During the past two decades, the federal government’s spending on sewer projects along the U.S.-Mexico border has declined dramatically. The decrease in funding has left a long list of needed sewer fixes unbuilt, while raw sewage and industrial pollution have continued to pour into the New River, the Tijuana River and other rivers that flow across the border. Now, Congress has started to put more money toward combating water pollution on the border.
The San Diego County Water Authority’s General Manager notified the region’s water board on Wednesday that she is retiring. Maureen Stapleton has held the top job at the agency for more than two decades. She led the Water Authority through the complicated settlement negotiations surrounding the Colorado River. Stapleton also encouraged projects like the Carlsbad Desalination plant as a way to diversify the region’s water supply.
There may be more in the sewage-tainted water that regularly spills over the border from Tijuana than many San Diegans realize. The cross-border pollution also contains potentially dangerous industrial and agricultural chemicals, according to a draft report compiled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that was circulated to officials throughout the region on Wednesday.
For generations, residents of the Southern California border town of Calexico watched with trepidation as their river turned into a cesspool, contaminated by the booming human and industrial development on the other side of the border in Mexico. As Washington debates spending billions to shore up barriers along the 2,000-mile southwest border, many residents in California’s Imperial Valley feel at least some of that money could be spent to address the region’s public health threats.
For decades, the New River has flowed north across the U.S.-Mexico border carrying toxic pollution and the stench of sewage. Now lawmakers in Washington and Sacramento are pursuing legislation and funding to combat the problems. “I feel very optimistic that we’re going to be able to get some things done on the New River issue,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia.
The Río Nuevo flows north from Mexico into the United States, passing through a gap in the border fence. The murky green water reeks of sewage and carries soapsuds, pieces of trash and a load of toxic chemicals from Mexicali, a city filled with factories that manufacture products from electronics to auto parts.
The river is so foul that rumors swirl about two-headed turtles and three-eyed fish. If you fall in, locals joke, you might sprout a third arm. So go the stories about the New River, whose putrid green water runs like a primordial stew from Mexico’s sprawling city of Mexicali through California’s Imperial Valley.
California’s little-known New River has been called one of North America’s most polluted. A closer look reveals the New River is full of ironic twists: its pollution has long defied cleanup, yet even in its degraded condition, the river is important to the border economies of Mexicali and the Imperial Valley and a lifeline that helps sustain the fragile Salton Sea ecosystem. Now, after decades of inertia on its pollution problems, the New River has emerged as an important test of binational cooperation on border water issues. These issues were profiled in the 2004 PBS documentary Two Sides of a River.