- The US EPA is spending 30 million for a treatment plant
to clean the sewage, but "If the water gets cleaned up, it gets so
valuable that the Mexicans will use it."
- CALEXICO, Calif. - As
it flows north from Mexico into California's Imperial Valley, the New River
not only brings with it more than 20 million gallons of raw sewage daily,
but also a human cargo of illegal immigrants that may be drenched in bacteria
and pollutants that cause communicable diseases. Public health officials
along the border worry about this toxic, infested river and the people
who use it as a route into the United States.
- A RECENT REPORT by the California Water Resources
Control Board found that Mexicali is dumping 20 to 25 million gallons of
raw sewage into the river daily because of breakdowns in the city's treatment
- That hasn't stopped dozens of immigrants who, on
any given night, enter the water in Mexicali and float past a shopping
center parking lot in Calexico, hoping to evade U.S. Border Patrol agents
who usually don't jump in after them due to the pollution.
- Half-naked, the immigrants grasp inflated inner
tubes with one hand and a plastic bag holding their belongings in the other.
The human rafts hide in puffy mounds of greasy foam created from the river
- "I can sympathize with them. They're trying
to feed their people," said Jose Angel, a senior engineer with the
California Water Resources Board who tests California's New River each
month for pollutants. "But clearly they may be carrying disease. Once
they get out of the river, they are in grocery stores and other places."
SOME 30 VIRUSES IN RIVER
- The New River originates just south of Mexicali
and picks up agricultural pesticides, industrial wastes and human waste
as it flows north.
- By the time it enters the United States at the
small border town of Calexico, Calif., the river violates water quality
standards by several hundred-fold, according to Angel. Advertisement
- Border agents who have jumped in to rescue drowning
immigrants have been treated for skin rashes and infections.
- The river has been documented as the source of
nearly 30 viruses from hepatitis A to polio, as well as caustic chemicals
from the region's maquiladora factories, heavy metals such as mercury,
and pesticides from Mexican farms.
- But the pollution is precisely what attracts illegal
immigrants, or more precisely, the smugglers who are paid about $600 to
bring them across the border. As the U.S. Border Patrol cracks down on
less hazardous crossing points, high-risk conduits such as the New River
look increasingly attractive. TIE TO CALIFORNIA INFECTIONS?
- Health officials say it's impossible to say how
many immigrants get seriously ill or die from exposure to the river pollution
since they rarely get medical help unless caught. Those who escape may
be carrying bacteria and viruses that later develop into communicable diseases,
according to U.S. public health officials.
- Along the Texas-Mexico border, health officials
are battling tuberculosis brought in by undocumented workers from Mexico
and Central America. Of the 16,500 people apprehended last year in the
Port Isabel, Texas, region, 89 percent tested positive for TB bacteria.
The rate of full-blown tuberculosis in the lower Rio Grande Valley, a fertile
agricultural area that borders Mexico, is triple the national average,
according to Dr. Abraham Miranda, deputy director of immigration health
services for the U.S. Public Health Service in Port Isabel.
- Tuberculosis is spread by close human contact,
which is common in the cramped living quarters that undocumented workers
are forced to inhabit. SEWAGE PLANT BEING BUILT
- In Calexico, the New River smells and looks bad,
but that's little deterrent to the river's passengers.
- Fecal coliform, a measure of harmful bacteria from
human waste, measures between 100,000 to 5 million colonies per milliliter
at the border checkpoint, far above the U.S.-Mexico treaty limit of 240
- U.S. water quality officials often take samples from
the New River in Calexico.
- The river is so polluted that testers wear two sets of
gloves and other protective clothing.
- After floating downstream in the desert night,
immigrants look for an opening in the thick vegetation that lines the riverbank.
They put on their clothes and dodge the border patrol, waiting for a signal
from their "coyote," or smuggler, who takes them north to find
- While a cleanup of the river won't stop immigrants,
it may keep disease from spreading. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
is paying 55 percent of a $50 million expansion and improvement to the
Mexicali sewage treatment plant scheduled to be finished by year's end.
The city's wastewater collection system is so antiquated that it needs
to be replaced as well. Mexican authorities are aware of the New River
problem but they admit the sheer numbers of people willing to risk their
lives overwhelms them. "Year by year, the smugglers try to find
new ways to cross the border," said Rita Vargas, the Mexican consulate
in Calexico. "This year they have found the New River because nobody
is taking care of it on the Mexican side. It is another kind of protection
for them." GATE AND WETLANDS FOR RIVER
- U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said he is frustrated
by the lack of action by Mexican officials.
- "If we want to get this job done, we're going
to have to do it ourselves," Hunter told MSNBC. "Mexico has never
shown an interest in decreasing illegal immigration. It's not politically
- Hunter said his office is working with the border
patrol to design a gate across the river that will stop immigrants while
allowing debris to flow through. Earth matters Federal and
local environmental officials also are directing a cleanup project
of the New River near Brawley, Calif. The $3.75 million project will use
naturally occurring marsh plants to filter out pollutants before they reach
the Salton Sea. The river flows north into it because the Salton is 225
feet below sea level.
- The sea has been plagued by massive fish and bird
die-offs in recent years that may be linked to rising salinity levels and
an overload of agricultural nutrients from nearby farms. Congress is studying
various clean up solutions, including giant desalinization ponds.
COMPETITION AFTER CLEANUP? Some observers note that cleaner water
may make the New River more valuable. Environment news Already,
Mexican officials have expressed their desire use the river to irrigate
their own farms, which use much less water per acre than the farms in California's
- "If the water gets cleaned up, it gets so
valuable that the Mexicans will use it," said Milt Friend, executive
director of the Salton Sea Science Subcommittee, a regional group charged
with evaluating cleanup proposals. "(The water) is coming out of their
country and they'll keep it. We'd do the same thing."
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