EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A Mexican utility is allowing untreated wastewater to pour into the Rio Grande in violation of international treaties and endangering the health of residents, a Juarez environmental group says.

“We have filed two complaints against the Juarez Municipal Water and Wastewater Board (JMAS) due to spills of wastewater into the river. These are not sporadic flows; they are constant flows,” Defensa del Rio Bravo said on its Facebook page.

Mexico’s environmental protection agency (PROFEPA) responded to the group’s first complaint by sending inspectors last May to the alleged site of the spill, which is in a northwest enclave of Juarez across the border from Paisano Drive in El Paso, Texas.

The complaint alleged that up to 20 gallons of untreated wastewater per second were coming out of broken underground pipes and storm drains near “El Cigarro” in the Alta Vista neighborhood and ending up in the Rio Grande. The inspectors reported seeing “evidence of wastewater discharges from various JMAS drains directly into the Rio Grande.” The inspectors did not quantify how much untreated water was going into the river.

Defensa del Rio Bravo filed a second complaint on Monday, this time with the Chihuahua state Human Rights Commission on behalf of residents who must stand foul smells and are exposed to E. coli and other pathogens.

On Tuesday, the Chihuahua Legislature passed a resolution demanding the utility provide state officials with an explanation of the extent of the river contamination.

Damian Lopez Pena

“Right now, it’s a red flag issue. That’s why we filed the federal complaint,” said Damian Lopez Pena, of Defensa del Rio Bravo. “We are primarily denouncing the negligence of the Municipal Water Board.”

Residents interviewed by Border Report say the contamination is at its worst after any measurable rain because debris and wastewater naturally flow into the Rio Grande.

JMAS issued a statement through its public information office saying the utility is asking the Chihuahua Legislature for a $4.5 million loan “to replace pipes in the western part of the city and thus prevent wastewater from going into the Rio Grande.”

That is in addition to an $8.5 million loan or grant the Mexican utility has already solicited from the San Antonio-based North American Development Bank.

“The Norzagaray and Nadadores drains exceeded their usefulness many years ago,” said Mario Mata, executive director of JMAS. “I beg the state congress […] to give us a hand, to authorize this loan so we can achieve this objective of eliminating wastewater flows from reaching the Rio Grande.”

Juarez water utility crews work on wastewater spill containment a few feet from the Rio Grande and the international boundary with the United States. (courtesy JMAS)
Juarez water utility crews replace a broken concrete sewer pipe on Norzagaray Boulevard, where a sinkhole forced the closing of the street on Thursday. (courtesy JMAS)

The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission on Thursday told Border Report it is aware of the issue and has reported the discharges to the Mexican Section, CILA, of the commission.

“The solution is to repair or rehabilitate the collection system. USIBWC met with NAD Bank a month ago and they reported that the repair of the collectors is in the final process to certify the projects and proceed to rehabilitation late in 2022 or early 2023 to be done in phases,” the IBWC said in a statement to Border Report.

The NAD Bank website shows the Juarez water utility on Dec. 17, 2021, submitted a proposal for project certification and financing for the replacement of 11.5 miles of sewer lines and sedimentation boxes (bottomless tanks aimed at reducing surface runoff).

“The purpose is to reduce human health risks associated with illnesses transmitted through contact with residual untreated waters and to eliminate the possibility of contamination of underground and surface water,” according to the proposal’s executive summary.

The utility disclosed broken pipes have the potential to send up to 250 gallons per second of untreated water into the Rio Grande and/or endanger nearly a quarter million residents of northwest Juarez. It stated sewage has been flowing from broken Juarez pipes into the river since at least 2017.

JMAS is asking for an $11.4 million grant from the Border Environmental Infrastructure Fund and says it will get $15 million from the Mexican government. Construction of the $26.4 million project would begin later this year and take five years to complete, according to the summary.

Meantime, Juarez authorities on Thursday closed off a portion of Norzagaray Boulevard due to a sink hole along the Norzagaray drain. Workers replaced the broken 48-inch concrete pipe with one that appeared to be plastic.