Martin Begins Draining Lake Texcoco Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Luis de Velasco the Younger entrusted Enrico Martin with the daunting task of draining the lakes surrounding the City of Mexico to protect it from floods and to provide much-needed land for an expanding population. The project was underfunded, and although Martin worked on it for more than twenty years, it was ultimately insufficient to prevent the destruction of the city by flood in 1629.

Summary of Event

Although the water projects of seventeenth century Spaniards helped make Mexico City into a great metropolis, modern urban planners and environmentalists have pointed out that the city’s less-than-ideal location made it a poor choice for a megalopolis. The Spanish colonists built their capital on unstable drained lake beds, and the surrounding mountain ranges hampered access to resources and markets. In pre-Columbian Mexico, the Aztecs had settled this high plateau peppered with lakes out of historical necessity, and during rainy seasons their settlements were often flooded. [kw]Martin Begins Draining Lake Texcoco (Nov. 28, 1607) [kw]Texcoco, Martin Begins Draining Lake (Nov. 28, 1607) [kw]Lake Texcoco, Martin Begins Draining (Nov. 28, 1607) Science and technology;Nov. 28, 1607: Martin Begins Draining Lake Texcoco[0480] Engineering;Nov. 28, 1607: Martin Begins Draining Lake Texcoco[0480] Mexico;Nov. 28, 1607: Martin Begins Draining Lake Texcoco[0480] Lake Texcoco, draining of Mexico, City of

The Aztecs built their capital of Tenochtitlán on an island in Lake Texcoco, one of the five principal lakes in a valley of 3,000 square miles (7,770 square kilometers). Because Texcoco was the lowest of the lakes, heavy rains and mountain runoff would often lead to overflows from the higher lakes into Texcoco, with a consequent inundation of Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs actually instituted projects to control these floods, but their technologies were inadequate for the task. After the Spanish conquest, the settlers, who began building their capital on the wreckage of Tenochtitlán, realized that they, too, would have to bring the unruly waters of the valley under control if their City of Mexico was to prosper.

Because the first viceroys of New Spain New Spain were involved with extending and consolidating the military conquests of Hernán Cortés, they had neither the resources nor the will to tackle such long-range infrastructure problems as the periodic flooding of the Valley of Mexico. Luis de Velasco Velasco, Luis de, the Elder the Elder, New Spain’s second viceroy, devoted his energies to the pacification of Native Americans, an aim that also characterized the rule of his son, Luis Velasco the Younger, who, as eighth viceroy, believed that advanced European technologies would foster the city’s economic success. After serving as viceroy of New Spain and Peru, Velasco the Younger retired to his Mexican estate in 1604, but in 1607, he agreed to serve again as New Spain’s New Spain eleventh viceroy. During his final four-year rule, Velasco initiated a water-control project for the Valley of Mexico as part of his plan to protect the capital and improve its economy.

Velasco entrusted the engineer Enrico Martin Martin, Enrico with solving the valley’s water problems. Martin, who is also known as Henrico Martinez, was in fact most likely a Frenchman named Henri Martin who had Hispanicized his name. He had received his technical training in Europe and understood the valley’s basic problem: excess water from the higher lakes had nowhere to go but into Lake Texcoco, resulting in the destructive flooding of the city. Engineering;Mexico

Martin had a plan to construct a canal that would provide an outlet for the water overflowing from Lake Zumpango. This canal would result in a reduction of water flowing into Lake Texcoco and a consequent drop in its water level. On November 28, 1607, a large number of workers began digging a tunnel that would channel Lake Zumpango’s surplus water into the Tula River. Martin’s project was plagued with problems during its first year. The soft, spongy soil and the constant pressure of flowing water caused corrosion of the tunnel’s walls and roof, precipitating cave-ins that obstructed water flow. Consequently, the desired reduction of the water volume in Lake Texcoco did not take place.

Colonial government officials as well as Philip III Philip III (king of Spain) , the king of Spain, became concerned about the rising costs of the project and the impracticality of Martin’s plan. Luis de Velasco Velasco, Luis de, the Younger retired permanently as viceroy in 1611 and was replaced by Garcia Gurerra, who served only a year. Martin wrote to the king, defending his work, but his project was terminated in May of 1609. The king also sent an official, Diego Fernandez de Cordoba, Cordoba, Diego Fernandez de marqués de Guadalcazar, who, in 1612, became the thirteenth viceroy, with special instructions regarding the work of draining the valley. Meanwhile, Philip III tried to find a competent engineer for the project, eventually selecting a Dutchman, Adrian Boot, Boot, Adrian who arrived in Mexico in 1614. Following the new viceroy’s suggestion, both Boot and Martin submitted reports on the status of the canal, which Martin found salvageable and Boot inadequate. Boot also presented the viceroy with a plan whose execution would cost $185,900. Martin offered to complete his plan with three hundred men at a cost of only $100,000. Boot’s plan was rejected and Martin’s proposal was approved by King Philip on April 3, 1616.

For the next seven years, Martin tried to finish his project, but when, in 1623, a new viceroy ordered a test of his canal, the results were unsatisfactory. Indeed, floods continued to occur, and in the late 1620’, overflows from the lakes imperiled the city. Martin was blamed for exacerbating the problem when he sealed the opening of the drainage canal. He did this because he feared that the canal would be unable to handle the increased water flow, leading to the destruction of all that he had built. The action resulted in Martin’s imprisonment, but the court later accepted his argument that inadequate funding for the project had caused delays in necessary repairs, and he was freed.

Since Martin was the only person who had extensive knowledge of the project, he was put to work repairing the tunnel, but it was too little, too late. A catastrophic flood struck the valley in 1629. Scholars estimate that more than thirty thousand people died in the flood, and the resulting massive property damage crippled the city’s economy for several years. Martin became the scapegoat for this disaster, and the aged engineer, who had labored on his project for twenty-five years, died a disappointed man, having never fulfilled his plans for the valley.


After Enrico Martin’s death, Spanish authorities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries continued to be concerned with the drainage of the Valley of Mexico, and engineers, building on Martin’s work, managed to reduce the water level of Lake Texcoco, creating land for the rapidly increasing population of Mexico City, which, by 1800, was the largest city of the Western Hemisphere. By this time, Martin’s tunnel had been converted into an open canal. Population growth;Mexico City

When Mexico became an independent nation in 1821, its capital city still suffered from periodic flooding. Throughout the nineteenth century, engineers proposed various projects involving tunnels, canals, and culverts, but politics prevented anything from being done. By 1900, some claimed that, with a new canal and tunnel, Mexico City’s battle with the lakes was won, but in the twentieth century, major floods still occurred, despite the widening of existing canals and the extension of the canal system. During the 1970’, an elaborate structure of deep drainage tunnels contributed significantly to alleviating the capital’s centuries-old flooding problems.

Modern environmentalists have pointed out that solving the valley’s flooding problems by draining its lakes created other problems. The rich plant and animal life dependent on the lakes was largely destroyed. Because much of downtown Mexico City was constructed on the clay bottom of the drained Lake Texcoco, many of its buildings suffered damage as they sank at the rate of several inches a year. Some structures collapsed completely during earthquakes. The ancient Mexicans had adapted their way of life to nature, whereas modern Mexicans have tried to force nature to conform to contemporary lifestyles, often with disastrous results. Martin’s tunnel, which still exists as a canal, began the destruction of the valley’s lakes, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Lake Texcoco was being rejuvenated as part of a plan to solve Mexico City’s immense pollution problems.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, Lynn V. A Brief History of Mexico. Rev. ed. New York: Facts On File, 2004. Contains material relevant to sixteenth and seventeenth century Mexico City in chapters 4 and 5. Illustrated, with tables and maps. Appendices, including a bibliography and a “suggested reading” list. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Priestley, Herbert Ingram. The Mexican Nation: A History. New York: Cooper Square, 1969. Chapter 7 on the viceroyalty and chapter 8 on seventeenth century New Spain provide the political background needed to understand Enrico Martin’s achievements. A bibliography of “sources, authorities, and additional readings” and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simonian, Lane. Defending the Land of the Jaguar: Natural History of Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. This “Book of the Year” traces the history of environmentalism in Mexico from the pre-Columbian period to the end of the twentieth century. Enrico Martin is depicted as a person who understood the environmental problems of the Valley of Mexico.
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