Water Tables, Wandering Springs, and the River Sidon

For two hundred years, the beautiful village of Todos Santos had a thriving agricultural economy. By the middle of the 20th century, eight sugar mills were busy processing the town’s large, consistent sugar cane harvest while two perennial springs supplied the water that irrigated the towns extensive fields. While Todos Santos’ sugar cane economy was thriving in 1950, the larger of the two springs unexpectedly quit flowing, devastating the town’s economy. By 1955, only one sugar mill was still in operation and the once-thriving farming community declined into nothing more than shadow of what it was just five years earlier. For 31 years the spring remained dry, then in 1981, the spring sprang back to life again. It continues to flow to this day, irrigating large, productive farms.

Aquifer-fed springs in Baja can flow consistently for centuries only to dry up or change locations or even unexpectedly intensify. Todos Santos is only one of many examples of this phenomenon. In this article we will explore evidence of the changes that have been recorded and which might be expected in relation to the peninsula’s water tables, the locations of springs, and the watercourses that they supply in relation to our model.

The accuracy of our model of the Book of Mormon lands in Baja California and the North American Southwest is constrained by how well we understand the nature of the peninsula during Book of Mormon times. Understanding the locations where agriculture could have been sustained can lead us to a clearer picture of where the lands of the Book of Mormon were located and what daily life might have been like in Book of Mormon civilizations.

Homer Aschmann, a professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, authored the book “The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology” which was published in 1959. Aschmann’s definition of Baja’s “Central Desert” matches up quite well with the traditional Nephite and Mulekite lands of Zarahemla, Bountiful, and the land Desolation. In the book, Aschmann spends considerable time discussing the mobile and changing nature of the springs in the peninsula.

The backdrop of Aschmann’s discussion relates to the paucity of artifacts found nearby many of the peninsula’s modern water sources and the abundance of artifacts found in places far away from any modern water sources. He describes the issue as follows:

One rather troublesome aspect of the archaeology is the fact that, except where a spring occurs very close to the coast, there is no particular concentration of artifacts around most of the permanent waterholes. This is particularly striking in view of the wide spacing of waterholes…it need not be assumed that all permanent springs have remained in fixed locations since the climate assumed its present character.
-(The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology; Homer Aschmann; 1959; University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles; p46-51)

He goes on to discuss the mechanisms that cause changes to the locations and productivity of springs in the central desert:

The precise point at which the spring occurs depends on the point of intersection of two sloping surfaces that are likely to be irregular and roughly parallel [The two surfaces refers to here are the actual surface of the land and the surface of the impermeable subterranean layer over which the aquifer flows]. Once it is established, hydrostatic pressure will tend to maintain the spring’s flow as long as the topography remains the same, but the topographic surface is subject to change as the result of ordinary processes of erosion. These changes may be sudden and drastic – the result of the violent local rains that strike once in ten or twenty years. A given spring may be covered with enough debris to cause the ground water to continue to flow underground to another point hundreds of yards or even some miles farther down the slope. Or the water may come to the surface by capillarity and be evaporated without forming pools. Localities such as these in Baja California are known as tierras de humedad. In some cases erosion may bring the topographic surface into intersection with that of the ground water farther up the slope, possibly in a different surface hydrographic basin. A new spring would appear, possibly taking so much of the ground water from the system that the lower one would dry up, at least seasonally. The opening of an easy outlet for ground water father down the subterranean slope could accelerate flow sufficiently to lower the ground-water table, causing the drying up of a waterhole upslope…In any locality these changes might subsequently be reversed. A spring that had dried up seasonally for several years might suddenly regain its perennial character…ground water could be released in a few large or in many small outlets, but the actual position of these outlets need not be considered fixed. One might disappear or another might be established after a single rainstorm or earthquake.
-(The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology; Homer Aschmann; 1959; University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles; p46-51)

He substantiates these arguments with three strong examples:

  1. The Jesuit Mission of Guadalupe is fed by a line of small springs. In 1720, there was enough water for domestic purposes but not for irrigating fields. Half a century later there was enough water flowing from the springs to water seven acres, but in 1949, Aschmann reports that the spring could not irrigate a fraction of one acre.
  2. In the 18th century at the Jesuit Mission of Santa Gertrudis, Father Retz irrigated 70 acres of agricultural lands by diverting a spring that existed above the mission. Although Father Retz’ diversion ditch is still there, the spring that fed it is now completely dry. Aschmann reported that at the time his book was published in 1959, the springs had moved to the opposite side of the mission site and that despite careful water management, the flow from the springs could only irrigate about eleven acres of land.
  3. Near Santa Clara are the remnants of an aboriginal village that existed well below a spring called El Coyote. In historic times, the spring produced small amounts of water, but eventually ran dry. Careful examination of the positioning of the village shows that water was not only available at El Coyote, the flow was substantial enough to flow as a stream down into the settlement.

Aschmann’s next statements seem particularly applicable to our geographic model of the lands of the Book of Mormon. As we develop the model it seems natural to try to associate Book of Mormon place names to places that have enough water available to support the requisite populations. While we still prefer to select model sites at locations where we know water is currently available, we should also remember that we can be fairly certain that many hydrological changes like Aschmann described have taken place in the peninsula during and after Book of Mormon times:

these appearances or disappearances [of the springs] are certain to have an appreciable effect on the distribution of the inhabitants, and this effect need not always be referred to climatic change. This discussion does not deny the probability, supported by physiographic evidence around Laguna Seca de Chapala, that climate changes of considerable amplitude have occurred in the Central Desert in human times, but affords an alternative to climatic change as the explanation for the presence of occupation sites in places where there is now no water. In addition it accounts for the surprising dearth of evidences of occupation at a large fraction of the few localities in the region that enjoy a permanent water supply.
-(The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology; Homer Aschmann; 1959; University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles; p46-51)

There are many hints that the Baja peninsula experienced significantly more precipitation during Book of Mormon times, but like Aschmann says, we do not need to invoke the climate change argument in order to explain why a model site might not seem to currently have a plentiful water supply.

Might it be Possible to Model a Northward-Flowing Sidon in Baja California?

^That is a very good question^

Our current model successfully shows that every reference that the text of the Book of Mormon makes to geography can be accounted for in Baja California and the North American Southwest, but this does not mean that we have positively identified the lands of the Book of Mormon. It only means that we have identified lands that do not contradict the text. There is still a margin of error for each location in the model. This margin of error is small for some Book of Mormon locations and is broad for others.

Our model shows that the modern Rio San Ignacio was the Book of Mormon’s river Sidon and that Sidon flowed in a southwesterly direction. This has been a point of criticism of Baja models in general. Most Book of Mormon models assume that the river Sidon must have flowed northward past Manti and then Zarahemla. Although we have shown that a northward-flowing Sidon is not required by the text of the Book of Mormon, we do not discount a northward-flowing river Sidon as a possibility.

With that in mind, we must ask ourselves, is it possible that the Rio San Ignacio originated from a different spring or set of springs than it currently originates from?

We cannot answer that question yet. The drainage basin upstream from the Rio San Ignacio includes a large arroyo to the south. If the springs that feed the current river were located upstream in that arroyo in the past, then Baja California had a north-flowing Sidon.

This argument may sound like a bit of a stretch, but if you consider what we know about the changeable nature of springs in Baja, it might not be so outlandish. We know that the aquifer that feeds the Rio San Ignacio is not simply a product of the river’s drainage basin:

the considerable amount of water that comes to the surface appears to be related to a large catchment area covered with highly permeable materials rather than to an area within the drainage basin that receives distinctly heavier precipitation.
-(The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology; Homer Aschmann; 1959; University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles; p8)

If the catchment area he refers to includes all or parts of the Sierra de la Giganta to the south, then much of the aquifer is already flowing northward below the desert sands in the arroyo.

What we are suggesting is that it’s possible that the Rio San Ignacio moved several miles downstream exactly like Aschmann described:

A given spring may be covered with enough debris to cause the ground water to continue to flow underground to another point hundreds of yards or even some miles farther down the slope.
-(The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology; Homer Aschmann; 1959; University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles; p46-51)

Let me be clear that we are not currently aware of any evidence supporting the idea of a northward-flowing Rio San Ignacio, which is the major reason that we do not present it that way in our model, but we also don’t know about any evidence to the contrary. Considering the important implications a northward-flowing Sidon would have for Baja models, and considering the habit that Baja springs have of moving around a lot, a northward-flowing Sidon is a possibility that should not be ruled out.

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