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The Texcoco Lake

As is commonly known of Mexico City’s history, a large portion of it used to be a large lake within the Valley of Mexico. The last settlers around it were the Mexica people who, after a long pilgrimage, ended their journey on an islet on the west side of the Lake of Texcoco that was revealed to them by an eagle believed to be the god Huitzilopochtli. From that moment on, thanks to the chinampa’s agricultural system, the Mexica people managed to meet the nutritive demands of their growing population and artificially expand the islet in a very short time.1

The Lake of Texcoco was part of a hydrological system composed of the lakes of Zumpango, Xaltocan, Texcoco, Xochimilco and Chalco, all located in the southwest of the Valley of Mexico. This system of interconnected bodies of waters played an important role in the development and prosperity of pre-Columbian civilizations, where diverse indigenous groups cohabited a highly urbanized area. After the Spanish conquest, a geographical and political rearrangement took place where the population’s growth, joined by a need to increase liveable space, led to big hydraulic industrial works that promoted the desiccation of the lakes. This dissipation of water bodies in the Valley was mostly due to poor planning and a lack of adaptability to successful hydraulic techniques applied back in Europe.2 Despite all the industrial efforts made in this matter, many floods have been historically recorded because of the watershed’s far reach. In the Nineteenth Century the Great Sewage Canal works began to solve the overflow of the Lake Texcoco and were finished in 1900, when president Porfirio Diaz inaugurated them. Since then, the Canal has expanded several times.

The historical site of the Lake witnessed several phases of cultural development, from the beginnings of Mesoamerican culture, to the consolidation of the Aztec empire, the Spanish conquest and, finally, modern Mexico city. Every one of these eras had intense urbanization agendas that had promulgated the continuous spread of the city’s density. This pattern of urban growth transformed the dynamics of the ecosystem by fragmenting the City’s urban fabric and complicated the social connections established between its communities. The original makeup of the settlements in relation to the lakes has now been obfuscated by the industrialization and land development of Mexico City.

Today, a metropolitan area of more than 20 million people is facing a critical water shortage due to the huge increase in the population’s demand as well as to the excessive extraction from the ground water aquifers, which has in turn contributed to the sinking of some parts of the city, particularly in the downtown area.3

Projects like the “Proyecto Lago de Texcoco, rescate hidrológico” started in 1965 by engineers Nabor Carrillo and Gerardo Cruickshank, aimed to restore the water reserves in the hopes of avoiding both the further overexploitation of the current resources and the progressive sinking of the City’s foundation. In 1971, a special commission implemented this plan’s proposal and established a federal restriction of 10 thousand hectares to the recovery of the zone where an artificial lake was built. This proposal was the first environmental recovery plan of its time to work as a both a humanitarian initiative and a nature conservation plan as it strove to halt the deforestation that triggered the dust clouds carrying pollutants throughout the city.4

Inspired by the “rescate hidrológico” project, a group interdisciplinary professionals including architects Teodoro González de León, Alberto Kalach, Gustavo Lipkau and Juan Cordero have attempted to restore the integration of lakes into the cityscape. Their project aims to improve the planning practices of settlements in the Valley, contributing to the supply and healthy exploitation of the metropolitan area water system and to the creation of better public spaces to foster a better quality of air and a better quality of life.7 Recently, the Private Sector Center for Studies on Sustainable Development stated that in 2020 the water demand for consumption, which has been higher than the rate of replenishment, will be of 3,181 cubic meters per second. Despite this projection, the availability of the water in Mexico City, which is the lowest in the whole country, is approximately of 183 cubic meters per occupant.5

In a modern day remembrance of the city’s past, many of Mexico City’s streets, avenues, and neighborhoods are named after the original indigenous places that coexisted with the Texcoco lake system. However, the magnitude of the project to revive this relationship between the urban and natural environment is, from a technical point of view, complicated. The project proposal as it stands would comprise the construction of large artificial lakes to increase the storage of water and reduce its exposure to evaporation, the complete reforestation of areas that prevent strong winds, the refilling of aquifers, and the restoration of contaminated land.6 Nevertheless, the significance of the lake and the effects of its desiccation on Mexico City can be observed in today’s built environment as many logistical and environmental struggles continue to generate complications for city planners.6

La idea de traer de vuelta a la vida una ciudad con agua aún sigue siendo una utopía colectiva insertada por nuestros antepasados. Como un recordatorio diario, en muchas calles, avenidas y colonias perduran los nombres indígenas originales. Pero la magnitud del proyecto donde, desde un punto de vista técnico, abarca la construcción de lagos artificiales profundos para que el almacenamiento pudiera ser mayor y menos expuesto a la evaporación, la reforestación total de áreas que evitan los fuertes vientos, la recarga de acuíferos y la restauración de la tierra, entre otras, parece bastante ambicioso (Kalch, 1988). Solo de esta manera la ciudad podría todavía explotar el agua de manera sustentable. Aún así, la ciudad puede y ha generado alternativas que seguramente preparan el camino hacia un horizonte esperanzador.

Project name Texcoco Lake
Period Pre-Hispanic, Colonial and Contemporary Eras
Contributor N/A
Location Valley of Mexico
  1. INAH TV, “La Cuenca de México”, INAH, August 21, 2015,
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kalach, "Rescate del Lago de Texcoco", Taller de Arquitectura X (TAX 1998),
  4. Ibid.
  5. Nexos, "Verdades del Agua" (2017)
  6. Kalach, op. cit.