“He’s dumping it (New River responsibility) back in our laps,” board Vice Chairman and District 3 Supervisor Michael Kelley said of the letter from Vargas.
After members of the county board grew increasingly incensed with the lack of federal accountability and action on the polluted conditions at the New River following an intentional raw sewage discharge by Mexicali officials in mid-September, Vargas was called out by name, even chided when board members jokingly floated the idea of renaming the body of water the Juan Vargas River and the bridge that spans it after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Word got back to Vargas, and on Oct. 5, he responded with a letter to the county in which he defended his record, but also asked a number of open-ended questions about what the county has done to push the New River issue forward.
The New River is severely polluted by discharges of waste from domestic, agricultural, and industrial sources in Mexico, and flows north into Imperial County where it picks up additional ag runoff. While progress has been made to improve water quality through the past few decades, there continues to be raw sewage discharges into the New River numerous times a year, with the latest last month.
“I disagree with the letter (from Vargas) as far as ‘what have you done,’ because we’re on the county level,” said District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar, who represents the Calexico and border area, right where the river is at its most polluted in the United States. “Our political and economic powers are miniscule.”
Escobar requested that the county look at declaring another state of emergency because of the latest sewage discharge and request a federal disaster declaration.
Frustration with Vargas’ response and a lack of federal action was clearly felt at the Oct. 20 meeting, and even mentioned in the letter from the board.
“As you’re well aware, our board is extremely frustrated by the lack of definitive action at both the federal and state level with respect to implementing real solutions to the problems that have long plagued the New River and the Salton Sea,” according to the county’s response letter.
The letter cites a lack of action by the U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We’re not fooling around,” said District 4 Supervisor Ryan Kelley, who first coined the term Vargas River. “We have evidence that this is a bunch of blind people, looking the other way, with a curtain wall behind them. They have no idea what’s happening right here, and nobody’s paying attention to it.”
He added that the county had requested a meeting in the spring to discuss the New River with Vargas but was turned down. However, Vargas has been to visit the Valley since and the board knows he’s met with others since the spring.
Board Pushes for More Help from IBWC
The board also approved a letter to Commissioner Jayne Harkins of the U.S. side of the International Boundary and Water Commission. The commission applies the boundary and water treaties of the United States and Mexico and settles differences that may arise in their application. They also come up with solutions of border sanitation and other border water-quality problems.
About a year ago, local officials met with Harkins to discuss the New River when she attended a meeting in Calexico. Though discussions have looked promising at times, they haven’t led to action, Imperial County Intergovernmental Relations Director Rebecca Terrazas-Baxter said.
The letter Terrazas-Baxter drafted to Harkins calls for a focus on a more user-friendly website to disclose water-quality test results, requires the Mexican government counterparts to conduct sampling of New River water and provide test results to the IBWC and to get water-testing samples when there is a sewage discharge.
“This continued public health, environmental, and economic threat has required the Imperial County Board of Supervisors to evaluate the need to take a strong stance and demand assistance,” according to the letter.
Supervisors also had choice words about the letter to Harkins, which cites the U.S. Clean Water Act.
“We’re not even coming close to that measuring stick,” Escobar said. “It’s like a joke.” Supervisors also asked that a copy of the letter to Harkins be sent to federal representatives Vargas, Feinstein, and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.