The Festering Sanitation Crisis at Our Border

As the Trump administration ratchets up its rhetoric demanding billions for a wall, American communities along the Mexico border are in need of basic services, like reliable sewage treatment.

A sign warns of sewage-contaminated ocean waters on a beach in front of the iconic Hotel del Coronado in 2017.

Credit: Gregory Bull/Associated Press

September’s sun peeks through cottonwoods and willows as Birdie Stabel steps into the Santa Cruz River’s gentle shallows, some 22 miles north of the Arizona–Mexico border. Stabel is petite, white-haired, and intently focused on organizing a plastic case filled with little bottles. Soon she’ll fill those bottles with water samples, to be tested for E. coli bacteria, oxygen levels, and chlorine, among other things. Nearby, John Shasky grips a long pole as though it were a divining rod; at the tip, a black flow meter dips into the water. Connie Williams stands alongside him, jotting readings on a clipboard.

Under the banner of a group called Friends of the Santa Cruz River, the trio of Arizonans has performed this ritual each month for years. Over time, their operation has become remarkably methodical—on behalf of a very mercurial waterway.

As rivers go, the Santa Cruz is a border-hopping nomad. With headwaters in southern Arizona’s lush San Rafael Valley, it loops south through Mexico before flowing back into the United States near the meeting point of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora. Here, north of the international boundary, is where the river’s survival gets dicey. If it weren’t for a line of sewage that’s piped up from Mexico at a rate of 14 million gallons per day, cleansed at a nearby wastewater treatment plant, then discharged into the river, this 15-mile stretch of the Santa Cruz would be dried up and lifeless.

A few years back, this verdant jewel was nearly dry, its thirsty trees dying, its aquatic residents vanishing. Today, effluent originating from that decrepit, 8.5-mile pipeline has revived the lush riparian gallery. An array of birds—such as the yellow-billed cuckoo and northern beardless tyrannulet—dash across the channel, and native fishes like the endangered Gila topminnow have rebounded.

Over time, the decades-old line (officially called the International Outfall Interceptor, or IOI) has hollowed out and become riven with cracks. When inundated by summer’s monsoon rains, it often breaks, discharging raw sewage into a concrete wash that feeds the river. Rehabilitating the line will cost about $80 million—money that local governments simply do not have.

You’ll find similar vulnerabilities all along the U.S.–Mexico border, where the stench of sewage reminds local residents of the failure of American federal agencies to maintain even basic public services that safeguard the environment and human health. “Water issues, transportation issues, none of it is dealt with,” says Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, whose district encompasses several border communities, including Nogales. “We have the fantasy discussion of $30 billon for a wall, and yet we’ve got infrastructure demands all along the U.S.–Mexico border. Adequate transportation systems, sewage systems, clean water systems—if you can’t guarantee that, you can’t guarantee security for people who live there.”

Millions of gallons of raw sewage from Tijuana’s faltering wastewater system makes its way to the Pacific Ocean. |

Security was the central concern of Arizona Governor Doug Ducey when he declared a state of emergency during the rains of July 2017, after a rupture in the IOI. As raw sewage roared into the Nogales wash, bacteria concentrations soared beyond measurable levels. The National Guard arrived to help staunch the flow, and stopgap repairs were made at a cost of more than $5 million.

Back on the banks of the Santa Cruz, Connie Williams recalls that breach with a grimace. Even at her group’s test site, miles above the break, sewage-related E. coli levels soared. “When we came out to check, it was, like, holy smokes,” she says. “We couldn’t read it, it was so high.”

Birdie Stabel caps a full bottle, then gazes upstream. “The break was awful,” she says. “Now, we feel extremely vulnerable.”

Neglected sanitation infrastructure all along the border has yielded one festering crisis after another. Sewage from Tijuana’s faltering wastewater system inundates California beaches, sickening residents and fouling a wildlife sanctuary. A faulty pump sends sewage streaming across the border in southeastern Arizona, sparking a full-blown health crisis. County health officials there are dosing the wastewater with chlorine tablets—and hoping it doesn’t reach area wells that provide 3,000 households with drinking water.

The roughly 900,000 residents of the unincorporated borderland communities, or colonias, suffer these impacts daily. These people, many already lacking electricity, paved streets, clean drinking water, and modern wastewater systems, awaken each morning to a whiff of human waste.

NAFTA Promises Broken

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994, it came with copious provisions to address expected population surges along the border, as millions of Mexican workers flocked to American-owned factories just south of the line. Called maquiladoras, these plants tap cheap foreign labor to assemble American-made goods, which are then reimported to the United States with reduced tariffs. The University of Arizona’s Economic and Business Research Center reports more than 6,000 maquiladoras are now operating in northern Mexico, producing everything from cars and electronics to clothing and furniture. Meanwhile, the population along the border has swollen to 15 million, a number that’s expected to double by 2025.

Since NAFTA took effect, infrastructure in the border region has seen some improvements, with more than $10 billion going toward everything from hazardous waste collection sites to modern sewage treatment plants serving residents on both sides of the line. Yet even that vast sum has hardly been enough to keep up with growing needs. Making things worse, in recent years, budgets for border agencies have plummeted.

Veteran border watchers such as Paul Ganster trace the slowdown in funds back to the terrorist attacks in 2001. Ganster is director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University and chairman of the Good Neighbor Environmental Board, a federal committee advising the White House and Congress on border development needs. “The border environmental infrastructure had a great deal of attention in the NAFTA era,” he says, “when border advocates really had new institutions on both sides. But 9/11 changed the dynamic of the border region. Security issues became paramount after that, and everything else was subsumed by it.”

A sewage-soaked road in Naco, Sonora, Mexico, along the border with the United States
Credit: John Dougherty/

Trump’s call for a wall accelerated this trend, hoisting border security to new political heights, while his administration has simultaneously clamped down on institutions and agencies serving the region, proposing unprecedented budget cuts. Casualties include the North American Development Bank (NADBank), a NAFTA offshoot bilaterally owned by Mexico and the United States. The bank was created to finance border infrastructure projects and has allocated $650 million in grants over the past 20 years. This financing is a bargain: For every U.S. dollar, Mexico contributes $2, and another $3 comes from other public and private sources. Yet despite the growing need to finance wastewater treatment and clean water projects, the Treasury Department requested zero new funding for the bank this year, citing budget constraints.

Another initiative on the chopping block is the Border Environment Infrastructure Fund of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Established in 1996, the fund initially received a $170 million allocation. Annual federal funding held steady at $50 million until 2008, when the numbers began spiraling downward. By 2017 the program was receiving only $10 million each year, and the Trump administration has attempted to scrap it altogether, although Congress restored funding in the budget passed in March.

There’s another major player on the border that’s largely unknown beyond the cities it was created to serve. But within those communities, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) is a steady source of frustration. The commission originated in a 1944 treaty between the United States and Mexico, with “sections” in both countries. It operates three wastewater treatment plants, including the one near Nogales and another south of San Diego. The U.S. section receives administrative guidance from the State Department and—like its Mexican counterpart—is mandated to give “preferential attention to the solution of all border sanitation problems.” But today, few of those problems see lasting resolution.

Critics call it “failure by design.” “The problem is that the IBWC has a crisis-driven model,” says Stephen Mumme, who researches United States–Mexico relations at Colorado State University. “It’s not driven by strategic, long-term planning, where each country dedicates funds to anticipate the growth and development of these border communities or the need to replace and maintain infrastructure going forward. So they’re always dealing with yesterday’s problems.” (An IBWC spokeswoman did not return several calls seeking comment for this story.)

Not only is the agency constantly playing catch-up, but it may now be on the verge of abdicating its role altogether.

A Legal Challenge From California

Citizens and their elected officials in the Golden State aren’t having it. They’re tired of the cycle that restarts each day, when a Tijuana wastewater plant dumps 40 million gallons of mostly untreated sewage into the Pacific Ocean. The refuse flows through the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, north to California’s Silver Strand State Beach on the southern section of Coronado Island, and sometimes even farther north to the historic Hotel del Coronado. This contamination routinely leads to beach closures, particularly along San Diego’s South Bay shoreline.

Serge Dedina is the surf-boarding mayor of Imperial Beach. The city lies just north of the border, and its coast is regularly fouled by Tijuana’s raw sewage. “It’s indescribably awful,” he says. “Last week when I paddled out into the water, I could smell the sewage. I didn’t put my head into it, but those types of discharges along the beach have made me really sick. They have made my kids really sick, made our lifeguards sick and our city manager sick. It’s a significant health crisis, and obviously it has a significant impact on all of these sensitive wildlife and ecosystems on the border.”

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina points toward a beach that was closed due to sewage contamination.
Credit: Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Contact with contaminated water can lead to human illnesses ranging from skin rashes and hepatitis A to intestinal parasites and salmonellosis. As if that weren’t bad enough, industrial waste—including heavy metals, chemical solvents, and even DDT—often flows into the mix; Border Patrol agents working in the Tijuana wildlife refuge often suffer chemical burns from wading through the muck.

This intractable situation has sparked community efforts to address the contamination—and protect the health of surfers and other beachgoers. In November 2017, the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation joined several other groups, including Imperial Beach–based Wildcoast and Tijuana’s Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, to undertake systematic testing of the water. Students of Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach set up one of these “Blue Water Task Force” labs with the help of their marine biology teacher, acting as volunteer monitors and publishing weekly results on Surfrider’s website.

At the same time, the students’ mayor, Dedina, along with other local and state leaders, are demanding action from the IBWC. The response has not been encouraging. On March 1, the U.S. Department of Justice responded with a letter claiming that the 1944 treaty does not hold the IBWC responsible “for managing transboundary trash, sewage, and sediment discharges” from Mexico.

The next day, says Dedina, Imperial Beach joined neighboring Chula Vista in filing a lawsuit against the IBWC. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a similar suit in September. “It’s just a little bit disconcerting that the U.S. government is telling a local city that they have no jurisdiction over the United States–Mexico border,” Dedina says. “My city has a population of 28,000 and a poverty rate of 25 percent. But apparently we’re supposed to now spend the money we don’t have to clean up the border.”

Adding insult, Mayor Dedina says, is the cold shoulder he got in a meeting with U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials. “I told them, if you’re going to build a border fence, why don’t you help us fix our sewage problem? The message from them was to drop dead.”

If Dedina sees this as a case of misguided priorities, he’s not alone. Eric Holler spent more than 30 years with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, retiring as southern Arizona program manager in 2014. He calls the Trump administration “shortsighted in how they look at the relationship with Mexico, shortsighted in not funding more of these things on the border and solving them.” After all, fixing broken sewage infrastructure is in the best interest of American public health and security. “But this administration is going in the wrong direction,” Holler says.

Others say that Tijuana’s ongoing crisis reveals an international process that has simply stopped working. Among them is Vicente Sanchez Munguia, a research professor of public administration at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. In an email, Sanchez Munguia describes the binational sanitation relationship as a conversation going nowhere, with the United States constantly demanding that Mexico fix its own problems and Mexico steadily arguing that it lacks the money to do so. In the middle is the cumbersome, heavily bureaucratic Boundary and Water Commission. “If the IBWC was effective, this type of problem would not be so recurrent,” he notes. “When the same types of problems are detected in different border cities, it is a sign that something is not right in the responsible institutions. And that includes the IBWC, because it is in charge.”

Ranchers and Residents Fight an Unwieldy System

Sometimes it seems as if no one is in charge. Six hundred miles east of Imperial Beach, Arizona rancher John Ladd watches backed-up sewage from Naco, Sonora, stream north onto his property. The source of these routine spills (exacerbated by the low elevation of the Arizona lands) stems from a breach in a conveyance line carrying raw sewage from two treatment ponds on either side of the Sonoran city. Last summer the water poisoned 10 of Ladd’s calves, prompting him to move his entire herd, at a cost of $27,000. “When I asked the county about getting reimbursed,” he recalls, “they said, ‘Who are you going to ask for money?’ I said the EPA and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. They just laughed.”

Attempts to solve the problem have fallen far short. In the 1990s, for example, the EPA spent $1 million upgrading Naco’s sewage system. For the current crisis, in conjunction with NADBank, it has set aside $10,000. The IBWC also loaned the Sonoran city a sewage pump. But the refuse continues to flow, prompting county supervisors to declare a state of emergency.

Ramshackle sanitation infrastructure has also impacted residents of the colonias along the border. Down there, you can literally smell the neglect, says Lupita Perez, a community organizer with a group called ARISE, based in Alamo, Texas. “The odor is like when you flush the toilet, because the waste treatment we have here in the colonia are open lagoons. They have fans, and when the fans stop working, the smell comes through the community.” When that happens, “people can’t be outside having a barbecue, or kids can’t be outside playing, because of the smell.”

Many area residents also use cesspools, outhouses, and septic tanks for sewage. During frequent floods, those systems overflow, sending raw sewage into the streets.

In response, ARISE energized local youths to lobby for a modern treatment plant. Perez recalls how the young activists turned out en masse at public meetings with local officials, initiated marches drawing hundreds of people, and even took their social justice issue to the United Nations. The strategy apparently worked; in June, 2016, the local water utility announced plans to build an $11.78 million waste treatment plant, which will eventually serve 1,600 area residents northwest of Donna, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. The EPA provided partial funding, through a $1.89 million Border Environment Infrastructure Fund grant. More money came from the Texas Water Development Board.

Meanwhile, north of Nogales, Arizona, Friends of the Santa Cruz are waiting for similar success—even as they monitor the ticking time bomb in their midst. Birdie Stabel is packing her gear, preparing to move to the next monitoring spot. But the fear from last year’s sewage spill still lingers. “That was downright scary,” she says. Like the rest of her team, she hopes it never happens again. But at this point, all they can do is keep up with their monthly visit to this spot beneath the cottonwoods and willows, hoping that the someday soon, the government will want to protect their river as much as they do.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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