Written By Bernice Yeung – California Watch – October 4, 2011
Calexico residents and community advocates will push for greater attention to the New River – considered the country’s most polluted waterway – at a public hearing tomorrow on Border 2020, a new bilateral plan to address the environmental and health problems at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Border 2020 [PDF]
plan is the latest in a decades-long cross-national initiative among the governments of the United States, Mexico and 26 border tribes. The project aims to tackle the environmental and health problems in a region with the highest number of uninsured children living in poverty, which has unusually high rates of deaths due to hepatitis and diabetes.
The draft plan seeks to reduce public health risks and preserve the environment through a variety of strategies, including improving access to clean drinking water and sewer systems. It also is making children’s and environmental health a new priority because border residents “suffer from health problems that may be closely linked to the contamination of air, the inappropriate treatment of the water and wastewater, improper management of pesticides, and the illegal or inadequate disposal of solid and hazardous waste.”
The human health components of the previous plan, called Border 2012 [PDF]
, focused on issues such as the safe disposal and handling of pesticides. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which coordinates the stateside effort, collected and disposed of more than 200 tons of obsolete or outdated pesticides, and it partnered with Comité Civico del Valle, a Calexico nonprofit, to reach out to farm workers about pesticide exposure.
As part of the previous initiative, the EPA also spent millions and collaborated with Mexican agencies to build wastewater plants in Mexicali and Baja California that have improved the quality of water flowing into California, including the New River.
In the Border 2020 plan, the New River is considered a “priority” water body, and the EPA proposes to implement one project every two years to reduce the levels of bacteria, trash and phosphates entering the river through the “assessment and control of slaughterhouse discharges, phosphate detergent bans and trash cleanup activities.”
But elected officials and concerned residents from California say the Border 2020 plan, in its current form, doesn’t go far enough to address the effects of the New River.
“From a California point of view, the New River is where we have the most glaring need, and it ties to environmental health impacts,” says Richard Kiy, CEO of the San Diego-based International Community Foundation. Kiy has held positions at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico and at the EPA.
There have been increased and coordinated efforts
at the state and local levels to restore the water and eliminate public health concerns for the surrounding communities in recent years. Following state legislation passed in 2009, elected officials and residents have been developing a plan, to be released at the end of this month, to clean up pollution and promote economic development around the New River. At tomorrow's Border 2020 meeting
, representatives from the office of Assemblyman Manuel Pérez, D-Indio, who represents Calexico and who introduced the 2009 legislation, will ask the EPA to prioritize the New River.
“The 2012 project did include some improvements to the New River, but those were specific to improving things south of the border,” says Antonio Ortega, a Pérez senior field officer. “The comments we’ll be making at the public hearing, along with others, is to urge the U.S. EPA to emphasize and continue prioritizing the New River.”
The waterway has been a public health concern for both California and Mexican officials for decades. It flows from Baja California – historically, more than 10 percent
of the flow from Mexico consisted of untreated or partially treated sewage – to Calexico, where it begins to accumulate agricultural run-off until it terminates in the Salton Sea.
The river was designated a California EPA environmental justice water quality project in 2005, and the California Department of Public Health notes that “discarded tires, trash, dead animals, plumes of foam, and other wastes are often visible in the river channel,” according to its 2009 Border Health Status Report [PDF]
Miguel Figueroa of the nonprofit Calexico New River Committee says there are 300 homes less than a quarter-mile from the noxious and often odorous body of water, and he is organizing a coalition of residents and public health advocates to ask the EPA and Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources to expand its New River efforts. Mexican officials did not respond yesterday to a request for comment.
“We will tell them we hope that they realize that this is a big thing for us here,” Figueroa says. “Although we respect and acknowledge that attacking the problem at the source is a viable solution, and improvement has been observed, we also can state that we need more to be done and what better way than to start doing that on our side of the border?”
But Tomas Torres, director of the EPA's San Diego Border Liaison Office, says the issue is already on the EPA’s radar.
“The New River has always been a high priority for us,” Torres says. “It was not mentioned in 2012, but we mentioned it as a priority in our water goals for 2020. It will continue to be a high priority. There’s no doubt it is a very polluted river. This is why we’re having the public meeting in Calexico. We will consider other ideas and examples and strategies that the public may have that we can consider.”
In the current financial climate, however, wastewater and other infrastructure projects that could help address public health concerns stemming from polluted waterways like the New River have effectively been put on the back burner. Federal funding for cross-border projects has been cut [PDF]
from $100 million in 2004 to $10 million in 2010.
Torres says there are a number of projects waiting in the queue.
“This is a Congressional appropriation, and it is subject to Congress adjustment every year,” he says. “What it has meant is that we have less money to invest in water and wastewater projects here on the border.”
Border 2020 and similar efforts dating back to 1992 [PDF]
emerged from the 1983 La Paz Agreement, as public officials in Mexico and the U.S. began to acknowledge the cross-border nature of environmental and health problems.
“We live in a binational community,” Norma Arceo, spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health, wrote in an e-mail. “What happens on one side of the border often affects the other side of the border. This dynamic is true for public health as well. Infectious disease, natural resources, and natural disasters do not recognize national boundaries. Binational collaboration is essential for successful public health outcomes in our border region.”
A second California hearing will be held in National City on Oct. 18
. Public comment will be incorporated into the final Border 2020 plan, which will be released in August 2012.