Terry’s Second Month in Aguascalientes

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Terry Durham is a retired geophysicist, who went to Aguascalientes, Mexico to conduct research with his wife Christine Durham for Water Ecuador. For more info about Terry and Christine and their Water Ecuador project, read their volunteer profiles here.

Christine and I visited Colonia/barrio Haciendas Aguascalientes III on the east side of Aguascalientes (AGS). This neighborhood is atop a hill with a view across Aguascalientes.  It is the site of a large municipal water plant and tanks and it appears that income in this colonia is higher than average. The level of education in this neighborhood also appears to be of a higher level as four of the ten people we interviewed had a university education.  
Our first interviewee was a nanny caring for a three and one year old while both parents work professional jobs. Another interviewee commented that there was high chlorine content in the city water, which causes skin problems with many people. We heard this comment again from people in Colonia Casa Solida on the south side of AGS. This is interesting because I tested the water in our AGS apartment using a kit purchased in the USA and found that our apartment tap water has 0.5 ppm chlorine which is the USA standard. There was no chlorine smell to our water and it did not cause any skin problems in our apartment. What causes this apparent variation in chlorine content? During our walks I have noted several city water wells in AGS. Each well pumps water to the surface, automatically chlorinates the water by adding hipoclorito de sodio — sodium hypochlorite — in a “casita de cloro,” and pipes it into the local infrastructure. At each site I could hear clicking at three second intervals, I assume this is a device to dispense the sodium hypochlorite into the water. Perhaps some of these small, blue-roofed white chlorination houses are not properly calibrated and dispense too much sodium hypochlorite into the water and is the cause for the skin problems experienced by locals? This is beyond the scope of the current Water Ecuador study and I mention it only to possibly explain the discrepancy between my central AGS normal chlorine test and “suburb” resident reports of high chlorine.

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Chlorination “houses.”

In the AGS southwest Colonia Loma Bonita,  the streets were busy with residents walking to small local shops. We quickly interviewed 10 residents whom were friendly and happy. Nearby we saw a large gated community with an active security guard who only allows residents and (as I observed) a Ciel and Bonafont water truck to enter for deliveries. Beyond the guarded gate we noted that no one was walking about. These residents are either secluded in their homes or driving to remote shopping locations. Atop of these multi-story townhomes we saw Dish and TV satellite dishes as well as solar water heaters — equipment similar to the poorer colonias in the northeast of AGS, the only difference is the residence.

We are on schedule to complete all testing and interviews this month. Since the “Big Three” water companies do not allow tours, I was not able to collect direct production samples and direct one-liter jugs. Two small companies do not sell one-liter bottles, so with the now “extra” test kits I decided to test water from two additional small refill companies. One of them has more than six employees and at least two delivery trucks — they sold 400 garrafones (20-liter water jugs) per day in December 2015, but on some of the hot days in the summer they sold 1,000+ garrafones. Other companies also reported their winter sales as less than half the summer sales. This is curious because our personal garrafón water use in the apartment did not vary over 3 months. However, we do use at least ¾ of water just for cooking.

Five blocks from our apartment is the Temple of San Antonio. Every weekend many weddings are held there during the day and evening. For two blocks along Zacarozi Street, south of the temple, there are many shops where you can buy or rent suits, tuxedos, gowns, and other clothing for weddings, 15th year celebrations, baptisms, and other religious events. Indeed, Catholicism is good business on the street. Christine and I notably renamed this area as Calle Boda (wedding street).

Temple of San Antonio
Temple of San Antonio

To explore the very western edge of Aguascalientes we took the #41, aka the Penal bus, to Colonia San Felipe. This is a small quiet village near the penal institution at the highway 70 and 52 intersection. I observed two workers clean and fill garrafones at a Puritronic Agua Purificada water plant. It is a clean operation with the usual equipment; reverse osmosis equipment, filters, etc. The locals in San Felipe buy and like this water brand. We also noted all the residents we met here have good teeth — there is no dental fluorosis problem in San Felipe.

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This is a one-lane area in San Felipe with homes on the north side and gardens, pet animals, BBQ pits, and other items on the south side. Kids play and families visit on this quiet street. In San Felipe we met one family who lived in Sacramento, California for 10 years until they were deported three years ago for “lack of papers.” The daughter speaks good English, though the mom only a few words. During our 167 interviews in 12 areas we met only a dozen people who had lived in the United States. Most of them were men who worked in construction or agriculture in California for 2-10 years. However, we did meet one man who hitchhiked to the US when he was 12 years old in 1950 and worked in California for 40 years. All of these people had very interesting stories about how they arrived in the United States. Since returning to Mexico, several of them have started businesses in Aguascalientes, and all of them are all leading productive lives after their respective USA adventures.

Plaza Patria with the basilica and central park is the place to watch people day and night. Our favorite afternoon spot to enjoy a snack is at Café Catedral on the plaza where we just watch the daily activity. One Sunday we found a motorcycle rally in the plaza.  As I walked to a bench to take an elevated photo of the rally, a lady said “hello” to me. She learned English in the local schools and a year in Birmingham, Alabama on a foreign exchange. She is now the English teacher at Colegio Lincoln in south Aguascalientes and her fiancée is a Harley-Davidson motorcycle salesman in AGS. He takes orders and imports the bikes from Juárez or Laredo. I told him that in the US, doctors and lawyers are the ones who buy Harleys — he said it is the same in Aguascalientes, Mexico. He waits until he has about 20 bike orders then hires a truck to transport them for lower transportation costs — this is NAFTA free trade activity. They offered me a Tecate from his Harley side pack cooler and we drank and chatted. It is good to be retired.

Last month an antique car rally was held at this plaza on another sunny Sunday
Last month an antique car rally was held at this plaza on another sunny Sunday.

The goal of this trip to Mexico and the Water Ecuador study was to test bacterial contamination of sealed bottled drinking water in order to evaluate the cleanliness of reused carboys (aka garrafones) in Aguascalientes. On December 20 we completed the last test. A total of 145 garrafones were tested with 41 contaminated by either coliform and/or E. coli. This was a 28% overall contamination rate. Three companies had all clean samples.  One of these companies is considered a model of cleaning practices to be used by small companies in other locations in Mexico as well as in other countries throughout Latin America. The other five companies had garrafón cleaning problems and one company appears not to be producing purified water despite the fact that all small companies use chlorinated city tap water as their source. The “dirty” five companies had a combined 48% overall garrafon contamination rate.

I was very impressed by Aguascalientes as a busy manufacturing hub in central Mexico. It gave me a whole new opinion of Mexico. If Aguascalientes, as a clean progressive city with a responsive government, has a problem with bacterial contamination in sealed reused carboys then it is easy to say that Mexico as a whole has problems, especially in much poorer areas than Aguascalientes.

In my next and last blog I discuss tourist sites near AGS. I also collect additional water samples for later testing.

For Terry’s reflection on his last month of conducting research in Mexico, head here.

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