[the hydrological network of Mendoza, Argentina at the edge of the Andean Cordillera includes a massive hydroelectric dam, a municipal park, and the fascinating Campo Espejo de Agua sewage treatment facility which feeds irrigation systems for 2,200 hectares of agricultural production in the region]
In 1933 historian Herbert Eugene Bolton noted that 1776 was a big year in the Americas. In addition to the US Declaration of Independence it was also the year that the Viceroyalty of La Plata was established in South America, with Buenos Aires as its capital. This was done to prevent further expansion south by the post-treaty Portuguese Empire and to fend off the imperial efforts of the British, who had already established themselves on the Falkland Islands and were gunning for Buenos Aires.
This event authored in a fundamental restructuring of the Spanish American Empire. Up until this point the colonial expanse was Pacific-oriented. The entire political-economic structure of the expansive Spanish portion of the continent was funneled through Lima in the Viceroyalty of Peru. The great distances and dispersed populations and economic activiites from the Darien Gap to Tierra del Fuego were largely supported and protected by the the silver mining operations of Potosi whose fortunes were in decline by the late 18th century.
Since 1561 the city of Mendoza existed as an outpost for travellers going from the important cattle town of Buenos Aires to Santiago. The situation is brutal- subject to sand storms, floods, and earthquakes all in within site of the highest mountain in the Americas, it is an area with some water but requiring great effort to harness the rivers flowing down from the Andes. The pre-Colombian Huarpes established a series of settlements based on canals and fields for agricultural production. This structure was utilized and eventually added to by the Spanish settlers. Mendoza was a stopping point, a place to rest and gather supplies as one got ready to head through the Libertadores Pass on the ways to Santiago. It was an outpost to an empire located in a severe landscape.
With the formation of the La Plata Viceroyalty in 1776, all of that changed. Mendoza was now a border town, the western anchor of the soon-to-be-independent Viceroyalty of La Plata. Within a century it would be the end of the line for the major east-west railroads and highways of the 19th century. Its geo-political situation had changed from an outpost to a population center.
[Liberator Pass, also known as the Caracoles, is the main terrestrial connection between Chile and Argentina; because of this it has been the most important economic and geo-political connection between the two countries since the formation of the Viceroyalty in 1776]
[Mendoza was the western terminus for the east-west rail line General San Martin, nationalized in 1946 under Juan Peron, which served to tie the country and its agricultural products to the capital city of Buenos Aires and its port]
The earthquake of 1861 leveled the town and brought to the forefront a host of public health issues including the need for clean potable water, sewage effluent disposal, and protection from the floods and sandstorms of the Andean cordillera. The response in 1896 was a park. A massive muniicpal park located on the western edge to protect the town from the sand, modulate the town water supply, and improve the air and water quality. Of course, just like at New York’s Central Park, the project was open to the valid criticism of being simply a real estate venture intended to boost the property values of the ruling class.
The park is impressive and unites an astonishing array of historical and contemporary uses that have enabled the town to thrive in this extreme environment. The park consists of forests, fields, a stadium, a zoo, a regatta club, rose garden, playgrounds, national monuments, carriage drives, lakes, a native plant nursery, and playgrounds. I’ll stop but the list goes on and would be astonishing were it not so common to this landscape typology. The most important aspect of the park asserted at the time was that it was to be a massive forestation effort- by covering the hills on the western side of town with an intensely managed landscape of native trees the designers hoped to drastically reduce the sand storms coming off the mountains into town. The forest and lakes were also imagined as a massive stormwater infrastructure, limiting the discharge from the hills into town during rain events, easing the burden on local sewers and reducing flooding.
What interests us today is the types of questions that come up when considering this park in the context of frontiers in borders in the American landscape. When understood as the result of turning a town that was an imperial outpost in the Andean foothills into a population center meant as a western pole to the federal capital in the east, then the park must immediately be considering as one piece in the construction of a hydrological landscape that enables this population to grow. It is something like the public-domestic interface of a much larger and more powerful entity at work enabling the habitation of 1 million people here.
As a population center in a semi-desert climate, the procurement and use of water is the most primary objective. The water for the metropolitan area comes from the recently completely Potrerillos Reservoir. The hydroelectric dam had to be designed to resist the high levels of seismic activity in the area. The city uses 10,000 liters of potable waterper second, 85% of which is processed through the municipal sewer system. Then things get interesting.
[the Campo Espejo de Agua sewage treatment complex in the northern section of the Mendoza Metropolitan Area; the complex sends treated sewage through a system of lagoons which renders the water progressively cleaner; as a whole the Mendoza hydrological system serves to transfer a massive amount of water from the Mendoza River to the Rio Diamante system and converts much of it to an entirely new product beneficial for agricultural uses]
Much of the treated effluent is then reused for agricultural irrigation through a system of agreements between the provincial water and sewer board and local farmers and agribusiness corporations. Most of this is funneled through the Campo Espejo de Agua (Field of Water Mirrors), a spectacular installation of treatment lagoons that not only treats the sewage to a level acceptable for agricultural irrigation, it also seems to switch transport much of the water in the region to an entirely different basin- from the Rio Mendoza to the Rio Diamante.
The result of this constructed landscape is a center of population and agricultural production in an environment that receives only 7.87 inches per year (for comparison, Los Angeles receives over 15 inches per year). It also brings up many questions such as what kind of social-ecological landscape results when an entire river basin is diverted to another at the base of the Andes Mountains? Nonetheless it is a compelling opportunity to understand these situations not as systems or urban patterns but as landscapes. The use of treated effluent in this severe landscape has began in 1945. As an example of the synergistic coupling of wastes and industrial production in the American landscape it offers a chance for what Pierre Belanger calls the “latent reciprocity between industry, waste, and urbanism”. And it affords another example why instead of always looking east/west we should look north/south, too.