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Desagüe, a drainage channel that was the greatest engineering project of colonial Spanish America. Designed to prevent the periodic flooding of Mexico City, the desagüe (with both open and tunneled sections) stretched from Lake Zumpango to the Tula River. Floods had plagued the capital since pre-Columbian times; colonial officials worked to maintain the Aztec system of dikes and causeways, but by the early seventeenth century it had become apparent that this was an inadequate solution. In 1607 the German-born engineer Enrico Martínez received approval for the construction of a drainage canal that would reduce water levels in the Valley of Mexico. Within a year, some 40,000 workers using hand tools had excavated 14 miles of channels, including a 4-mile tunnel that reached a depth of 175 feet.

Inaugurated on 17 November 1608, the desagüe soon proved to have numerous flaws, notably its inability to drain low-lying Lake Texcoco, the valley's largest body of water. The tunnel itself was too narrow and had poorly shored walls, and the entire system suffered from inattentive maintenance. As a result, the desagüe failed to prevent the great flood of 1629, which left parts of Mexico City inundated for five years. After this disaster, the authorities concentrated on converting the tunnel to open cut, removing obstructions from the channel, and increasing the desagüe's capacity. But work proceeded sporadically, generally only in response to threats of severe flooding. In the end, the project outlasted the colonial government; construction was completed in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, at the cost of nearly 16 million pesos.

See alsoEngineering; Mexico City.


For a detailed study of the desagüe see J. Ignacio Rubio Mañe, El virreinato, 2d ed., vol. 4 (1983). Much useful information can be found in Charles Gibson, The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico, 1519–1810 (1964). Richard Everett Boyer, La gran inundación: Vida y sociedad en México, 1629–1638 (1975); and Louisa Hoberman, "Bureaucracy and Disaster: Mexico City and the Flood of 1629," in Journal of Latin American Studies 6 (1974): 211-230, focus on the 1629 crisis. For the completion of the desagüe, see Moisés González Navarro, "México en una laguna," in Historia mexicana 4, no. 4 (April-June 1955): 506-522.

Additional Bibliography

Pascoe, Juan. La obra de Enrico Martínez: Cosmógrafo del Rey, intérprete del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición, cortador y fundidor de caracteres, tallador de grabados, impresor de libros, autor, arquitecto y maestro mayor de la obra del desagüe del Valle de México. Santa Rosa, Michoacán: Taller Martín Pescador, 1996.

Pérez-Rocha, Emma. Ciudad en Peligro: Pobreza sobre el desagüe general de la ciudad de México, 1556. México, D.F.: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1996.

Perló Cohen, Manuel. El paradigma porfiriano: Historia del desagüe del valle de México. México: Programa Universitario de Estudios Sobre la Ciudad, Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales: M.A. Porrúa Grupo Editorial, 1999.

                                      R. Douglas Cope

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