consulted with the Guarijío when in fact their community was almost entirely against it. And then officials started to go in and mess with the Guarijío’s governing structure to take out part of that structure and put in leaders who were friendly to the state government. It’s been some of the nastiest politics I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been working in Mexico for some time.

Here’s an example: The company that completed the first environmental impact study took another impact statement from a project in the state of Veracruz, a thousand miles away, changed the place names and then submitted it as the one for the Los Pilares project. To me, that speaks to how little they think of the indigenous peoples — they think of them as dirty, poor, illiterate. Not everyone has that view, of course, but it’s a structural, institutional racism that’s happening here.

Revista: Is what’s happening in the Guarijío territory illustrative of a larger problem across Mexico?

JB: Most of the people who own or have in their control large swaths of territory are people who are either indigenous groups or people who are in ejidos, which were formed after Mexican Revolution. It’s a significant portion of Mexico’s territory — they’re in control of some of the most biodiverse and sensitive lands in the country, and these also happen to be parts of the country where people want to put in dams, mines, etc. So indigenous people are right on the frontlines of fighting these projects — and to fight one of these projects right now means you are risking your life.