Dec 24, 2008


The US-Mexico border has evolved from being primarily a political and military dividing line between two nation states to latent urbanized regions with a high concentration of resources, capital, economic activities, where global economies, technologies and infrastructure take place. Indeed, one important byproduct of the urban expansion in the borderlands has been the emergence of sister cities. Today, close to 90% of the population along the border resides in the fourteen sister cities that straddle this international divide. The most important examples are El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, San Diego-Tijuana and Mexicali-Calexo. Although some of these urban settlements were established during colonial times, most of their establishment and growth happened during the second half of the XX century. Sister cities represent two separate spatial formations that evolved under different cultural and political conditions (highly sensitive to national culture) yet their physical proximity, and their social and economic ties create an “intriguing bicultural urban spatial arrangement.”

Urban growth and the economic development of the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border zone have magnified the reciprocal nature of the border physical environment problems. Both the quantity and quality of water are in jeopardy because of the international character of hydrological systems operating around the boundary. “Geographically, the two cities are connected because they share the Rio Grande, as well as the regions’ two main aquifers, the Hueco and the Mesilla bolsones”, yet both sides suffer from inadequate civil infrastructure through which to transport water from households and industries to a centralized location for treatment, leading to surface and ground water contamination. The supply of surface water has been a major source of controversy, and more recently, access to groundwater aquifers has generated new legal problems concerning national rights of accessibility.

SITUATION: Before the twentieth century, the main source of water had been the river for both cities. In 1928, El Paso took interest in purchasing rights to stream flow, yet the Reclamation Services stated that the US portion of Elephant Butte storage was fully appropriated, forcing the city to adopt groundwater as the principal source of its water supply system. The range of choices open to Juarez in selecting its municipal water source was more restrictive than that of El Paso, making the city dependant on groundwater for its municipal water needs.

There is also a transnational difference in the location of groundwater fields. In El Paso, groundwater rights are concomitant to land ownership to be used without supervision, allowing for the city to look beyond its geographical limits into distant water reserves, while the Mexican Government controls the groundwater and Juarez is limited to the strata beneath the city.
The National Water Commission (CAN) indicates that the nation’s current water supply is less than half of what is was in the 1950. Mexico averages 5,000 cubic meters of water per person, an amount far below the global average of 8,000-10,000 cubic meters. Dissimilarly, the US, Canada Europe, and some countries in South America enjoy as much as 30,000 cubic meters of water. Nevertheless, hydrologists estimate that by 2025 the two cities will have doubled in size and will also have “sucked the last drop of drinkable water from the underground aquifer.

In addition, bad casing of wells have caused mineral contamination from leakage and encroachment of salt water into fresh water stocks. Salinity is a contentious issue in this case as it reduces the economic usefulness of water whether for agricultural or municipal use. Today, as a consequence of increasing demands, and as aquifers decline and become more saline, municipalities are switching to the Rio Grande as a long-term sustainable resource.

"Δ", EL PASO AND JUAREZ: El Paso won’t really run out of water, but costs will heavily rise, as they will look for it in places further away and harder to reach. El Paso already purchased water rights in two Antelope Valley aquifers (close to 150 miles southeast of El Paso). In order to take advantage of them, the city will have to build an expensive system to deliver this water to its citizens.

El Paso’s switch to surface water has not been easy, especially with regards to the negotiation of acquisition of irrigation rights, and poor water quality in the river. The dams while providing storage have also greatly reduced the river’s downstream flow. Beginning in the state of Colorado, the Rio Grande flows through New Mexico, delineates Texas and Chihuahua (Mexico), providing drinking water for 13 million people, and making it the main source of water to the Texas-Mexico border. As such, the maintenance of the river’s flow is crucial for the continued development of El Paso, Ciudad Juarez and other cities lying on the Texas-Chihuahua international border.

The Mexican municipal water consumption is generally only about half of the Texas per capita consumption rates. This difference is due largely to the higher water use in the US lawns, landscaping and swimming pools. Water demand in Juarez has in fact increased through the years. Nevertheless, the small percentage change is not correlated to an increase in population (the population of Juarez is now twice as big as El Paso’s) and as such can be read as a reflection of the growth of informal settlements in the periphery of the city lacking basic services including water.

PROPOSAL: An aqueduct. A network and infrastructure shared by both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, physically demarcating space by directly addressing the essential pragmatics of the area. As such, the aqueduct replaces the security border, in its majority paralleling the Rio Grande, while at points branching out into the cities, connecting to existing systems and infrastructures, and thus disintegrating the border into the surrounding urban and rural landscapes. The proposal then deals with the collection and water (production, rainwater recycling and perhaps even grey-water treatment), its storage and its distribution.

Collection of water: The collection of water is done through various interconnected systems. The first one deals with the collection of rainwater through a specific roof membrane directly linked to the aqueduct and potentially other membranes that are placed in the cities’ already existing structures.
The second system focuses on the production of water. Seeing that deals with the cities cannot tap much more into the river, a system of production of water is then proposed. The roof membrane emulates the Namib beetle’s water condensation system through hydrophilic and hydrophobic skins and is based on the material research done by MIT with the regards to the potential of this water condensation and production technique.

Storage: Water is stored into bladders that are connected to the roof membrane and hang vertically from a created infrastructure. The bladders fill and empty reflecting a temporal reading of the environment and ecology, while at the same time becoming a water screen that fluctuates, screening, blocking or opening between the two sides. As the bladders grow, their weight pulls on the roof membrane, creating more tension, sectional differences and thus allowing for an aerial reading of the ecology. In addition, the ground and structure sculpt and manipulate the shape of the bladders giving way to other readings and spatial potentials. The different relationships that arise allow for new uses and interpretations by humans, fauna and flora.

Distribution: Due to the inefficiency of the existing system, this proposal seeks to replace the irrigation canals and create a new, more efficient and healthier network that links the cities together, not only dealing with crop irrigation but having the potential to tap onto water purification systems, etc. for domestic use.

Border Water Infrastructure: As implied previously, the infrastructure that is established has a specific metering and rhythm that allows for aggregation, additions and clustering. It consists of a roof membrane supported in tension by a triangulated, steel structure (with pinned connections), which, with the help of a cabling system, also support the water bladders. Adjustable, kinetic “arms” that attach to the bases of the main structure, help support the water bladders and accentuate their sculpting. In addition, by pushing or receiving the fluctuating ground enhances the manipulation of the water storage, allowing for permanent and temporal spaces of circulation and other uses.

Site-specific locations:
The first and perhaps main physical manifestation of this water border network will be located next to the river, below the Franklyn mountains. In addition to this being the location where the Rio Grande becomes the border between Mexico and the US, the proximity to the Franklyn mountains give it a higher elevation thus facilitating the transportation or movement of water (due to gravity) and giving a lower temperature to the area. Winds, running perpendicular the mountain chain, create temperature changes between the East and West side of El Paso, achieving up to a 20 degrees in difference. This temperature change is necessary in the condensation of moisture.

A new landscape: The emergence of a new landscape captures our eyes and imagination. A forest where water hangs vertically, sculpted, restful and safe. Spaces of mediation, contemplation and gathering (amphitheater) arise in the molded ground. The new landscape becomes a recreational one as well as a didactic one, creating awareness as strollers walk by and experience the space. Circulation takes place on the ground, where one roams more freely, as well as in the sky, suspended in the canopy of the forest, hanging adjacent to the water bladders. These suspended circulation paths follow the water distribution; they come from specific urban centers in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, and lead directly to specific points of entry of the water forest. As such, the new landscape is one connected to its surroundings, open to all and symmetrical to both countries.

Frequently, planning ends at the borderline, assuming that there is empty space on the other end. Nevertheless, in the case of the US-Mexico borderland, the environmental (as well as the socio-cultural) interaction operates according to principles that transcend the political geography. By focusing on water, the US-Mexico border becomes a hydro-region defined by the shared watersheds along the border. Bi-national approaches and measures, such as this aqueduct, are essential for they recognize the holistic nature of the region as an integral ecosystem and can work on policies that tackle problems from this comprehensive perspective. Both Mexicans and Americans are entitled to quality living standards and they should join forces to achieve them.

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