Wastewater discharges draw attention to Rio Grande’s environmental problems
Jeannette Terrazas and Raymundo Aguilar worked quickly atop a pedestrian bridge in Juárez on Wednesday, December 28. They carefully tied the corners of a white banner with black letters to a long line of cars waiting to cross the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso.
“We are all the river,” said the banner in Spanish. “We demand the restoration of the Rio Bravo now! “
The Rio Grande passes under the Bridge of the Americas. Since mid-August, millions of gallons of sewage per day have flowed into the river along El Paso-Juárez.
Terrazas and Aguilar invited the fronterizos to think of the river they crossed not only as an international border, but as a living ecosystem. “It’s a form of environmental racism,” said Terrazas, a textile artist from Juárez, referring to the sewage discharge.
The Frontera Force Wastewater Main carries West El Paso wastewater for treatment to the John T. Hickerson Water Harvesting Facility. When the pipeline and its relief broke in August, El Paso Water determined that a bypass in the Rio Grande was the best way to avoid human contact with the sewage.
The day after the banner fell, on December 29, El Paso Water hooked up the new wastewater line. The wastewater discharge will end after a test phase in January. Government agencies and El Paso Water are now turning their attention to the remediation process.
While sewage has been one of the biggest border stories of 2021, the saga will continue until 2022. A Mexican official recently admitted that sewage from Juárez also enters the river on a daily basis. The discharge is just the latest example of environmental degradation on the Rio Grande. Defenders call for a renewed commitment to clean up the river shared by two countries.
Activists: pollution “a form of environmental racism”
While visiting the Mexican side of the American Canal on December 28, the stench of Rio Grande sewage hung in the air. Aguilar walked down the bank of the river to inspect the murky water.
At this point where New Mexico, Texas, and Chihuahua meet, the river flow is measured during the irrigation season and Mexico’s allowance is released south.
“It’s not the color the river should be,” Aguilar said. “Look at those bird tracks. There is life here. How can they act when wastewater has no impact? “
Aguilar formed the Defensa de la Sierra de Ciudad Juárez collective just over a year ago, after observing the impact of pervasive development and government neglect on nearby mountains. He sees the Rio Grande as another essential element of the region’s ecology that needs protection.
“The river no longer serves its purpose as a river,” Aguilar said. “It’s supposed to be a home for plants and animals and to nourish aquifers.”
Jeannette Terrazas accompanied Aguilar to document the wastewater downstream of the American dam. She was inspired by the Rio Grande for her art, including the Rio Arduino project, which captures the songs of migrating birds along the river. Juárez researchers say dozens of species inhabit the fluvial ecosystem.
Terrazas wrote in a description of his project, “Racist policies on the border between Mexico and the United States have eroded from our collective memory the idea that the Rio Grande is a living organism.”
Aguilar was happy to hear that the new sewage main had been completed on December 29, but said they would not stop there. From the collective’s social media pages, he asked El Paso Water to give a full account of their environmental remediation plans.
El Paso Water begins next phase of emergency response
El Paso Water maintains that the ruptured pipes left them with no alternative but to divert the sewage into the Rio Grande.
“The decision to dump the sewage into the river was not taken lightly,” Gilbert Trejo, acting director of operations for El Paso Water, said on Wednesday. there was only one place for that water to go. ”
Initial environmental assessments did not find any toxic or chemical substances in the wastewater. Industrial factories must pretreat their wastewater before it enters the public system. El Paso Water says fish kills have not been observed but vegetation has been affected.
Over the next few weeks, Hickerson’s water recovery facility, which has been operating at low capacity since August, will ramp up operations. The plant will be monitored and the pipeline will be tested with low volumes of wastewater.
Wastewater on the west side will soon flow through the replacement pipe instead of the river. Then the cleaning and mitigation process will begin.
Increased monitoring of wastewater discharges in the Rio Grande
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are monitoring El Paso Water’s response to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act. The TCEQ is responsible for most of the authorities responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act, while the EPA has an oversight role.
On December 3, the EPA Region 6 Water Enforcement Branch sent a request for information to El Paso Water and the Public Service Board. The letter requests documentation of the location and volume of wastewater discharges, mitigation activities, water quality information, and environmental damage assessments.
The EPA has given El Paso Water 20 days to provide the information.
“The information will be considered in assessing the extent of your compliance with federal regulations regarding unauthorized discharge of untreated wastewater from the sewer collection system owned or operated by El Paso Water Utilities,” states the EPA letter.
EPA spokesperson for Region 6, Jennah Durant, said the agency was seeking this additional information as part of its oversight capacity. El Paso Water spokeswoman Denise Parra said the utility provided most of the information and was given an extension until the end of January to provide further details.
Ongoing challenges to protect the border environment
The discharge has international implications. The La Paz Accord, signed by the United States and Mexico in 1983, commits the two countries to limiting air, water and soil pollution along the border. Either country can lodge complaints if the other party pollutes on its national territory. Terrazas and Aguilar say the Mexican government has taken a passive approach to water pollution from El Paso.
But the problem goes both ways. A Mexican official admitted this month that untreated sewage from Juárez also enters the Rio Grande on a regular basis. The Comisión de Limites y Aguas (CILA) in Mexico and its American counterpart the International Boundaries and Water Commission (IBWC) enforce the border and water treaties between neighboring countries.
CILA Secretary Jesús Luévano said Juárez’s diary on December 18, “Everyone is very alarmed by the US dump, but we haven’t addressed the internal problem that we’ve had for a long time, which seems to me more complicated and more serious, because it’s been going for so long. . “
He estimated that the total volume of Juárez could be higher than that of El Paso. “We are talking about years (of rejections),” he said.
Luévano has postponed an interview request to the IBWC, as each agency communicates with journalists in its own country. The IBWC did not comment prior to the publication of this article. On December 28, sewage was visible in the streets of Juárez, a few blocks from the river.
Activists call for protection and restoration of the Rio Grande
Jeannette Terrazas believes that the American and Mexican authorities have ignored the ecological damage caused by the discharge of wastewater. She said the problem is specific to Juárez and El Paso, but demonstrates a broader disregard for the environment along the US-Mexico border.
“At the same time, it is happening in other parts of the river along the border and the government has taken no action,” she said. “They need to know that we are paying attention.”
Terrazas and Aguilar will closely monitor the start of the El Paso Water cleanup. They call on their fellow citizens to take a stand for the river. “Hopefully this is a turning point to start reclaiming the river,” Terrazas said.
El Paso Water’s wastewater discharge since August has drawn renewed attention to the state of the river. But whatever remediation follows, it will only be the latest response to the long-standing problem of sewage entering the Rio Grande.
“A river that was once full of life is now in agony,” Aguilar wrote on the collective. Facebook page. “On both sides of the border, we must act to repair the damage and revive our only river, the river that gave birth to our community.