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County Vents Over New River Inaction With Emergency Declaration

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 Nov. 5.

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 frustration

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.

“We’re at ground zero right now. We have nothing to show for years of patience,”

Ryan Kelley

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 IBWC forum

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 well-heeled Coronado.

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 disparities

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 did not.

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.

Following Kelley’s 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 inquiry.

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 Act.

IBWC falsely insists river improving

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 demands

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.”

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