Official evidence of the massive pollution of the New River began in the 1940’s. As Mexicali grew, the contamination got worse and worse. At one point in the 1980s, the New River was deemed the dirtiest river in the world—nearly 50% raw sewage—and loaded with pathogens, heavy metals, and carcinogens.
Phil Gruenberg, former director of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, wrote in his history of the New River that on June 1, 1996 hundreds of people held a candlelight vigil on the banks of the river "to protest 50 years of broken promises by governments on both sides of the border to clean up the river.”
Officials finally couldn’t look the other way, and binational projects improved Mexicali’s inadequate sewage treatment system with new collectors, pumps, and a pipeline to carry about half of the New River waters 16 miles south to be treated and discharged into the Sea of Cortez.
Completed in 2007 these “quick fixes” and other projects helped tremendously. The New River recovered from its deathly gray pallor and no longer exuded a foul stench. The flow across the boundary was also reduced.
But guess what? Even with the infusion of $85 million from the US and Mexico, the sewage and other contaminants in the New River still exceeded safety standards. On its best days, the New River was too dirty to launch a canoe into its waters.
Then after about seven years of operation, because the project didn’t include sufficient funding for proper maintenance, Mexicali’s upgraded, enlarged system began to break down. Starting in 2014, there have been sporadic failures, and once again the New River has been carrying huge amounts of raw sewage and industrial waste into the United States.
Today engineers tell us that about another $100 million is needed to for a patch job on Mexicali’s sewer system. This for a fast-growing city of a million people with a history of failure in treating its sewage and industrial waste. No. We tried that.
Now it’s time to try something different. To ensure that the waters of the New River are treated to U.S. standards, we need a treatment plant under U.S. control in the United States.
It’s not a novel idea. There are three other places along the border where polluted water crosses from Mexico into the United States. In all three of those places, binational agreements have been negotiated, signed, and implemented between our two countries to put in place effective water treatment systems. In two of those places, the treatment plants are in the United States.
It’s our turn. We in the Imperial Valley should now assemble our political resources and call on the U.S. government and the agency charged with negotiating these kinds of deals—the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC)—to build a treatment plant here: in the United States near Calexico.
A little background on the models that we can follow: In 1989 the U.S. and Mexico signed an agreement to mutually fund a plant to treat water that Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico discharged into the Rio Grande. The plant became operational in 1996. The plant is mutually funded by the US and Mexico.
There is another international wastewater treatment plant outside of Nogales, Arizona. Operated by IBWC, this plant treats water discharged from Mexico into the United States. If the IBWC can build and operate the Nogales plant, it can do the same near Calexico.
Closer to home is the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment plant in San Ysidro, California. This plant became operational in 1999 and continues to treat sewage discharged into the Tijuana River and then into the United States. Built and operated through a complex set of agreements, today it is run (like the Nogales plant) by the IBWC with some funding from Mexico.
Do you notice a recurring theme here? When it is clear that the polluted water comes from Mexico and there is a geographical advantage to constructing the treatment plant in the U.S., our country has stepped up and mandated the appropriate agency—the International Boundary and Water Commission—to negotiate with the Mexican government, sign an agreement, and implement a sustainable solution.
On September 24, 2019 a delegation from San Diego met with White House officials requesting $375 million to beef up waste treatment in Tijuana and San Ysidro to prevent the regular spills of sewage from Mexico into the U.S. That’s also about what we need to adequate wastewater treatment plant near Calexico.
We need to ally ourselves with our neighbors to the west, with whom we share Congressman Juan Vargas’s district, to finally clean up the New River with a U.S. treatment system along the lines of what already exists in Nogales, Arizona and San Ysidro. Time’s up. It’s our turn.