Mexicali sewage spills “not a problem going away any time soon”

The New River snakes through the Imperial Valley on the north side of the border, roughly halfway between Mexicali and the Salton Sea. New River water treatment projects on American soil are rendered useless when treatment in Mexicali fails. Photo by Brett Miller

EL CENTRO — Following an update on the current risk of additional Mexicali sewage entering the New River, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a resolution Tuesday urging the federal government to take decisive and timely action in the addressing the threat.

Jose Angel, executive officer of the Colorado River Basin Water Quality Control Board, addressed the board and explained the current needs for Mexicali water treatment infrastructure, especially for portable emergency equipment that can allow the system to continue during failure events.

“This is not a Calexico issue. It’s not an Imperial Valley issue. This is a statewide issue, an international issue,” said Angel. “If this equipment is not secured you can expect additional bypasses, quite frankly, and that will significantly undermine what we need to do on this side of the border.”

“We have an $80 million dollar problem in Mexicali,” confirmed Angel. That amount includes the purchase of additional high-capacity pumps that can ensure the wastewater system is maintained in the event of a failure. Angel said the rehabilitation would take five to ten years, if the $80 million were to be promptly secured.

Angel recalled a meeting his board held in San Francisco April 19 with Alexis Strauss of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, and as well as other federal officials to explain the needs in Mexicali, including acquiring equipment that could ensure the sewage system could remain operational during a pipe rupture or pump failure.

“This equipment would substantively eliminate the need to bypass into the New River,” explained Angel.

“This is equipment that should’ve been acquired to begin with, back when the original binational investment from the 1995-2007 was made,” said Angel, referring to the $55 million provided by the United States. “Unfortunately, it’s easier to talk in hindsight.”

The board also inquired about converting the infrastructure into a closed-system so that in the event of another pipe break or pump failure, and the necessary emergency equipment were not available, the contaminated sewage would be redirected south to stay within Mexico instead of discharging into the New River.

“That’s one of the things from a technical perspective that we want to be focusing on requesting,” agreed Angel.

Supervisor Luis Plancarte proposed to include such a provision as part of any agreement where United States’ funds would be invested into Mexicali.

“I would expect such an item to be a non-negotiable item on any updates that gets made to that system,” Plancarte said.

Given the current projects to further treat the New River on the U.S. side of the border, Angel suggested that the current problems in Mexicali effectively nullify any benefit those projects offer.

Currently, 1 percent of the needed $80 million is expected to be secured in the next three months, and will be used for the emergency pumping equipment.