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Vast Gulf Between Fed, State Response to New River

CALEXICO — Like the present-day Salton Sea, the New River is essentially a manmade accident, carved into the desert floor by the unruly currents of the mighty Colorado River between 1905 to 1907.

When early settlers attempting to divert the river watched it break its barriers and fill the former Salton Sink, in doing what water will do, the Colorado etched out tributaries that are now the Alamo and New Rivers, not only rewriting Imperial County’s topography, but that of the Mexicali Valley as well.

Today, the headwaters of the New River start about 15 miles south of the city of more than 1 million, gather all of Mexicali’s treated and untreated municipal waste, raw sewage, agricultural runoff, industrial byproducts, and whatever other unmentionables have been known to be dumped in the river over the decades, and flow directly north into the United States.

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As elements and forces go, water and gravity know no borders.

To that end, the Imperial Valley has been a septic tank of sorts for the Mexicali Valley since the river was formed, and for decades the residents of the county have had to contend with the pollution that comes with that.

And while international attempts have been made to deal with the pollution over the years, nothing has been permanent or lasting, and raw sewage discharges in Mexicali, both intentional and accidental, continue to affect Imperial County residents.

Over the last few weeks, the condition of the New River and how differently it has been addressed at the state and federal levels, has come into sharp focus.

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While the city of Calexico is moving aggressively forward on its New River Improvement Project thanks to state funding, support, and political will, the county of Imperial has grown increasingly frustrated with a federal government it feels is shirking its responsibility to deal with what is one of the filthiest bodies of water in America.

In short, Calexico is on the verge of real action on a short-term remedy, with construction of the three mechanical components of its improvement project to begin in the “first semester (six months) of 2021,” Calexico City Manager Miguel Figueroa said Oct. 10.

Meanwhile, work toward a more permanent fix, which is international in scope and thereby federal in jurisdiction, really has been nowhere to be seen, and county officials know this.

After ridiculing Imperial County’s Congressman, U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Chula Vista, for doing little to help the situation, Imperial County supervisors humorously yet pointedly floated the idea of renaming the river the Vargas River, which didn’t sit well with the Congressman apparently.

Imperial County’s Frustrations Continue

Just days after the city of Mexicali announced it was dumping tons of raw sewage into the New River on a Friday morning in September to work on its already suspect wastewater treatment system, the county Board of Supervisors discussed the continued inattention and inaction its felt from federal officials.

While water-quality concerns stemming from similar Mexico-based sewage discharges into the Tijuana River that feeds into San Diego County — Vargas’ other area of representation — continue to be addressed and get funding from the feds, the New River and Imperial County has seen little if anything but lip service from Washington, D.C.

U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Chula Vista. | COURTESY PHOTO

In a moment of frustration and gallows humor, Supervisor Ryan Kelley suggested naming the waterway the Juan Vargas River, and then the county board laughed as the idea was added to name the bridge that spans it after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose office has showed interest in conditions at the river but not much else.

Word got back to Vargas, and on Oct. 5, he responded with a letter to the county in which he defends his record, but also asks a number of open-ended questions of the county.

Some could argue the questions are unfair considering they are asking a local government what it has done to help address an international issue that is more the providence of international and national governments.

To read Vargas’ letter in its entirety, click here.

During the Oct. 13 county board meeting, Supervisor Jesus Escobar asked for an update at the next meeting (Oct. 20) on the county’s response to Vargas’ letter.

Ryan Kelley also asked for an update on a special committee he asked to be created to help draft legislation that county lobbyists could help federal reps like Vargas introduce to Congress to fund a wastewater treatment facility on the U.S. side of the border to clean up the New River. 

“If we don’t set something, it’s going to get lost,” Kelley said during the meeting, seeming to imply momentum on the New River issue. 

While it hasn’t been made official, Escobar said last week that the county is seeking through legislation the federal funding of a sewage treatment plant on the U.S. side near Calexico that would cost “north of $100 million” to construct and more than $1 million a year to operate and maintain.

It’s an ask that county officials made once before, in late 2019, when they asked that the U.S. side of the International Boundary and Water Commission fund a sewage plant, and the answer then was no.

Now, the county appears to be in a war of words with Vargas by all accounts, like Escobar explained to the Calexico City Council on Oct. 7.

The Calexico-area supervisor told the council that the Valley’s Congressional rep apparently didn’t take too kindly to the Vargas River reference from the “tone” of his letter.

“We’ve tried being very open, we’ve tried being diplomatic. Have we seen any results from a federal perspective? No,” Escobar said.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the $300 million that was allocated to the Tijuana River through the (United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement), or the NAFTA 2.1, which is what I call it.

District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar | FILE PHOTO

“$300 million,” Escobar said — and paused — for emphasis, referring to the federal allocation the replacement bill for NAFTA provided for the cleanup of the San Diego-area waterway.

“How much came to the New River? Zero,” he said. “Now in all fairness, is this Rep. Vargas’ fault? No. But again, we need to have results when it comes to the New River.”

Escobar lauded the state, Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, and the work by the city of Calexico and other stakeholders to secure $28 million over the last several years to finally begin work on the New River Improvement Project, but turned back to the feds and Vargas.

“At the end of the day, this is a federal issue, this is an international issue that’s been going on for decades. Not months, not years. Decades,” Escobar said.

Calexico Ready to Start River Work

After working on the New River for some 15 years, Miguel Figueroa, now as city manager, is on the precipice of seeing his effort and the effort of dedicated community stakeholders toiling alongside local and state government officials, bear fruit.

Sometime during the first six months of 2021, Figueroa expects that work will start of the three technical components of the New River Improvement Project, which includes the automated trash-screen diversion structure south of the Second Street bridge where the river cross the international border.

It has been said the trash screen will remove a ton of trash from the river each day.

The second component would be the encasement of the river from north of the bridge to where the river reaches the All-American Canal, west of the Nosotros housing subdivision. The third technical component would be the pumpback system/force main that will tie into the city’s wastewater treatment plant, clean a portion of the river water and provide for a “freshwater” stream along the river basin in the area.

The funding for these components is in hand thanks to the state, with $18 million in new funding allocated through the 2020-2021 state budget and $10 million made available from the Proposition 68 water bond, for a total of $28 million.

Figueroa explained the breakdown of costs, which included 30 percent contingencies to deal with cost overruns or changes along the way.

Miguel Figueroa, Calexico City Manager | FILE PHOTO

The trash screen will cost $7.23 million; the pumpback system, $5.37 million; and the bypass encasement, $14.9 million.

Figueroa reminded the City Council on Oct. 7 that agreements to fund the ongoing operation and maintenance of the components of the improvement project were put in place in 2017 between the city, the county and the Imperial Irrigation District, and that all the environmental assessment work required by the California Environmental Quality Act has been completed.

Also, the city needs to finalize the funding agreements with state Department of Water Resources, which is funneling the money to Calexico. The city has set “a very ambitious goal” of the end of 2020 to execute that agreement with DWR, Figueroa said.

Next steps, Figueroa said, includes securing regulatory permits from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to commence work.

Then, he added, it’s on to the “procurement process,” after which construction can start.

Although work on what Figueroa refers to as the “Calexico reach” of an overall New River Strategic Plan that unfolds further upstream on the troubled river is well at hand, he said there is more work to be done.

He said what Calexico has accomplished shows “trust” gained among state and local agencies that the city can do a lot of the heavy lifting on major projects.

“We can’t forget there are multiple projects within other reaches of the New River Strategic Plan,” Figueroa said. “We want to gain trust to fund other projects north of Calexico.”

Elizabeth Varin contributed reporting to this story.

Vast Gulf Between Fed, State Response to New River
The New River is shown from the Mexico border (right) to the All-American Canal (left) in Calexico in this satellite image. | GOOGLEMAPS

This story is featured in the Oct 15, 2020 e-Edition.

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