Mexico City’s Desagüe of 1607: From an Island to a Water Crisis

The following is a guest post by Grislean Palacios, who served as a summer 2022 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress. Special thanks to Francisco Macías for translation and analysis assistance.

Photo of Mexico City

Mexico City, 2015. Photo by unsplash user Alexis Tostado. Used under unsplash license.

The Herencia Crowdsourcing Campaign collection includes historic documents dealing with criminal cases, real estate and property rights issues, wills, and inheritances, among many other legal topics. It may be no surprise that most of the documents cover legal issues that occur within Spain. However, Spain in this time period had colonies worldwide. While reading through the documents in the Herencia collection, I kept an eye out to see if any documents referred to cases occurring in locations outside the Spanish mainland. I was excited to find the document Holographic Copy of a report issued by Bernardino Estrada of Mexico City concerning the drainage system of the lake of Mexico [November 12, 1750].

The document was written by Don Bernardino Estrada on November 12, 1750 and recounts a legal investigation of the Desagüe, Mexico’s water drainage system built by Spain in 1607 in Mexico City. The Spanish crown investigated the Desagüe’s exact location and functionality to help determine its flaws in the aftermath of mass floods in Mexico City in 1629 and 1630:

En el año de 1629 cresio desuerte la Laguna que tiene Mexico à la parte del Oriente, que entrò por la Ciudad dejando muchas casas, y calles inundadas, unas con una vara de agua, otras con mas, y otras con menos… Siguiose el año de 1630. en que creciendo las aguas se inundo de nuevo la Ciudad creciendo la inundacion sobre la del año de 29 media vara… cayeronse muchos edificios, y temiose la total ruina de la Ciudad.

The year of 1629, the Lagoon [referring to Lake Texcoco, which once fully surrounded the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, present-day Mexico City] that Mexico has on the Eastern side grew, which entered through the City leaving many houses, and streets flooded, some with a vara of water, others with more, and others with less… The year of 1630 continued. in which the waters increased the City flooded once again increasing the flood on top of that of the year 29 half a vara… many buildings fell, and the total ruin of the City was feared.

Holographic copy of a report issued by Bernardino Estrada of Mexico city, concerning the drainage system of the lake of Mexico. [November 12, 1750].

Holographic copy of a report issued by Bernardino Estrada of Mexico city, concerning the drainage system of the lake of Mexico. [November 12, 1750]. Page two of the document introduces the Desagüe of 1607 and its flaws in preventing the floods of 1629 and 1630 in Mexico City.

The abnormal flooding dates back to the Spanish construction of the Desagüe. The Spanish sought to expand Mexico City past its island borders into the lakebed of Lake Texcoco. To do so, the Desagüe drained the surrounding water, and Mexico City expanded into the lakebed and the land past original borders. However, in times of heavy rainstorms, such as in the years 1629 and 1630, the water settled into the original lakebed of Lake Texcoco. This occurred partly due to Spain’s failure to relocate Mexico City beyond the island’s limited space before expansion and their failure to construct the city plans with Mexico’s many bodies of water in mind, as the Aztecs had once done. The Aztecs had a better understanding that floods were a necessity for agricultural production. In addition, they built “chinampas, or floating agricultural islands,” embracing the abundance of water in the area.

City plan of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán

City plan of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which was destroyed in 1521. Anghiera, Pietro Martire D’, Associated Name, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Hernán Cortés, Friedrich Peypus, and Pietro Savorgnano. Second Letter of Hernán Cortés. Nuremberg: F. Peypus, 1524.

This document provides historical evidence of the Desagüe’s first failures and the first instances of the mass flooding in Mexico City that continue to exist. Today, the yearly floods and heavy rainfall make up only 8% of the water that can be collected for underground reservoirs. At the same time, the rest rushes into polluted rivers and the city’s sewage system. The lack of accessible drinking water has led to “centuries of over-pumping”  into the city’s reservoirs causing Mexico City to sink “10 meters lower than when it was built.” Mexico City continues to struggle with sinking, collapsing buildings, and a lack of a water source despite once being a city having an “abundance of water” for food, canoe transportation, and aqueducts that transported drinking and irrigation water.

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