CALEXICO, Calif. — 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.
Noxious sewage filled with feces, industrial chemicals, and other raw waste regularly comes in through the New River, which flows from Mexico’s Mexicali Valley and through Calexico, leaving neighborhoods along the waterway engulfed in pungent fumes. And it’s not just the river: From above, smoke billows from Mexican factories, illicit medical burn sites, and tire pits, fueling widespread asthma in the region.
As Washington debates spending billions of dollars 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. Just feet away from Calexico, Mexico’s lax environmental rules and enforcement pose a regular menace.
“It’s a pit of infection,” said Arturo Santiago, 50, who lives in a neighborhood adjacent to the river in west Calexico, atop a steep overlook. “It smells like farts if you open your window.”
Mexico has long treated the New River as a drain rather than a river, discharging raw, untreated sewage from Mexicali homes and businesses directly into the water. The explosive growth of Mexicali into a city of 1 million people in recent decades, in part accelerated by the North American Free Trade Agreement, has exacerbated the problem.
Today, even after various cleanup efforts, large mounds of unnatural foam and piles of trash — illegally dumped — float atop the dark green stream, which flows into the United States through a hole in a slatted border fence and flows north toward the Salton Sea in California.
A 2018 report published by the regional water board shows that the river, where it crosses the border, contains extreme fecal coliform and E. coli concentrations that are orders of magnitude beyond established targets because of the tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage that have been dumped into the river in recent years.
State lawmakers have noted that the river is believed to carry pathogens that cause tuberculosis, encephalitis, polio, cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid. But Calexico, a small town of 40,000 in California’s Imperial Valley farm belt, has had little recourse but to endure the public health risks.
Miguel Figueroa, Calexico’s assistant city manager, called the river a “historic environmental justice problem.” The westside homes adjacent to the river have historically been occupied by low-income residents, many of whom work in agriculture. Their relative poverty, plus the Imperial Valley’s lack of political clout in Sacramento, he said, were significant obstacles to drawing sustained attention to the river.
Many have called for enclosing the river and diverting its waters to filter out pollutants.
Those living near the river are not the only ones with concerns. The river also poses a security issue for border agents, said David Kim, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. “Smuggling organizations still use the New River to move humans into the US,” Kim said, noting that border agents are unable to go into the water to chase border violators because it is too hazardous.
The air pollution concerns also have been worrying. Gilbert Rebollar, a board member of the Brawley Elementary School District, to the north of Calexico, said students regularly cannot go outside because the air quality is too dangerous. About 20 percent of children in Imperial County have asthma, according to a 2016 California Health Interview Survey, about twice the state average. That number could be higher in towns directly adjacent to the border.
“There is a crisis here, but it has nothing to do with immigration,” said Rebollar, who is also an analyst at the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District. “And it’s not just about money. It’s about holding Mexico accountable. Some of these hospitals are going out at night and burning medical waste.”
Nearly 20 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency granted $31 million to pay for sanitation projects on the Mexican side of the border, completed in 2007, to improve the water quality before it reached the United States. That project, funded by North American Development Bank, which was created by NAFTA, encased the river on the Mexican side in piping. No such piping was installed on the US side.
‘When you have environmental problems that are that prevalent, that are affecting human beings . . . that should be at the very top of the list.’
But by May 2017, the regional California Water Quality Control Board was raising fresh alarms. Despite progress, “the deteriorating condition of the sewage infrastructure” built in Mexico posed a severe threat to the water quality, the board wrote in a resolution addressed to several federal and international agencies. At least once a month, for at least six months, 1 million to 13 million gallons of raw sewage were released into the river by Mexicali, the water board said.
Many along the border have groused about funding for water treatment projects not going to the US side.
“It’s been really hard to digest and understand that American resources are going into Mexico,” said Figueroa, the assistant city manager. “It’s shameful because the last time we checked, Imperial County is in the state of California.”
Community efforts to redevelop the river on the US side have faced delays the past 15 years.
About two dozen stakeholders at the local, state, and federal level have some oversight responsibility for the New River. The bureaucratic glut is perhaps partly to blame for the delays.
“For crying out loud, when you have environmental problems that are that prevalent, that are affecting human beings and human health, that should be at the very top of the list,” said state Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat who has sought to bring attention to the problem in the state Legislature.