I was one of many who attended the September 21st meeting of the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission’s (IBWC) Southeast Arizona Citizens Forum. I left the meeting feeling a bit disappointed as I had hoped the focus of the meeting would be the rehabilitation and improvements to the International Outfall Interceptor (IOI) and emergency repairs to Manhole 89, which was breached during monsoon flooding on July 25th. Instead, an inordinate amount of the meeting was devoted to a presentation from an IBWC attorney attempting to justify the agency’s plans to appeal a recent ruling by a federal judge that established that the IBWC – not the City of Nogales – is responsible for discharges of untreated sewage and industrial contaminants stemming from deferred maintenance and stormwater surcharge to the IOI during periods of heavy rainfall.
For those unfamiliar with this topic, the IBWC, is a federal agency whose mission is – and I quote directly from the IBWC website – “to provide binational solutions to issues that arise during the application of United States - Mexico treaties regarding boundary demarcation, national ownership of waters, sanitation, water quality, and flood control in the border region.” The IOI is a massive pipeline that carries 10 - 14 million gallons of sewage per day across the international border from Mexico to the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant co-owned and operated by the IBWC.
While the IBWC attorney did a fine job presenting the agency’s position at the meeting, to Santa Cruz County stakeholders, not to mention those downstream in Pima County, the issue of who is responsible for maintenance and repairs to the IOI, or who owns the line, is completely irrelevant. What’s relevant is neither the City of Nogales nor Santa Cruz County possesses the capacity to repair, replace or maintain the IOI, and a minimum of $30 - $40 million will ultimately be needed to rehabilitate the IOI and defuse the threat to public health and safety this critical piece of infrastructure currently represents.
Literally dozens of studies have been done to demonstrate the high cost of doing nothing. Maintenance consultants tell their clients if they repair things before they are forced to do so, their returns are typically 3 - 10 times their original investment. The IBWC has some excellent staff, and most of us truly appreciate the efforts they have put forth to address the issues with the IOI to date, especially considering the funding constraints faced by all federal agencies. But it’s now time to stop pouring precious taxpayer dollars down the drain in federal court, accept the federal judge’s decision, and proceed with the emergency repairs and rehabilitation of the IOI – with or without a commitment of funding from the City or County – before it’s too late and we are all stuck with the exponentially higher cost of doing nothing to prevent what could be a major environmental disaster.
By Randy Heiss, SEAGO Executive Director