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New River Leaves A Trails of
Poisonous Scum

By Gary Polakovic
The Press-Enterprise

® As the nation's most polluted waterway, it winds its toxic way from Mexico to a fuming sump in the Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge.

Mexicali, Mexico

It is the most polluted river in the United States, and one encounter with its rolling, slime-green waters ought to convince any doubters.

About 130 million gallons of the worst pollutants people and their machines can make are carried daily in a stinking, swirling broth called the New River.

The Press-Enterprise 

Raw and partially treated sewage. Slaughterhouse scraps. Industrial toxins. Garbage. Power plant effluent. Agricultural wastewater. Detergents. Enough infectious agents are swimming in the water to unleash a plague on a large city.

"It's an open sewer. It's a toxicological nightmare," said John Conway, a San Diego State University water pollution biologist active in environmental issues along the international border.

The river originates 20 miles inside Mexico and consists entirely of wastewater discharged by nearly 1 million inhabitants of the rapidly growing Mexicali Valley. It crosses the border under a twisted chain-link fence near the Calexico Plaza and meanders another 65 miles past Brawley, picking up selenium and pesticide-laced run-off from Imperial Valley farms along the way.

Its destination: The Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, where the river empties into a shallow, reed-choked bayou where scores of animals feed and reproduce. Endangered species such as bald eagles, peregrine falcons and brown pelicans inhabit the New River delta, as do ducks, herons and flamingos.

The sea hosts a larger variety of birds than any place in the West, but toxic pollution and rising salinity are slowly exterminating wildlife.

The New River has been this way for half a century -- one of the longest-running, unresolved environmental hazards in California. And next to nothing has been done about it.

Besides contaminants, the river carries the potential for international friction. After decades of on-again, off-again negotiations, the U.S. government has failed to persuade Mexico to clean it up. Talks have been typified by missed deadlines, broken promises and inadequate funding.

"This is a domestic problem that Mexico should correct and we haven't seen any improvement for 50 years," said Cruz Ito, spokesman for Narendra N. Gunaji, U.S. representative to the International boundary and Water Commission.

But hope for the New River has been rekindled with the latest round of international talks.

After 15 years of intense and difficult negotiations, the two countries announced in November a conceptual agreement on a plan to control the worst sources of pollution.

Mexico would agree to improve the Mexicali sewage treatment plant, including removal of solid matter and use of disinfectants. Plumbing leaks would be repaired to stop untreated sewage from gushing into the river.

Mexico factories would for the first time be required to treat toxic pollution before it is discharged. And the Rastro de Mexicali, the town slaughterhouse, would cease dumping blood, entrails and assorted animal discards, Ito said.

In return, the U.S. government would agree to pay for much of the work. It could cost $150 million to bring the New River up to minimally acceptable health standards, according to officials.

The agreement is significant because Mexico has in the past resisted dollars for cleanup as an intrusion of its sovereignty. The federal budget contains $10 million for upgrades at the Mexicali sewage plant, said Douglas Eberhardt of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's California office.

The controversial North American Free Trade Agreement among Mexico, the United States and Canada is the driving force behind stepped-up efforts to improve the New River, Ito said.

Eager to demonstrate their government can manage industrial polluters, Mexican authorities in the past year have stepped up enforcement of environmental scofflaws. Environmental violation forced the recent closure of Organica Chemica, a Mexicali chemical plant and a top New River polluter, Ito said.

But population in the Mexicali Valley has nearly doubled in a decade, pumping more wastes into the river.

Much of the growth is owed to the arrival of so-called maquiladoras plants, American and Japanese companies that moved shop south of the border to assemble everything from furniture to auto parts. The plants provide Mexico with much-need revenue, but the toxic pollution they produce returns to the United States via the New River.

Just how filthy is this wretched little stream?

Rivers in dry, desert lands are usually big recreation draws. Not this one.

Along most of its course, the riverbank is eerily still. No boaters, waders, fishermen or much wildlife, particularly in the heavily polluted upper reaches near the Mexico border. The stench is overpowering, as bad as the rankest outhouse. Bright yellow pollution warning signs along river-highway intersections are common.

California prohibits people from contact with water containing more than 400 coliform bacteria in 100 milliliters of water. But coliform counts in the New River flowing through the Imperial Valley are an astronomical 1 million.

Drink the water and Tittle said to expect treatment with antibiotics and injections with hepatitis antibodies, as well as a "rip-roaring case of diarrhea."

"The potential for dangers to public health is very great...But there's been no outbreak of illness associated with the New River in the U.S.," Tittle said.

Occasionally, tourists and children get too close.

A family reunion ended in tragedy a few years ago when six Californians were hospitalized with typhoid after spending time by the river in Mexicali, said Dr. Lee Cottrell, health officer for Imperial County until 1989.

Imperial County has a longstanding health advisory warning people to avoid contact with water or fish in the New River. But "we do get reports of people actually fishing and swimming in the river," Tittle said.

Sometimes staying far from the river's edge is no guarantee of safety.

Foam blobs, some as big as houses, have been known to blow out of the river on windy days and splat on people, cars and the supermarket at the Calexico Plaza. The suds come from phosphate detergents still commonly used in Mexico. The foam is loaded with bacteria, Cottrell said.

A sign warns of contamination in the New River, just on the United States side of the border.
Photos by Steve Medd / The Press-Enterprise


About 130 million gallons of the worst pollutants people and their machines can make are carried daily in a stinking, swirling broth called the New River.

Raw and partially treated sewage. Slaughterhouse scraps. Indurstrial toxins. Garbage. Power plant effluent. Agricultural wastewater. Detergents. Enough infectious agents are swimming in the water to unleash a plague on a large city...


Refuse, below, fills a New River tributary stream

Health officials also worry about flies and mosquitoes that breed in the river and then light on people.

"We're regarding it as a major threat. If anyone comes into contact with the water, the likelihood of picking up a disease is extreme," said Phil Gruenberg, executive officer of the state Colorado River Basin Regional Water Quality control Board.

Ironically, the river itself, gutter that it is, owes its existence to all the wastewater dumped into it.

Like the Salton Sea, the New River is a man-made artifice. Historically, it has been a bone-dry was quenched only by an intermittent downpour or two Mother Nature sent its way. Without the farms, sewage plants and industrial discharges, it would revert to its dusty past.

A bicyclist rides past a drain from an industrial area of Mexicali that empties into the New River
Green water flows from a sewage treatment plant on the outskirts of Mexicali that drains into the New River.

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