This river is too toxic to touch, and people live right next to it

The New River is filled with sewage and toxic pollution. Despite more than $90 million spent, the Mexican and U.S. governments have failed to clean it up.

Source Desert Sun

By Ian James | Photos by Zoe Meyers, The Desert Sun

The Río Nuevo flows north from Mexico into the United States, passing through a gap in the border fence. 

The murky green water reeks of sewage and carries soapsuds, pieces of trash and a load of toxic chemicals from Mexicali, a city filled with factories that manufacture products from electronics to auto parts.

For people trying to cross illegally into the United States, the river offers a route to try to slip past Border Patrol agents. But the water is so polluted that people who wade in get itchy rashes or sores, and anyone who gets even a splash in the mouth becomes violently ill.

Just north of the border in Calexico, the New River is treated like a toxic waste site. On the edge of its trash-strewn ravine, a yellow sign is planted in the dusty soil with a skull-and-crossbones symbol and the warning: “CONTAMINATED SOIL AND NEW RIVER WATER, KEEP OUT!!”

For people who live next to the river, the odor can be so overpowering that it gives them headaches. Their eyes water and their nasal passages sting. To escape the stench, residents avoid spending time outdoors in their yards.

“All the chemicals, all the waste that comes from the factories there in Mexicali, I can’t tell you what it contains because I don’t know,” said Ernestina Calderón, who lives on a street next to the river in Calexico. “But I’m 100 percent sure that they’re chemicals that are harmful for your health.”

A decade ago, Calderón survived a fight with stomach cancer. Her adult son had cancer in his lymph nodes and survived. 

Several of Calderón’s neighbors — she counted six people — have died over the years of different types of cancer, including lung, pancreatic and stomach cancer. Other neighbors suffer from illnesses including asthma and thyroid disorders, which can be triggered or worsened by pollution. 

Residents have been complaining for years that living next to the river is making them sick. They’ve demanded government agencies clean up the sewage and industrial waste. Yet despite those calls for help, the river is still filled with high levels of bacteria and toxic chemicals. 

In an investigation into the pollution that afflicts the city of Mexicali and nearby border communities, The Desert Sun found that the New River is plagued by harmful chemicals and heavy metals, increasingly frequent sewage spills and a lack of funding to fix those problems — despite recognition among government regulators on both sides of the border that the river requires bigger cleanup efforts. 

During the past two decades, the U.S. and Mexican governments have spent more than $91 million on jointly funded upgrades of Mexicali’s sewer system. But the rapid growth of the city, with its proliferating maquiladoras, has outpaced the sewer infrastructure. Spills of raw sewage into the river are on the rise and becoming a major problem, and the wastewater plant that discharges into the New River doesn’t disinfect the water or remove chemicals or heavy metals.  

Mexican government agencies are charged with regulating releases of industrial waste from the maquiladoras, and companies are supposed to treat wastewater to meet the country’s standards before discharging it into the sewer system. But the factories face questionable oversight and minimal enforcement. And Mexican government records show companies reported discharging wastewater containing some of the same toxic pollutants that are turning up in water tests in the New River. 

Those tests of water and sediment samples by California regulators show the river is one of the most polluted in the state, with high levels of heavy metals including lead, copper and mercury.

There are also toxic chemicals including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and byproducts of the banned pesticide DDT.

Along the river, there are still signs of life, including egrets and herons that forage on the banks. Yet as Border Patrol agents scan the river looking for migrants, they sometimes see masses of dead fish floating — signs of the dangers in the dark, cloudy water.