The highly polluted New River flows into Calexico north from Mexicali. Members of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 22 suggested renaming the polluted river the "Vargas," after Congressman Juan Vargas, and the bridge that spans it the "Sen. Dianne Feinstein" bridge in honor of their inaction to exert federal pressure to clean up the international waterway. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO
IMPERIAL COUNTY — Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley wants the board to work with Congressman Juan Vargas, D-Chula Vista, and the county’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to draft a legislation to fully fund a wastewater treatment project to clean the New River.
“Not a binational committee to review, not a study,” District 4 Supervisor Kelley said during the Oct. 6 county board meeting. “… He can name it the Vargas New River Cleanup Bill, or we can rename the New River (after him). I have no animosity towards him. He is a nice person. We want to help him help us.”
The supervisors had floated the idea in late September about renaming the New River after Vargas in a tongue-in-cheek homage to a history of federal inaction on addressing the unhealthy conditions of the highly polluted waterway. To that end, the supervisors also suggested renaming the bridge that spans the filthy river, the Sen. Dianne Feinstein Bridge.
For decades, the New River has been the site of raw-sewage discharges and the dumping of industrial toxins into the Mexicali-fed waters, bringing dangerous bacteria like E. coli and known carcinogens north into the United States. An aging and broken sewer system in Mexico has done little to clean up the river, and years of promises and federal inaction has done even less to demand permanent fixes on the Mexican side, where the problems originate.
Although the county board is often quite vocal about conditions at the river, talk of the waterway has been on the mind of the board since local officials were notified by the International Boundary and Water Commission on Sept. 17 that Mexicali had issued a notice that it planned to bypass untreated wastewater into the river the next day.
On Sept. 25, Vargas issued a press release stating he sent a letter to the U.S. State Department, the IBWC, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding the Sept. 18 sewage discharge.
“Not only is the spill unacceptable, but the IBWC also failed to contact my office to inform me about the spill. Residents in the community were issued a formal notice only one day before the planned spill occurred. Clearly, this is not enough time to alert local stakeholders. Moving forward, the IBWC must promptly inform communities and stakeholders that are being directly impacted by these transboundary flows,” Vargas stated in the release.
“The sewage bypass that took place will further exacerbate the situation in the New River. This is just another example of ongoing cross-border pollution affecting the border region. I have and will continue working in Congress to ensure that residents in my district are not exposed to dangerous sewage flows and wastewater,” he continued.
Vargas’s office also sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors updating them on legislation, including his 2020 bill related to New River clean-up, according to Imperial County Intergovernmental Relations Director Rebecca Terrazas-Baxter.
In late 2019, Kelley and county officials sent a list of funding requests to the federal government to deal with pollution at the river, including asking the IBWC to fund a water treatment plant on the U.S. side of the border. That request was turned down.
County officials at the time predicted such a plant could cost $80 million to $100 million to build.
Emergency Declared Over Bridge
During the Oct. 6 meeting, the county board also declared a local emergency because of the Forrester Road bridge over the Westside Main Canal. The bridge itself is OK, but the roadway leading to the bridge is starting to erode, Public Works Supervisor John Gay said.
The county set up a detour at the end of September, and work is already underway to get the road fixed.
“The goal is to get this bridge opened by November,” Gay said. “I think we can do it.”
A key component of the road work will be to move a power line that is in the vicinity, he said. If that line is moved quickly, the roadway could be reopened toward the latter part of November.
Eviction Moratorium Extended
The county board also moved toward putting a hold on commercial property evictions through the end of the year.
The last resolution putting a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions related to COVID-19 expired at the end of September, said Adam Crook, county counsel. The state has taken action to hold off on residential evictions related to the pandemic, but the county can still decide on commercial evictions.
District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar said the board needs to weigh the options carefully. It’s important to help small businesses impacted by COVID-19, but the board also has to consider real estate owners who will be impacted by a moratorium like this.
“There is no solution,” he said. “If we support one, we’re not supporting the other.”
District 5 Supervisor Raymond Castillo added that a moratorium shouldn’t be more than six to eight months at most.
“You can’t grant a moratorium indefinitely,” he said. “You have to put a time cap on it.”
Escobar recommended mirroring the state’s timeline and continuing the moratorium on commercial evictions until Jan. 1, 2021.
Niland Alley Clean-up
The board also approved an emergency contract for $40,000 to clean up three alleys in Niland. The project, part of the county’s efforts to aid in preventing future brush fires, includes clearing overgrown brush and trash in the alleys that have the potential to create a disaster should fire hit the area again, according to a letter to the board from Gay.
Funds for the project come from the county’s facilities management fund.
Mud-Pot Emergency Continues
In addition, the county board continued its proclamation of a local emergency for active and potentially damaging mud pots located about five miles northwest of Niland.
The geyser, which releases water, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gases in low concentrations, has moved slowly in the past 11 years, but is already encroaching on the railroad right of way, impacting Union Pacific Railroad tracks. State Highway 111 also lies about 210 feet west of the mud pot’s current location. The California Department of Transportation and Union Pacific Railroad have addressed the moving mud pots, according to the letter to the board from county Office of Emergency Service Coordinator Alfredo Estrada. It is not clear yet what further impacts the local emergency declaration will have on the county budget, as coordinating with the other potentially impacted parties is needed to be able to realize the scope of the financial need.