U.S. and Mexican officials agreed Monday on a joint, $1.2-million plan aimed at reducing pollution in the New River, which flows from Mexico into the United States and has been branded the world's dirtiest river.
Authorities on both sides of the border stressed, however, that the plan is largely aimed at limiting residential waste pollution from the Mexican border city of Mexicali and would do little to abate the more dangerous industrial pollutants that continue to foul the river.
"This does not in any way solve the entire problem," said Manuel Ybarra, secretary of the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, a joint U.S.-Mexican agency that works on border water and boundary issues. "We were confined by the amount of money that was available."
Boundary commission engineers from Mexico and the United States signed the agreement Monday in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, which is across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Tex., where the agency is based.
As part of the pact, each nation will contribute $600,000 toward the improvement of sewage facilities in Mexicali, a city whose population is variously estimated at between 750,000 and 1.3 million people. The money will pay for new pumps and the acquisition of sewer-cleaning equipment in Mexicali.
The commission plan is being implemented at a time when Mexico also has announced a separate plan for a broad cleanup up the river. No cost estimate for this additional plan has been announced, but among other things, it would require riverside industries to construct treatment plants and will include new controls on the application of agricultural chemicals. A dump on the river has already been closed.
For more than a decade, officials on both sides of the border have acknowledged that the New River is a virtual open sewer and a public health hazard, but few practical solutions have emerged to deal with the problem.
The river, named after its creation in the early 1900s when the Colorado River changed its course and forged a new channel, rises in Mexicali and flows northward to the border. In Mexico, the New River picks up wastes from municipal sewage, chemical plants, tanneries, pesticide runoff and other sources.
After crossing the border, the New River proceeds for about 60 miles through the prime farming area of the Imperial Valley before flowing into the Salton Sea--a major fishing and recreation center. Officials say the New River's contents have contributed to the environmental difficulties of the Salton Sea, the existence of which is threatened.
State and local samplings of the river water have turned up significant traces of dozens of toxic chemicals and pesticides, including a number of cancer-causing agents. In addition, Imperial County health authorities say tests have shown traces of a host of viruses and bacteria.
Because many New River cleanup efforts never got off the ground, some officials who have followed the saga of the New River were cautious in their assessments of the latest cleanup plan.
"Lots of things have been promised in the past and haven't come to fruition," noted Susan Ronnback, a consultant to Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), who has worked on the New River issue for some time.
The fact that the U.S. share of the $1.2 million will be spent on Mexican soil is a novel part of the new plan. On most border pollution problems, each nation agrees to spend its own funds on its side of the border. One exception, officials noted, is the jointly operated sewage plant at the border cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico.
"If we don't put the money up, it's just going to cost us more money to clean it up on our side," noted John Palafoutas, an aide to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado).
The plan that was signed Monday is expected to be approved by the entire boundary commission shortly and put into action soon thereafter. The commission, with U.S. and Mexican representation, will oversee the project. Construction of the new sewage facilities in Mexicali should be completed within a year, officials said.
During a recent visit to Tijuana, Manuel Camacho Solis, Mexico's secretary of urban development and ecology, vowed great improvements in the New River within 12 months.
"Give us one year," he said.