Published On: Sun, Feb 10th, 2019

‘Pit Of Infection’: A Border Town’s Crisis Has Nothing To Do With Migrants

For generations, residents of the Southern California border town of Calexico watched with trepidation as their river turned into a cesspool, contaminated by the booming human and industrial development on the other side of the border in Mexico.

Pit Of Infection

Noxious sewage filled with feces, industrial chemicals and other raw waste regularly comes in through the New River, which flows from Mexico’s Mexicali Valley and through Calexico, leaving neighborhoods along the waterway engulfed in pungent fumes. And it’s not just the river: From above, smoke billows from Mexican factories, illicit medical burn sites andtire pits, fueling widespread asthma in the region.

Today, even after various cleanup efforts, large mounds of unnatural foam and piles of trash — illegally dumped — float atop the dark green stream, which flows into the United States through a hole in a slatted border fence and flows north toward the Salton Sea in California.

A 2018 report published by the regional water board shows that the river, where it crosses the border, contains extreme fecal coliform and E. coli concentrations that are orders of magnitude beyond established targets, because of the tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage that have been dumped into the river in recent years.

State lawmakers have noted that the river is believed to carry pathogens that cause tuberculosis, encephalitis, polio, cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid. But Calexico, a small town of 40,000 in California’s Imperial Valley farm belt, has had little recourse but to endure the public health risks.

Many have called for enclosing the river and diverting its waters to filter out pollutants.

“There is a crisis here but it has nothing to do with immigration,” said Mr. Rebollar, who is also an analyst at the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District. “And it’s not just about money. It’s about holding Mexico accountable. Some of these hospitals are going out at night and burning medical waste.”

Many along the border have groused about funding for water treatment projects not going to the American side.

“It’s been really hard to digest and understand that American resources are going into Mexico,” said Mr. Figueroa, the assistant city manager. “It’s shameful, because the last time we checked Imperial County is in the state of California.”

Two crucial developments have revived the cleanup efforts. In 2016 the state allocated $1.4 million to draft an engineering plan to begin collecting and treating the water. Then, in 2018, a state proposition allocated $10 million toward the project, part of a broader package to rehabilitate the Salton Sea.

Mr. Blumenfeld said he would be “fairly shocked” if money for the New River were not included on a new list of federal funding priorities. “We as a country have not made good on our commitments under Nafta to continue to make border improvements, and the New River is so emblematic of this,” he said.

Residents here, after decades of promises, are not so sure that help will arrive, and are suspicious of officials at every level of government.

“They’re either stealing the money or they’re not getting any,” said Mr. Santiago. “But they don’t pay attention. They don’t pay attention.”