CALEXICO -Â It’s filthy. It’s toxic. And it’s a breeding ground for deadly diseases.
Yet, this contaminated sewage water, also known as the New River, flows right into the Salton Sea – exposing its dangerous fluid to Imperial Valley and beyond.
The New River is one of the most toxic rivers in North America. And the contamination that flows through it does not stop at the waterâ€™s edge.
Illegal immigrants are willing to risk their lives to cross it. And U.S. Border Patrol agents cannot – and will not – take a chance entering the polluted Â river Â to stop them.
A flowing river Â that should be fit for people and crops is instead an environmental dumping ground. Just ask Miguel Figueroa who heads up the Calexico New River Committee.
“Domestic, agricultural, and industrial waste. Most of it coming from the Mexicali side,” says Figueroa.
In a 1999 letter to California senator Dianne Feinstein from the U.S. General Accounting Office states at least 260 industrial facilities dump untreated and under treated sewage intoÂ Mexicali’s system – whichÂ ultimately flows into theÂ New River.
According to investigations done by the State Water Quality Control Board, the dumping of raw sewage causes it to contain bacteria that can cause polio, typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis.
15,000,000 gallons of untreated domestic wastewater had been discharged daily into the New River.
“The state of Baja California treats the New River as a drain. Where, here, we treat it as a river,” says Miguel Figueroa.
And that’s not the only thing the U.S. and Mexico are sharply divided on.
“There was a settlement. A class-action suit that was initiated by the agents and the union that represent them for this New River in Calexico and the Tijuana River over there in Tijuana/SanYsidro/San Diego area,” says agent Lombardo Amaya.
Amaya is the union president for U.S. Border Patrol agents in the El Centro sector.
The end result of that lawsuit? The feds wound upÂ shelling out $15,000,000 to agents who complained about the dangers of wading into the contaminated New River in an effort to stop illegal immigrants from crossing it.
Even still, some federal employees are still forced to work around the river every day.
“We have glass over here, we have rocks, we have nasty things over here. We have bodiesâ€¦animal bodies floating over here. Once in a while we have a human body coming over from Mexico,” says Amaya, “We should be getting hazard duty pay.Â But the agency cannot obligate a border patrol agent to risk his health.”
Border Patrol agents and illegal immigrants are not the only ones at risk.
“You have neighborhoods around the New River. And the families, the kids that live in this neighborhood are exposed to the same dust, to the same chemicals, to the same fumes, to the same diseases,” Amaya points out.
In 2006, Las Arenitas – a partially U.S. funded waste water plant helped minimize toxic sewage going into the New River.
Still, it is not enough to clean sewage for the 1,000,000 and growing, population of Mexicali.
So Figueroa and his committee, along with the city of Calexico, are working on a state-approved $4,000,000 park that is designed to reduce the threat to the community.
“For decades now, the people here in Calexico have been asking for a green area, a breathing area, a recreation area for the local youth,” says Figueroa, “also, an amenity for the people living on the west side of Calexico.”
Today, the Committee is working on a second project to restore the river itself.
“The strategic plan calls for a conveyance and disinfectant facility. And that’s just a fancy word for making sure that the water that crosses – once the parkway is complete – is clean,” says Figueroa.
Until then, these murky waters pose a clear and present danger to the people who live close to it – regardless as to which side of the river they come from.
The U.S. has offered to loan money to the Mexican government to build more water plant facilities – but Mexico has turned them down because its government has other priorities.