Jeannette Terrazas and Raymundo Aguilar worked quickly at the top of a pedestrian bridge in Juárez on Wednesday, Dec. 28. They carefully tied the corners of a white banner with black lettering over a long line of cars waiting to cross the Bridge of the Americas into El Paso.
"We are all the river," the banner read in Spanish. "We demand the restoration of the Rio Bravo now!"
The Rio Grande runs under the Bridge of the Americas. Since mid-August, millions of gallons a day of wastewater have flowed down the river along the length of El Paso-Juárez.
Terrazas and Aguilar were inviting fronterizos to think about the river they were crossing not just as a international boundary, 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 transports sewage from West El Paso for treatment at the John T. Hickerson Water Reclamation Facility. When the pipeline and its backup ruptured in August, El Paso Water determined a diversion into the Rio Grande was the best way to avoid human contact with the sewage.
The day after the banner drop, on Dec. 29, El Paso Water connected the new wastewater pipeline. The sewage discharge will come to an end after a testing phase in January. Government agencies and El Paso Water are now turning their attention to the remediation process.
While the sewage has been one of the bigger border stories of 2021, the saga will continue into 2022. A Mexican official recently acknowledged that sewage from Juárez also enters the river daily. The discharge is just the latest instance of environmental degradation on the Rio Grande. Advocates are calling for a renewed commitment to clean up the river shared by two countries.
Activists: Pollution 'form of environmental racism'
Visiting the Mexican side of the American Canal on Dec. 28, the stench of sewage from the Rio Grande hung in the air. Aguilar scrambled down the river bank to inspect the murky water.
At this point where New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua meet, the river's flow is measured during irrigation season and Mexico's allocation is released south.
"This isn’t the color the river should be," Aguilar said. "Look at these bird prints. There is life here. How can they act as the sewage doesn't have an impact?"
Aguilar formed the collective Defensa de la Sierra de Ciudad Juárez collective just over a year ago, after watching how encroaching development and government neglect were impacting nearby mountains. He considers the Rio Grande another essential piece of the region's ecology that needs protection.
"The river is no longer fulfilling its utility as a river," Aguilar said. "It is meant to be a home for plants and animals and to feed the aquifers."
Jeannette Terrazas accompanied Aguilar to document the sewage downstream of the American Dam. She has taken inspiration from the Rio Grande for her art, including the Rio Arduino project, which captures the songs of migratory birds along the river. Researchers in Juárez say dozens of species inhabit the river ecosystem.
Terrazas wrote in a description of her project, "The racist policies in the border between México and USA have eroded from our collective memory the notion that the Rio Grande is a living organism."
Aguilar was glad to hear the new wastewater main was completed on Dec. 29 but said they won't stop there. From the collective's social media pages, he called on El Paso Water to make a full accounting of their plans for environmental remediation.
El Paso Water begins next stage of emergency response
El Paso Water contends the pipeline ruptures left them with no alternative except diverting wastewater into the Rio Grande.
“The decision to put the wastewater into the river was not taken lightly," El Paso Water interim chief operations officer Gilbert Trejo said on Wednesday. "It was a situation that, with 10 million gallons of wastewater flowing to this one point in town, there was only one place for that water to go."
Initial environmental assessments did not find toxic substances or chemicals in the wastewater. Industrial plants must pre-treat their sewage before it enters the public system. El Paso Water says fish kills have not been observed but that vegetation has been impacted.
For the next several weeks, the Hickerson Water Reclamation 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 from the West Side will soon be flowing through the replacement line instead of the river. Then the cleanup and mitigation process will begin.
Increasing scrutiny of wastewater dumping in 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. TCEQ is charged with most Clean Water Act enforcement authorities, while the EPA has an oversight role.
On Dec. 3, the Water Enforcement Branch of EPA Region 6 sent an information request to El Paso Water and the Public Service Board. The letter requests documentation of the location and volume of the wastewater discharge, mitigation activities, water quality information and environmental damage assessments.
The EPA gave El Paso Water 20 days to provide the information.
"The information will be considered in the evaluation of the extent of your compliance with the federal regulations regarding unauthorized discharges of untreated wastewater from the sewer collection system owned or operated by El Paso Water Utilities," the letter from the EPA states.
EPA Region 6 spokesperson Jennah Durant said the agency is seeking this additional information as part of their oversight capacity. El Paso Water spokesperson Denise Parra said the utility has provided most of the information and received an extension to the end of January to deliver additional details.
Ongoing challenges to protect the border environment
The discharge has international implications. The La Paz Agreement, signed by the United States and Mexico in 1983, commits both countries to limit air, water and land pollution along the border. Either country may raise complaints if the other party pollutes in their national territory. Terrazas and Aguilar say the Mexican government has taken a passive approach to the water pollution coming from El Paso.
But the problem goes both ways. A Mexican official acknowledged this month that untreated wastewater from Juárez also enters the Rio Grande on a regular basis. The Comisión de Limites y Aguas (CILA) in Mexico and its U.S. counterpart the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) apply boundary and water treaties between the neighboring countries.
CILA secretary Jesús Luévano told El Diario de Juárez on Dec. 18, "Everyone is very alarmed by the discharge from the United States, but we have not addressed the internal problem we've had for a long time, which I feel is more complicated and more serious, because it has been going on for so long."
He estimated the total volume from Juárez could be greater than from El Paso. "We are talking about years (of discharges)" he said.
Luévano deferred a request for an interview to the IBWC, as each agency communicates with journalists in its own country. The IBWC did not provide a comment before the publication of this article. On Dec. 28, wastewater was visible pooling on streets in Juárez just blocks from the river.
Advocates call for protection and restoration of Rio Grande
Jeannette Terrazas feels U.S. and Mexican officials have glossed over the ecological harm caused by the sewage discharge. She said the problem is specific to Juárez and El Paso but speaks to a broader disregard for the environment along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"At the same time, this is happening in other parts of the river along the border and the government hasn’t taken action," she said. "They need to know we're paying attention."
Terrazas and Aguilar will be following closely as El Paso Water begins cleanup. They are calling on fellow border residents to take a stand for the river. "I hope this is a turning point to begin recovering the river," Terrazas said.
El Paso Water's sewage discharge since August has brought renewed attention to the state of the river. But whatever remediation comes next will only be the latest response to the long-standing problem of wastewater entering the Rio Grande.
"A river that once was full of life is now in agony," Aguilar wrote on the collective's Facebook page. "On both sides of the border, we need action to repair the damage and to return life to our only river, the river that gave birth to our community."
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Sewage discharge draws attention to environmental problems on Rio Grande