Lake Xochimilco (pronounced SO-chee-MILL-koh) rests in southern Mexico City right off its outer beltway, Anilo Perif, just east of the exit at Antiguo Canal Cuemanco. Lake Xochimilco pronunciation in English is as same as the Spanish pronunciation. This lake is now an internationally famous system of canals, which were created by artificial land called chinampas.
Does Lake Xochimilco Still Exist?
Originally, there were five interconnected lakes in the Valley of Mexico, Lakes Chalco, Texcoco, Xaltocan, Xochimilco, and Zumpango. The Aztecs conquered the Valley of Mexico in Central Mexico in the early 1400s. These lakes have disappeared because of drainage projects to control flooding in 1975, known as Desagüe.
Lake Xochimilco doesn’t really exist anymore. Although it is called Parque Ecológico de Xochimilco, or Xochimilco Ecological Park in English, the Xochimilco canals are all that are left of the original Lake Xochimilco. The canals are home to chinampas, or the internationally famous floating gardens, in the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City.
Lake Xochimilco Ecosystem
Proof exists of the first chinampas in the Nahua village of Culhuacan on the Ixtapalapa peninsula that separated Lake Texcoco from Lake Xochimilco in A.D. 1100. They spoke Nuhuatl. The Aztecs migrated to Central Mexico in the 1200s and spoke Nuhuatl. Today the chinampas in the Xochimilco canals produce flowers, fruits, vegetables, and small livestock.
Chinamperos, who work the chinampas, are mostly from the Xochimilco borough of Mexico City, and many inherited their gardens through several generations. The chinampas present an ingenious sustainable farming system. Chinamperos employ an ancient farming method called milpa to raise their produce.
The chinamperos still build the chinampas today based on oral traditions handed down from the Aztecs with nutrient rich lake bottom mud, soil, branches, and decaying vegetation. They created the chinampas’ foundations by interweaving reeds with willow tree trunk stakes underneath the chinampas and underwater.
This creates a network of channels. The chinamperos grow beans which deposit nitrogen into the soil. The beans use corn stalks as a climbing pole. Squash leaves provide shade that keeps the soil moist. Chili pepper plants protect the plants from animals. Ahuejote willow trees anchor the corners of the chinampas to the lake bed.
With the canals between chinampas providing a home to fish and aquatic birds, the milpa method creates a naturally balanced ecosystem. Today, vividly colored trajineras, which are shallow, flat-bottomed river boats, carry locals and tourists through the chinampas’ 150 miles of canals (170 km).
The chinampas became an important food source during the pandemic due to food shortages, because many local grocers shuttered their doors. Before the pandemic, the chinamperos sold their produce to organic restaurants and food markets in Mexico City. Now, there is a growing farmer to consumer market.
The chinamperos lost numerous business customers during the pandemic, but food shortages ensued during the pandemic. Some Chinamperos were able to recover their losses. The pandemic rejuvenated a local interest in the time-tested milpa system of farming because fresh food became scarce for Mexico City residents.
Lake Xochimilco Plants
Raul Mondragón co-founded the Colectivo Ahuejote in 2016 to support the chinampas. The 1985, 8.0 magnitude earthquake caused chinamperos to abandon their plots of floating land. The Colectivo Ahuejote is a Non-Governmental Organization. It develops cooperation between farmers, operates a for-profit produce market, and rehabilitates abandoned chinampas.
The Aztecs grew plants like amaranth, beans, chili peppers, flowers, maize, tomatoes, and squash and produced five to six crops annually. The chinampas produce over 70 products, including animal production of hens, turkeys, fighting cocks, pigs, rabbits, and sheep. Mexico City is relatively new to organic farm fresh food sources.
Rehabilitating the chinampas has become important for fresh food production and preserving their agricultural heritage to Mexico. Ricardo Rodriguez and his biologist wife, Laura own De la Chinampa, also rehabilitate chinampas. The Rodriguez’s company reported that over 64,247 acres (26,000 hectares) could be transformed into more chinampas in the Parque Ecológico de Xochimilco and the Xochimilco Ecological Reserve.
De la Chinampa is striving to build a much larger market for locally grown produce before farmers can utilize those acres. Although the pandemic raised a new interest in the chinampas and fresh produce, there is still much work to be done to develop them. Urban farms create new jobs, as evidenced worldwide.
Do Axolotls Still Live in Lake Xochimilco?
Lore about these Lake Xochimilco axolotls dates back centuries in Mexican culture. The axolotl, aka the “Mexican walking fish”, spend most of their lives under water, but they have legs, gills and lungs, but they do not walk, and they do not outgrow their characteristic juvenile appearance.
No, they live in the Xochimilco canals. Extremely few have survived in the wild, and the axolotls in the wild may become extinct. Axolotls once occupied all the high-altitude lakes surrounding Mexico City.
How Many Axolotls Are in Lake Xochimilco?
An amphibious salamander called axolotls (pronounced ax-uh-lot-ul) is native only to the Xochimilco maze of canals today. They are the rarest mole salamander. These adorable Lake Xochimilco animals are amazing creations of nature. Johann Jakob von Tschudi named the axolotl’s genus and species Ambystoma mexicanum in 1839.
None, they live in the Xochimilco canals. Scientists who study axolotls report different sized populations of axolotls in Lake Xochimilco’s connecting canals. In 2020, Mexican biologist, Luis Zambrano, put the axolotl’s population in Lake Xochimilco at 35. National Geographic and AZ Animals count their population from 1,000 down to as low as 50.
The axolotls have been losing their habitats to pollution and damaging human activities. These numbers mean the native axotol is critically endangered. However, axolotls are popular exotic pets. An estimated one million axolotls live in captivity. Axolotls reproduce their limbs, spines, brains, and nearly every other body part. This phenomenon has intrigued scientists since their discovery of the axolotl’s regenerative capabilities.
Indigenous Aztec people of Mexico worshipped a deity named Xolotl, their god of fire and lightning. Axolotl translates to “water monster”. The Aztecs believed Xolotl converted to the form of an axolotl to avoid death. It appears there is a relationship between the Aztec’s beliefs in Xolotl and the axolotl’s ability to regenerate its body parts.
The Chinampas, Axolotl Extinction, and Pollution
The entire region of the Xochimilco chinampas is called the chinamperia in Mexico City. In 1987, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) designated these chinampas as a world heritage site and protected as valuable wetlands.
Despite this designation, pollution, over extraction of water, and city growth threatens these chinampas. Today, sewage discharges into the Xochimilco canals and plastic and trash litters the chinampas’ surfaces. The canals are an important stopover for migratory birds, and numerous local bird species call them home.
Carp and tilapia are not native to the canals, were introduced in the 1990s, and they prey on the axolotls. Today, most of the water pumped into the Xochimilco comes from a local water treatment plant called Cerro de la Estrella. Some chinampas farmers use pesticides, while others grow organically.
Three other water treatment plants pump grey water from Mexico City into the Xochimilco canals. These treatment plants remove organic material, nitrogen, and phosphorous. Nearby houses do not have sewer service or septic tanks, and those occupants illegally dump waste into the canals.
The canal’s waters contain high levels of ecoli and salmonella, plus heavy metals. The Green Revolution encouraged farmers to use harmful pesticides; they are still in use today. Farmers spread unprocessed manure on their crops that add high levels of salt and toxic microbes to the chinampas’ soil.
In 2018, the Mexico Daily News reported, “The 2018 Ecological Merit Award was presented by the federal Environment Secretariat to Refugio Rodríguez Vázquez in recognition of her scientific work, for which her most recent laboratory has been the watery labyrinth of the Xochimilco canals.”
Rodriguez disclosed, “The process for cleaning things like pesticides, heavy metals and other contaminants out of the water requires UV or radio waves, almost no treatment plant does this kind of ‘third’ step.” Rodriguez and a team of researchers developed a solar energy method to activate a pump that sends purifying nanobubbles into the canal waters.
In 2021, Rodriguez told the Mexico Daily post, “The system consists of placing solar panels that convert the energy into photovoltaic, which activates a pump that generates, through a tube, the bubbles, which remain in the water and oxygenate it.” However, the chinampas still require much more pollution mitigation clean up the chinampas completely.