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Efforts to clean up Salton Sea begin with Mexican pollution

A signs warns people not to enter the New River near the town of Calipatria. (Jay Calderon The Desert Sun)
Keith Matheny • The Desert Sun • May 17, 2010
As Mexican officials cut the ribbon on a new wastewater treatment plant in Tijuana late last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and San Diego-area environmental watchdogs were among those on hand applauding.

The U.S. is more than an interested observer in its southern neighbor's efforts to clean up the environment along the border and even into the fringes of the Coachella Valley. It's an investor and partner.
The EPA has helped build 88 water and sewer projects along its more than 2,000-mile border with Mexico using about $550 million in Border Environment Infrastructure Funds, an offshoot of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, said Douglas Liden, a water infrastructure specialist for EPA's western region.
The total cost of the work is $1.6 billion, and about half of the projects and expenditures have been on the Mexican side of the border.
The projects are in Mexican border cities experiencing explosive growth, having inadequate or no sewer systems, and usually with much smaller U.S. “sister cities” on the other side bearing the brunt of the pollution, said Tomas Torres, director of EPA's San Diego border office.
The EPA-assisted work includes two major infrastructure projects to improve water quality in the New River, which flows into the nearby Salton Sea and is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the United States.
The river carries a harmful stew of industrial and municipal waste with historically little or no treatment. It flows north from the Mexican border city of Mexicali, with a metropolitan area of nearly 1 million residents, past a number of California communities before emptying into the Salton Sea, the state's largest lake.
A tainted Salton Sea has far-reaching effects for the valley and the rest of Southern California. Toxins in the water negatively affect everything from fish, birds and other wildlife to the humans who fish and boat on it.
The New River flows north into the United States of America from Mexico through an opening in the international border. The river is considered one of the most polluted in the U.S. Officials on both sides are working to clean it up. (Omar Ornelas The Desert Sun)
The EPA also contributed $41 million for planning and construction of two large wastewater treatment projects in Mexicali that totaled more than $98 million in construction costs, Liden said. The most recent project went online in 2007, and the two projects remove more than 40 million gallons per day of untreated sewage from the New River, he said.
Though environmental problems persist, the river and Salton Sea's environmental conditions have “drastically improved,” and public health risks have been reduced, Liden said.

Officials say the U.S.-funded projects are critical.
“We're at the end of the pipe, like it or not,” said Ben McCue, a coastal conservation program manager with Wildcoast, a nonprofit environmental protection group working to improve the Pacific coastal region near the border. “It makes more sense to use our tax dollars on that end than here.”
The collaborations produce positive results in the U.S., said Jose Angel, assistant executive officer of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board's Palm Desert office.
“Surely we have a vested interest in seeing Mexico address its water quality issues at the border,” he said. “We've found that a cooperative approach with Mexico works better than an antagonistic one.”
Joint effort
The EPA works through the North American Development Bank, a binational financial institution capitalized and governed equally by the United States and Mexico, to finance environmental projects certified by the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, also created as part of side agreements from NAFTA, Liden said.
Other projects using U.S. funds in Mexico have included removing tons of hazardous waste from abandoned factory sites and developing air quality management programs, according to the EPA's website.
U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a Texas Democrat whose Congressional district includes much of the state's western border with Mexico, supports the cross-border water infrastructure projects.
“The community on the other side is usually five to 10 times larger,” he said. “That always has an impact on our environment on this side of the border. Tuberculosis and other types of diseases don't recognize borders.”
Under the cooperative agreement between the EPA and its Mexican counterpart agency, infrastructure projects must be within 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, of either side of the border. Mexico must provide at least a 50 percent match in money, but typically provides more than half for its projects, EPA officials said.

A small tributary of the New River flows into the Salton Sea near the area where the New River empties into the sea. The New River is among the most polluted in the U.S. (Jay Calderon Desert Sun file photo)

The Mexican-side projects must have a demonstrable environmental benefit for the U.S.

Douglas Eberhardt, chief of the infrastructure office for EPA's western region, said that when he started working on Mexican border projects in 1989, “you had 13 million gallons of raw sewage a day coming across the border in the Tijuana River.”
Border Patrol agents in 1994 sued the U.S. government to receive hazard pay for working along the polluted Tijuana and New rivers flowing across the border from Mexico. The officers in 2005 settled the case for $15 million and the government gave them protective gear when working by the rivers, their attorney, Gregory McGillivary, said.
Diseases abound
Just on the U.S. side from Tijuana is Imperial Beach, counted among California's most polluted beaches by Wildcoast and other environmental groups. It's typically closed about 200 days per year due to pollution, McCue said.
Researchers at San Diego State University's Graduate School of Public Health found Hepatitis A and other viruses — including strains of polio virus — in 80 percent of water samples at Imperial Beach within three days of rain.
And waterborne diseases such as Hepatitis A and cholera occur at much higher rates in the Texas border region than in other parts of the state, according to a December 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The EPA has invested $42 million for wastewater collection and treatment projects in Tijuana and nearby Rosarito, Mexico, since 1998, about 40 percent of the projects' $98 million total cost. It doubled to 80 percent the number of homes in the Tijuana area with sewer services, despite rapid population growth, Liden said.
Along the Texas border, the EPA put $20 million into a wastewater treatment plant in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, that was completed in March, serving 126,000 residents. A smaller project in Ojinaga, Mexico, sister city to Presidio, Texas, was also completed this spring, said Gilbert Tellez, EPA's environmental engineer for the border program in the Texas region.
“In the Ojinaga area, you can really see a decrease in bacterial counts in the Rio Grande River. It's a pretty drastic change there,” Tellez said.

Shrinking funding
The program isn't without problems.
The Government Accountability Office's December report found that water and sewer infrastructure projects along the border have been “ineffective” because multiple government agencies involved in the projects in addition to the EPA, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Army Corps of Engineers and Housing and Urban Development, have failed to comprehensively assess needs and coordinate their efforts.
Annual funding for the EPA border projects has dropped from a high of about $100 million several years ago to $17 million this fiscal year, Eberhardt said.
McCue said he'd like to see the program continued and expanded.
“I think it's more difficult for people who aren't local, who can't see the benefits, and say, ‘Why are we spending U.S. taxpayer dollars in Mexico?'” he said. “But it really comes down to the most efficient and effective way to spend that money.
“You can get more done by working collaboratively in Mexico rather than unilaterally here in the U.S.”