In a recent development, California Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia (left) and Senadora Alejandra del Carmen Leon Gástelum of Baja California (center) lead the Bi-National Roundtable on Air Quality and the New River on Oct. 18 at the San Diego State University, Imperial Valley Campus, in Calexico. CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO
Although the county has
been mostly supportive of Calexico’s plan to pipe the fetid waters of the New
River until they pass city limits, county Board of Supervisors Chairman Ryan
Kelley is criticizing the project.
The decision puts the problems
of the toxic river “out of sight, out of mind,” Kelley said during a recent
The New River, for years cited as the filthiest body of water in North America, originates in Mexico where it accumulates pollutants such as known carcinogens and raw sewage, and crosses the international border in Calexico. The river makes its way through the Imperial Valley before emptying into the Salton Sea north of Brawley.
Several days before Kelley
and his fellow board members unanimously voted to declare a local state of
emergency over repeated raw-sewage spills into the river, Kelley spoke with
this newspaper Oct. 29 about several issues regarding the heavily polluted waterway.
To put his comments about
Calexico into context, Kelley seemed exasperated when discussing plans by state
Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) and state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-Chula Vista).The
duo has similar ideas in forming bi-national coalitions to take their concerns over
the New River directly to officials in Mexico City and Washington, D.C. Kelley seemed
to grow more frustrated when asked whether he would participate.
“We will go to these
meetings and vent, but it hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” Kelley said. “We’re tired
of being the forgotten stepchild.”
Part of the county
board’s action Nov. 5 in declaring a state of emergency was to push the federal
government and the U.S. side of the International Boundary and Water Commission
to pressure Mexico and its IBWC counterpart. The move seek to have those
agencies deal with the raw sewage being dumped into the New River during an increasing
number of breakdowns at Mexicali’s failing wastewater treatment plants.
County Officials Speak
During an Oct. 24 meeting
of the IBWC’s Colorado River Citizens’ Forum in Calexico, in front of U.S. Commissioner
Jayne Harkins, two Imperial County Public Health Department officials laid out
the county’s concerns. They focused on pollution levels at the New River and
made several demands of the government, including a call for the feds to fund an
$80 million to $100 million sewer plant on the Calexico side of the river.
Already irked by what he
said is a lack of action and too much talk on the part of federal and state
officials in addressing pollution at the river, Kelley was then asked in the
interview how building a sewer plant in Calexico would co-exist or where it
might be built relative to the Calexico New River Improvement Project.
The project, which
includes recreation areas along the river, when fully funded and finished would
have its own water-treatment component before the river gets encased in a pipe
until it flows past city limits.
Let the federal
government “put the water treatment plant where Calexico’s plan ends,” Kelley
said brusquely on Oct. 29.
He added, “The Calexico
New River project puts the river out of sight, out of mind,” he added, clearly
implying that Calexico’s plan does not deal with the pollution problem so much
as put a Band-Aid on it until it’s out of Calexico’s jurisdiction.
Kelley said the county
board is responsible for the health and well-being of all the county’s
residents who live along the path of the New River. That includes those
communities north of Calexico such as Seeley, parts of Imperial and Brawley and
southwest of Calipatria.
“We’re not afraid of
making people upset for projects they may not do,” Kelley said at one point, seeming
to refer to the fact that the city’s improvement project has been 15 years in
the making and has yet to be completely funded. Calexico officials have said
they still need $15 million to $25 million to have the multi-phase project paid
for in full.
Undergrounding New River
‘Not the Fix’
Jeff Lamoure, deputy
director of the county Public Health Department’s Division of Environmental
Health, agreed with Kelley. Lamoure is who made the request for federal funding
for a wastewater treatment plant during the Oct. 24 IBWC meeting.
Lamoure also leads the
county’s new “water desk,” a water-quality-monitoring program being developed
by the county that initially was to test the quality of the Salton Sea.
However, Lamoure and the county want to add testing New River water-quality to
“Just to pipe it
underground and move it farther down is not the solution,” Lamoure said during
an interview with this newspaper Nov. 3. “It’s not the fix.”
Calexico officials had
varying degrees of reaction to what Kelley had to say. Fellow board member and
Division 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar, who was sworn into office in January,
vacated his Calexico City Council seat to take a place on the county board. As
such, he has seen the issue from both sides.
“I have not heard any
negativity” from Kelley, Escobar said Oct. 31. “These are two separate matters. I think (the
Calexico New River Improvement Project) is more of a short-term solution and (a
full sewer plant in Calexico) is a long-term solution, and they both make a
heck of a lot of sense to me.”
Calexico View of River Improvement
Perhaps no one knows more about the Calexico
New River Improvement Project than Assistant Calexico City Manager Miguel
Figueroa. He has been working on the project for several years, helping to
guide it through nearly every stage and sorting through many of the funding
successes and setbacks.
Figueroa was a key figure in gaining the
support of the county board and the Imperial Irrigation District Board of
Directors in establishing a three-way memorandum of understanding to fund the
operation and maintenance of the Calexico project.
The MOU saw the county, IID and the city of
Calexico each agree to pony up $50,000 a year once the project is finished. It
was a requirement of the California Environmental Protection Agency and the
state Water Resources Control Board to move forward with awarding a $1.4
million contract for an environmental review of the project in October 2017.
“The passion that Mr. Kelley has is welcomed
because he is challenging federal agencies to step up and do their part. He is
in his own right speaking and looking out for Imperial County, and that should
be applauded,” Figueroa said during an interview with this newspaper Oct. 30.
Added Calexico Mayor Bill
Hodge: “Those swipes, we can’t take them personally. The city has a plan. … We
have made strides at this juncture more than we ever have in all these years
the New River has been talked about.
“I don’t think he’s
correct on that. … I think he has a misperception of what we’re doing,” Hodge explained
during a Nov. 3 interview. “We have always said it’s not just a Calexico
problem, it’s an Imperial Valley problem.”
New River Project Status
Most recently, the city
was on the verge of finally being able to move some dirt on the New River
parkway project when the city council went out to bid for a construction
company for the first phase. Unfortunately, the council was asked to reject the
bids in September when they came back $700,000 and more above the available
The city had $2 million
set aside for work that included the first
three-quarters of a mile of bicycle path/pedestrian walkway along a portion of
the river. Also included was landscaping, electrical work, site preparation,
erosion control measures and stormwater/water-quality improvements, according
to the original bid.
only qualified bids the city received over the summer were from Pyramid Construction and Aggregate Inc. for $2.7 million and
Granite Construction Co. for $3.2 million.
Figueroa said the city is still
revising the request for proposals,
doing away with certain components to lower the bids the city receives. He did
not say when the bidding process would start again, nor would he say what is
being changed from the original plans.
Meanwhile, Figueroa has said the city needs between $15 million and $25
million for the final phase of construction, which is the portion that would
complete the major work on the project, including a trash-screen system to
collect the big items that flow through the border from Mexico.
There would be a tertiary pump-back system, which is an extension of the
city’s wastewater treatment plant, and is meant to take some of the polluted
water, clean it up and deposit it into a riverbed so that a stream is part of
the parkway features. Finally, the primary flow of the polluted river would
travel in an underground pipe, before spilling out of the pipe where it ends
north of Highway 98.
Assembly Member Garcia To Seek Funds Through Bill
Assembly Member Garcia
said Oct. 25 that he plans to author and introduce a new bill in January for a water
bond that specifically earmarks around $15 million to $20 million for the final
piece of funding for the Calexico project. Tentatively named the “Climate
Resiliency Bond,” Garcia said the legislation, if approved, would see the money
become available to Calexico sometime in 2021.
So far, it has been a
long and winding journey for the Calexico New River Improvement Project,
Figueroa conceded on Oct. 30.
Formed in 2004, the
Calexico New River Committee was established with the goal of being “the first
organized effort to address the historical, environmental problems posed by the
New River. This was done through a unified and inclusive approach that
considered the collaboration of members of the community that had been affected
for decades in Calexico, specifically the westside residents,” Figueroa said.
With the support of local
governments and constant communication with state and federal officials, former
Assembly Member V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella) in 2009 introduced Assembly Bill
1079, which was supported by the Calexico New River Committee. The bill created
a strategic plan to address ongoing issues with air quality and water quality
with the New River and the Salton Sea.
Adopted in 2011
In 2011, the New River
Improvement Strategic Plan was adopted by the California-Mexico Border
“Community meetings were
put together to showcase elements of the plan, and consensus was reached as to
what remediation and improvement projects were needed in Mexicali and Imperial
County,” Figueroa recalled.
Prior to that, in the
early 2000s, Figueroa said former U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) secured
funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation for a parkway project that
would include bike paths and pedestrian walkways along the river. Filner was
able to get the project $3.2 million, but it required a 20 percent match, which
The matching funds didn’t
materialize until the passage of AB 1079, when the $800,000 came by way of the
California Natural Resources Agency.
Some $2 million of the $4
million Filner secured went to environmental studies and the design phase of
the parkway project. The remaining $2 million is what is funding the first
phase of construction plans the city is currently revising so it can re-bid the
Meanwhile, the city has
the first $10 million set aside for the trash screen, pump-back system and underground
piping, which it received through the state 2018 Parks and Water Bond Act
“We welcome the latest efforts
by Mr. Garcia to secure the additional funding we need to complete the
infrastructure projects identified by the New River Strategic Plan for Calexico,”
Figueroa said. “We will continue to partner and work, as we have since 2004, in
an organized, strategic manner with local partners, elected officials and our
neighbors south of the border.”