Is there hope for America’s dirtiest river?

In November 2011, workers don protective gear before coming into contact with the New River's water | Photo: Jared Blumenfeld/U.S. EPA

California’s border with Baja California is a complex region with unique environmental issues. Our Borderlands series takes a deeper look at this region unified by shared landscapes and friendship, and divided by international politics.

Two hours east of the San Diego-Tijuana coastline, the rock-studded Mexicali Valley hugs both sides of the international border. Its aridity is punctuated by el Rio Nuevo, which originates in Mexicali. Its waters gush north across the border into the United States via Calexico, where it becomes its English-language counterpart: the New River. The New River continues its flow north, then west, where it grows in flow until it eventually discharges into the Salton Sea.

This is a problem.

Because of a confluence of industrial waste, debris, human and animal effluvia, pathogens, and, more recently, the bodies of murder victims, the New River has historically been one of the filthiest rivers in the United States, so polluted that even to test it takes special precautionary clothing and equipment. There’s a story told of a man’s body found in the river in Mexicali that had been so badly burned that authorities initially investigated it as an arson before discovering that the the chemicals in the water are what had scalded it. True or not, the story indicates just how polluted the New River is.

The river was formed by the same levee failure that created the Salton Sea, which means the river was not created “naturally,” untouched by human hands. That means that much like the Salton Sea, the New River has been looked upon as something not necessarily worth saving – despite being part of a naturally biodiverse ecosystem. It’s classified as a mere drain in Mexico, not a river at all, and so factories and farms south of the international border continue dumping their waste into it.

Bloody effluent from a Mexicali slaughterhouse flows into a New River tributary | Photo: Jared Blumenfeld/U.S. EPA

However, the New River’s fate is now changing. For the past few years, grassroots groups and local politicians have been working to change the beleaguered waterway’s fate with awareness-raising campaigns and cleanup efforts. But are things changing fast enough? The New River has been called an “environmental success story,” but while the reappearance of fish and fowl signify good changes, the persistence of the same pesticides, feces, human and animal bodies, and other pollutants that made the New River such a toxic stew for so long should not be ignored.

A.B. 965, a bill authored by first-year Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and signed into by Governor Jerry Brown in early October, aims to fund health and environmental initiatives around the New River. Garcia, who grew up in the Calexico-Mexicali border region and spent ten years as the Coachella mayor, has made environmental justice a centerpiece of his campaign. Not only does the bill set aside money from environmental fines to — among other things — clean up the New River, create park space around it, and re-introduce wildlife, the bill also builds on cross-border cooperation to tackle the sources of pollution.

“It’s a work in progress, and we’re going to chip away at these issues, because we recognize that one bill doesn’t solve the problem,” Garcia said. “We’re going to build on these legislative efforts to the point that we have the resources that we need to implement [changes] – whether it be the parkway at the New River, or that we have the data [on] air quality impacts so that we can get the money to mitigate those impacts.”

In November 2011, workers don protective gear before coming into contact with the New River's water | Photo: Jared Blumenfeld/U.S. EPA
In November 2011, workers don protective gear before coming into contact with the New River’s water | Photo: Jared Blumenfeld/U.S. EPA

On the Mexico side, the state government of Baja California Norte is implementing infrastructure projects to clean up its own wastewater issues in the Mexicali Valley, and Garcia hopes to further strengthen the binational efforts to clean up the river.

“We would love to sit down with the folks in Baja California who are taking the lead on these project,” said Garcia. “We have the parkway plan on our end, that could truly transform what you see on the Calexico side, but at the end of the day, really, the focus has to be at the same time what we’re doing on the other side of the border to clean up the waters… Otherwise, you’ve got a beautiful parkway – with contaminated waters still flowing through.”

The New River just north of the border in Calexico | Photo: Jared Blumenfeld/U.S. EPA

It looks like the New River — once the dirtiest river of its size in the United States– might actually have a chance to become an environmental success story after all. It could also, perhaps, show that environmental efforts don’t always have to focus on naturally formed bodies of water – that flora and fauna can thrive in habitats that are made by people.

There has been a longstanding perspective that the only places truly worth saving are the ones that are are “wild,” untouched by human hands. But there’s also increased evidence that what we think of as untouched wilderness is actually anthropogenic: the end result of thousands of years of human intervention. The New River may not have formed on its own, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t natural. It should be treated not as an accident good only for carrying sewage, but as the perfect place to begin mitigating the effects of years of destructive policies.

by  for kcet.org

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