The time for talk and
diplomacy over addressing pollution in the U.S. side of the New River is over,
and the need for action and both federal dollars and intervention is now, all
five members of the county Board of Supervisors expressed in no uncertain terms
In a rare voice roll
call, a unified and collectively incensed county board called out its
individual affirmative votes as it issued a local declaration of emergency
specifically stating how the increasing frequency of discharges of raw human
waste by failing sewer plants in Mexico was causing sky-high levels of
contamination on the Imperial County side of the already highly polluted New
River, which has been referred to as one of the dirtiest bodies of water in
North America for decades.
The New River, which
originates in Mexico, is rife with known pathogens and carcinogens that flow
through the international border at Calexico and northward through the Imperial
Valley before emptying into the Salton Sea.
The Nov. 5 declaration
also proclaims that the U.S. side of the International Boundary and Water
Commission, as of its Oct. 24 meeting in Calexico, has no plans to address what
the declaration calls a “public calamity” and “crisis” that is most certainly
beyond the resources and “the control of the services, personnel, equipment and
facilities of the county.”
“We talk about diplomacy,
how you have to pick your battles, we talk about delivery, tone … Let’s forget
about diplomacy. It’s gotten us nowhere,” District 1 Supervisor Eduardo Jesus
Escobar said prior to the declaration vote. Each supervisor took a moment to
address their discontent over decades of inaction and broken promises by state,
federal and international governments to come to the aid of the county and fix the
pollution problem at the river.
“If I recall correctly,
Calexico and Brawley are in the United States of America. We have clean water
standards — it’s a right in the USA,” Escobar said before roll call began. “Let’s
kick butt on this and move forward.”
Ryan Kelley shows his
Board Chairman Ryan Kelley, in an interview with this newspaper recently, had already forcefully and frustratedly asserted his opinion on too much talk and not enough action when he pointedly called out state officials for their shared tendency to want to “vent” on the river rather than aggressively address those responsible for causing the pollution to occur.
“We will go to these
meetings and vent, but it hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” Kelley said Oct. 29.
“We’re tired of being the forgotten stepchild.
“We’re at ground zero
right now. We have nothing to show for years of patience,” he added.
Kelley was asked whether
Imperial County would take part in a delegation of local and state officials to
Mexico City and, possibly, Washington, D.C., being put together by Assembly
Member Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, whose district includes Imperial County.
Garcia told a reporter
about his idea Oct. 25. He said he wanted to put together the delegation to
take local concerns over Mexico’s lack of responsibility on cleaning up its
raw-sewage discharges straight to Mexican federal officials in that nation’s
capital city. Garcia said he hoped that same delegation, or one of similar
makeup, could do the same in D.C.
Kelley became frustrated
after hearing the question about his participation in such a delegation,
because, he said Oct. 29, state Sen. Ben Hueso, D-Chula Vista, had recently
proposed something very similar to Kelley.
“Eddie (Garcia) and I
talked about that. I’m interested; anything that could get interest over here …
Look, Hueso has a similar idea about a bi-national committee,” Kelley said, the
tension rising in his voice. “That’s good, but where’s the funding? What
leverage do they have? None!”
He continued: “We’re not
gonna be silent. We won’t miss an opportunity to speak up about the issue, but
if it’s just going to be an opportunity to vent about our frustration …”
Emergency stage set at
Kelley stopped, switching
gears to discuss the Oct. 24 Colorado River Citizens’ Forum meeting in Calexico
with the U.S. side of the International Boundary and Water Commission, where U.S.
Commissioner Jayne Harkins was in attendance from Washington, D.C.
He firmly, almost angrily,
asserted it was time to no longer pull any punches with those who allow the social
inequities to persist between what are considered acceptable levels of
pollution for smaller, poorer Imperial County and the U.S. side of the New
River versus a much higher standard of cleanliness in more politically
influential areas like San Diego County, where tolerated pollution levels on
the U.S. side of the Tijuana River more closely mirror the standards of the
federal Clean Water Act.
“It’s quite clear; you
can see the disparity. San Diego County has 1/30th the allowable
fecal coliform, but here you can have a 30,000-colony count (of fecal coliform
bacteria per 100 milliliters)?” Kelley asked, incredulously. “The Clean Water
Act (allows for a fecal coliform colony count of) 1,000?
“Why can it be tackled
there, and not here?” he asked rhetorically, adding that San Diego’s political
clout makes addressing Mexico’s responsibility for pollution conditions at the
Tijuana River much easier than doing so in Imperial County, which has far fewer
residents and far less power.
In recent months, San
Diego County-area politicos have seen bills introduced and have had an audience
with President Donald Trump over sewage discharges from the Mexico-side of the
Tijuana River, discharges that have regularly resulted in the closure of
Imperial Beach near San Ysidro and areas of the Silver Strand near more
In September 2018, state Attorney
General Xavier Becerra, along with environmental groups, and later, the city
and county of San Diego, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. section of the IBWC,
alleging violations of the Clean Water Act due to its inaction over addressing
regular raw-sewage discharges by Mexico into the Tijuana River.
“We’re not going to be
quiet. The proof is putting the resources behind an issue that has long-known
to be a problem. We put together an actionable list of items and presented them
(to Harkins and the IBWC) at the citizens’ forum,” Kelley said Oct. 29.
Lamoure, Kelley talk
Jeff Lamoure, deputy
director of the county Public Health Department’s Division of Environmental
Health, further made Kelley’s point on the disparities between San Diego and Imperial
counties when he updated the county board Nov. 5 on a list of four demands made
of Harkins and the IBWC by Imperial County. Lamoure broke some news to the
board from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office.
Lamoure put up a slide
during his presentation to the board with a quote from Feinstein: “We must do
more to protect the health of San Diegans by stopping raw sewage overflows
along the Tijuana River. It’s unacceptable to allow this environmental and
health hazard to go unchecked. This funding will go a long way to address the
problem, but I’ll keep pushing for additional resources. That includes making
sure this issue is a top priority for the administration in their discussions
with Mexico’s leaders.”
The quote referred to
Feinstein’s Nov. 1 announcement that she had secured $25 million to address
toxic cross-border sewage flows through the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency’s Border Water Infrastructure Program.
Lamoure said the quote
— and funding — should have included Imperial County and the New River but
The deputy director of
environmental health runs the county’s several-months-old “water desk,” a
water-quality-monitoring program approved by the county board and set up by
environmental health to initially measure the water quality of the Salton Sea
and the tributaries that drain into the sea, the Alamo and New rivers. One of
reasons Lamoure was so invested in providing the IBWC with indisputable
evidence of serious problems in pollution counts, disparities and consistency
in measurement units and methodology is due to the “water desk’s” desire to be
the lead monitor and reporting agency on New River pollution. Lamoure also was
credited with crafting the four-point list of demands.
statements Oct. 29 regarding the disparities, Congressman Juan Vargas, D-Chula
Vista, as both counties’ border representative in the U.S. House, was asked to
comment on the implication there is inequitable treatment between the counties that
is spelled out in minutes to the original 1944 treaty on the Tijuana and
Colorado rivers and the Rio Grande that created the U.S. and Mexico sections of
the IBWC. This newspaper requested comment from Vargas on Oct. 30 and again
Nov. 1. As of Nov. 5, Vargas’ office had not responded or even acknowledged the
Further clarifying and
expounding Kelley’s assertions, Lamoure said Nov. 5 that Minute 264, which
pertains to Imperial County and the New River, allows a monthly average of
30,000 fecal coliform colonies, or human waste, per 100 milliliters. The minute
further states that number is not to exceed 60,000 colonies per 100 milliliters.
Conversely, Lamoure showed the county board that Minute 270, which covers San
Diego County and the Tijuana River, allows a monthly average of only 1,000
fecal coliform colonies per 100 milliliters. He said that is the same level as
Title 17 of the California Code of Regulations under the federal Clean Water
IBWC falsely insists river
Lamoure said IBWC staff
made a presentation Oct. 24 providing a summary of its water-quality-monitoring
efforts on the U.S. side of the New River. “Basically, they minimized the
effect of the sewage discharges” by Mexicali’s two aging and intermittently
functioning sewer plants. He added they “downplayed” the discharges, saying the
water quality on the New River was improving. Lamoure contended those
statements were “misleading” due to incompatible methods of measuring the
pollution in the water between agencies and their own data.
Lamoure said at one
point, IBWC claimed there had been no discharges, or what they refer to as
system bypasses, of raw sewage from Mexico in at least three years. Lamoure,
who said he doubted that was the case, given drastic upsurges in fecal coliform
colony counts from one day to the next, requested data from the IBWC. The
information Lamoure said he was provided from IBWC’s own records showed there
had been 21 bypasses documented since 2016. “One hand doesn’t know what the
other is doing,” Lamoure said.
Kelley, prior to the Nov.
5 vote and referencing Lamoure’s report, said that on Aug. 7, 2019, IBWC’s own
data showed a 790,000 fecal coliform colony count, which he said was “790 times
the value acceptable under the Clean Water Act,” Kelley added.
Public Health leads
Updating the county board
on the list of demands, including Harkins’ responses, Lamoure said one demand
was that a new minute be created, or an amended version of Minute 264 reflect
compliance with the Clean Water Act as adopted in Title 17, with actions and
sanctions for noncompliance. He said Harkins’ response was that Mexico, as a
sovereign nation, cannot be compelled to recognize the Clean Water Act.
A second demand included
the federal or international funding of a wastewater treatment plant on the
U.S. side of the New River, which Kelley said could cost between $80 million
and $100 million. Lamoure said Nov. 5 that Harkins’ response was the IBWC did
not have that kind of money.
A third demand was a
standardized testing protocol, better adherence to that protocol and financing
to support the county’s water-testing program at $150,000 a year. Lamoure said IBWC
measures New River water quality in units known as Colony Forming Units (CFUs)
and the state Regional Water Quality Control Board measures the New River in
units known as Most Probable Number (MPNs). Lamoure wants to see MPNs used as
the standard of measure. He said the reason is, CFUs are used for cleaner,
lighter substances, like drinking water. MPN can handle a heavier, denser samples
of pollution, like the “broth” of the New River, Lamoure said.
Harkins’ response to the
third set of demands indicated a wait-and-see approach, but a no to the funding
of the testing program.
The fourth demand was a
communication protocol to alert, inform and motivate community action, Lamoure
said. Again, the county wants to lead those efforts to develop a communication
plan that includes infrastructure project updates, sewage discharge
announcements, water-quality-testing results and unified signage protocol.
Lamoure said that seemed to be the one area Harkins was amenable to.
Health Officer addresses board
Also speaking to the
county board Nov. 5 was Imperial County Public Health Officer Dr. Stephen
Munday, who has been the county’s health officer since 2004.
Munday said some 75 years
after the 1944 treaty, “we’re here with the same problems. I’ve been here since
2004, and the New River has been a constant issue that entire time,” he added.
Munday said when he
arrived in the Valley, he set up protocols for county divers who enter the New
River, including the appropriate vaccinations to address exposure to the
polluted waters. He expressed regret that a protocol like this remains in place
today, rather than the river having been remediated.
As each county board
member spoke prior to their vote, District 3 Supervisor Michael Kelley reminded
those in the board chambers that where they are matters when it comes to
addressing the historical problems of the New River.
Mike Kelley said
without getting on his “soap box,” that simply put, “If this were the
Sacramento River or the Potomac River, we wouldn’t have this problem.”