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 system.
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 pollution.
“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.
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.
A recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control noted that California had double the rate of infections of two food-borne pathogens associated with human sewage, campylobacter and shigella, than any other state. Some health experts wonder if there is a connection between the immigrants and these diseases.
“It is a possibility,” said Timothy Shack, clinical director at the Immigration and Naturalization Service Processing Center in El Centro, Calif.
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 colonies.
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 work.
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 popular.”
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.
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.
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 Imperial Valley.
“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.”