Balsas River

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Balsas River

Balsas River originates in the southeastern Mesa Central and empties into the Pacific Ocean near the city of Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán. Forming one of the largest basins in Middle America (44,828 sq. mi.), it flows from east to west in a low depression bounded on the north by the Cordillera Neovolcánica, on the south by the Sierra Madre del Sur, and on the east by the Sierra de Oaxaca. Cut off by these ranges from moisture-bearing winds off both the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, the Balsas basin is hot and dry. Near its origin, the river is called the Mezcala; about halfway through its course to the Pacific, it becomes the Balsas. Approximately 60 miles inland from its mouth, it is joined by the Tepalcatepec, which flows south through the northwestern extension of the Balsas depression; thereafter the Balsas flows through a narrow canyon to the Pacific.

During pre-Columbian times, the Balsas basin was an important source of the gold given as tribute to the Aztecs. Colonial settlement of the region was typified by scattered Indian and mestizo subsistence farmers, and cattle raising was the most important economic activity. In 1907, however, the Italian émigré Dante Cussi established Nueva Italia and Lombardia haciendas under a contract with the federal government to develop the area. He introduced irrigation and limited commercial agriculture, but most of these lands were collectivized in 1938.

In 1947 the Comisión del Tepalcatepec was created for the integrated development of that 7,000-square-mile segment of the Balsas basin. The commission, headed by ex-President Lázaro Cárdenas, was given broad powers to construct dams for irrigation and hydroelectricity, to develop lines of communication and transportation, to create and expand settlement centers, and to deal with agricultural and credit matters. In 1960 it was absorbed by the Comisión del Río Balsas, with Cárdenas again as director.

The largest project on the Balsas is El Infiernillo dam, built in 1964 about 35 miles inland from the Pacific. Forming a lake 65 miles long, it provides the lower Balsas with irrigation water and central Mexico with nearly 1 million kilowatts of electricity. In 1971 a smaller dam, La Villita, was built downstream to provide electricity to the iron and steel complex at Lázaro Cárdenas.

See alsoMichoacán .


Robert Cooper West, ed., Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 1 (1964), pp. 106, 381.

David Barkin and Timothy King, Regional Economic Development: The River Basin Approach in Mexico (1970).

Jorge L. Tamayo, Georgrafía moderna de México, 9th ed. (1980), pp. 55, 139-140.

Robert Cooper West and John P. Augelli, Middle America: Its Lands and Its Peoples, 3d ed. (1989), pp. 28-29, 350.

Additional Bibliography

Fabián Ruiz, José. Lerma y Balsas, crónica de dos ríos. Morelia, México: Foro Cultural Morelos, 1998.

MacNeish, Richard S. and Eubanks, Mary W. "Comparative Analysis of the Rio Balsas and Tehuacan Models for the Origin of Maize." Latin American Antiquity 11(2000): 3-20.

Shepard F.P., and Reimnitz E. "Sedimentation Bordering the Rio Balsas Delta and Canyons, Western Mexico." Geological Society of America Bulletin, 92, no. 6 (1981): 395-403.

Soto Nuñez, José Carmen and Sousa Sánchez. Plantas medicinales de la cuenca del Río Balsas. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1995.

                                    John J. Winberry