Water management studies for the central Maya lowlands have been around for about 30 years now. There are some interesting new perspectives that comes out of this research. In a recent article, Scarborough, Dunning and others have investigated parts of the Late Classic water management system at Tikal in greater detail. Early in the article it is argued that contemporary short-fallow milpa agriculture, logging and cattle ranching have seriously affected the ecosystem and limited the access to potable water. The central lowlands that once inhabited roughly 5 million people “is under environmental siege by a much reduced contemporary population-one organized very differently than in the past” (p 12408). This is pretty much my own point of view when it comes to the Cochuah region. Current and Colonial land use were more disastrous to the ecology than Precolumbian land use ever was.
The earliest inhabitants of the ridge where Tikal now is located were drawn there by springs at the head of a ravine that later was widened and dammed. Later modifications, such as pavements, prevented the recharging of these springs. However, much more water was available in the later reservoir system than from the now concealed springs. Spring water and water runoff filled the Temple Reservoir. On the southern end of the reservoir there is a berm that separates the silting tank from the main reservoir. This berm contained a Late Classic dedicatory burial. The Temple Reservoir is connected with the Palace Dam. This latter gravity dam is the largest known hydraulic architectural feature in the Maya area. The whole system dates to the Late Classic. Although it was in use for quite some time it does not appear to have silted in. Since the topography at Tikal is fairly steep and terraces are unknown, trees may have been maintained around the reservoirs to anchor soils. Hence, stands of trees probably did exist in the site center.
Scarborough, Vernon L. et al. (2012). Water and sustainable land use at the ancient tropical city of Tikal, Guatemala. PNAS, 109(31):12408-12413.