Gabriel of Urantia

Earth Harmony Festival Speaker Panel—An International Watershed Crisis Right Here in Our Neighborhood! Where Do We Go From Here?

An informative and fascinating panel discussion on the recent IOI sewage pipe breach, that poured millions of gallons of raw sewage and heavy metal contaminants into the Nogales Wash and the Santa Cruz River, was held during the Earth Harmony Festival — at Avalon Organic Gardens & EcoVillage in Tumacacori, AZ — on Sunday, October 8th, 2017.

The focus of the speaker panel was: Finding Permanent Solutions for Nogales Stormwater Problems; Drinking Water & Sanitation Concerns in Southern Arizona. This panel was produced and filmed by Global Change Media ( The entire one hour long speaker panel can be viewed on the Friends of the Santa Cruz River Facebook page. Here is a preview of many of the highlights of this important community forum.

Panel Moderator: Natalie A. Brassill, M.S. The University of Arizona – Cooperative Extension College of Agriculture & Life Sciences Department of Soil, Water & Environmental Science


  • Ben Lomeli Environmental Consultant/Hydrologist IBWC Citizen’s Council Board Member SEACF, SCC FCD Advisory Board Friends of the Santa Cruz River Board member
  • Bill Beaver Santa Cruz County GIS Analyst
  • Ruben Reyes District Director, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ3) IOI Congressional Staff Lead for Congressman Grijalva
  • Charlene LaPlante Santa Cruz County Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney

The general format of the panel discussion was as follows:

  1. Natalie Brassill gave a brief history of the Nogales Wash
  2. Panelists each spoke on the following topics:
    • The breach of the IOI in July 2017
    • Permanent solutions to the Nogales Wash/IOI problem
  3. Questions to panel members from audience

Brief History of Nogales Wash/IOI (as presented at International Boundary & Water Commission – IBWC- Citizen’s Council Meeting on 9/21/17)

In the 1940’s the City of Nogales (CON) reported that raw sewage from Mexico was pouring into Nogales, AZ. The CON asked the IBWC for help. The IBWC brokered a deal to build a Wastewater Treatment Plant 1.5 miles from the border in Nogales. This was paid for by Mexico and CON. This facility processed 6 million gallons daily. (mgd). The CON agreed to maintain the Plant and the 1.5 mile-long pipeline to the plant.

In the early 1970’s there were about 45,000 people living in Nogales, Sonora. The CON requested that a larger treatment plant be built and located outside the city limits of Nogales, AZ. This was done, but Mexico insisted that the new location was not relevant to their international agreement, and refused to pay for the pipe that carries the sewage an additional 9 miles to the new site. This pipe is the IOI.

The new plant in Rio Rico processes 14 mgd or more. It actually processed 19 mgd for decades, until the Los Alisos plant was built a few years ago in Sonora.

In 1996, CON asked IBWC to take over ownership of the NIWTP and they agreed. There is a legal battle in court over who is legally responsible for maintenance and repair of the Nogales Wash and the IOI.

On 9/20/17 a legal decision was made about IOI ownership. The ruling is that the IBWC is a partial owner of the IOI and legally responsible to pay for all IOI repairs and changes. Mexico is not responsible and CON is supposed to pay a fraction of costs. The IBWC will appeal and fight this.

The Breach of the IOI in July 2017

  • Ben Lomeli
    • We were extremely lucky. This was a partial breach in a single area. Could have been multiple, full breaches. The breach was discovered in 2 days. Could have taken a lot longer to discover.
    • The entire IOI is threatened by flooding and erosion, as well as sediment scouring the Wash during floods and constantly inside the pipe.
  • Bill Beaver
    • Manhole 89 was an “exposed toadstool” due to erosion in the Nogales Wash. A neighbor in the area has photos to prove it.
    • Responding to emergencies is not enough.
    • Earlier this year, people from Santa Cruz, Cochise, and Yuma Counties participated in an emergency preparedness training. The breach of the IOI was deemed the most likely and dangerous emergency we face, and that is what this FEMA training, in Maryland, focused on. When the breach happened, we were somewhat prepared as a result of the training.
  • Ruben Reyes
    • Science cannot be debated, but politics keeps a solution from being implemented.
    • This is not a City or County issue. It is a National & International issue.
    • Either we fix the IOI now, at a relatively minimal cost, or we will be forced to fix it when it is a true disaster and monumentally expensive.
    • The recent breach of Manhole 89 was “good” in that it has brought this issue to everyone’s attention in a way that cannot be ignored.
    • This is a situation where all entities are willing to work together.
  • Charlene LaPlante
    • This emergency brought together a coalition of City, County, State & Federal agencies.
    • What has been done so far is a band-aid, a temporary solution.
    • The Army Corps of Engineers is prevented by statute from doing anything but emergency repairs. Santa Cruz County is prevented by statute from owning or maintaining a sewage system.
    • There were many blessings that came out of the breach of Manhole 89. The US Army Corps of Engineers worked with the CON and County on bank reinforcement on several sites along the Nogales Wash. Some of these were on private property that was not accessible. After shoring up 4 of the 6 sites that the Army Corp identified as being dangerously eroded, they ran out of funds. The County purchased the materials for the last 2 sites, and the labor was done by the State National Guard with the CON Public Works Dept. managing the heavy equipment.

Permanent Solutions to the Nogales Wash/IOI Problem

  • Ben Lomeli
    • We need to get the IOI out of the Nogales Wash. It has to be at the same elevation so lateral connections are not a problem. Or put it deeper, below scour line.
    • A key concept in hydrologic engineering not to place a pipeline in a Wash. Sometimes a pipe will be put across a Wash but always under scour line. Having the IOI placed under 9 miles of the Nogales Wash is…..very challenging.
    • Permanent solution will require looking at the Nogales Wash as a whole system. Washes meander, erode, change, and flood.
    • The Union Pacific Railroad Line is a very significant player. Might be possible to move the IOI underneath the railroad.
    • The IOI is leaking raw sewage into our drinking water! Groundwater is also leaking into the IOI. This is happening constantly.
    • IBWC’s proposal to all IOI problems is Cure-In-Place (CIPP) lining. This is a “sock” in the pipe that is sealed to the inside of the IOI with steam. Estimated 40 million dollars.
    • It would be better to put CIPP only in the sections of the IOI that are known to be leaking, to avoid the unnecessary expense of installing CIPP the entire 9 miles of the IOI.
    • Need to install sensors so we know immediately when the IOI breaks.
  • Bill Beaver
    • Has heard estimates of 3 billion dollars to move the IOI.
    • If not at same elevation after moved it will have to have pumps, which is very expensive.
    • How about moving the Railroad and using that corridor for the IOI?
    • County Flood Control District proposes building retention basins to reduce the flood flows in key areas by 50%. Estimated 40 million dollars.
    • This was a “normal” monsoon season. We have not had a “normal” monsoon season for 30 years.
  • Natalie Brassill
    • There are many ways to slow water and to allow for infiltration of water. Collection of sediment is always a problem. Plant native species to slow water.
    • Watershed Management Group, in Tucson, has designed a green landscaping plan for the Lower Santa Cruz River that will slow the water in floods and allow for increased infiltration.
  • Ruben Reyes
    • Step One is to find scientific solutions for the environmental concerns. Step Two is for all stakeholders to get behind a scientifically sound plan for a permanent solution. Step Three is for all united stakeholders (including private landowners, the railroad, County & City) to put political pressure on Congress to get the job done. It will take Congressional action. The Arizona delegation is already behind it.
    • When Congressman Grijalva talks about border infrastructure, this is what he is referring to.
  • Charlene LaPlante
    • All entities must work together.

Questions and Answers

  1. What measures are in place (or should be in place) to protect the community from a plague of raw sewage, should that occur?
    • FOSCR RiverWatch does monthly water testing of the river. ADEQ also does water testing.
    • County needs to be ready to get the word out community-wide in all media outlets, and to post signs immediately.
    • People should get their wells tested if within ½ mile of the river. (County recommends if within 100’ of the river.)
    • Best action is to prevent it.
    • When in doubt, boil your drinking water.
    • Can also filter drinking water in home.
  2. What measures are being taken to improve statutes that govern IOI?
    • The IBWC Treaty with Mexico should be updated.

Editor’s Note: This hot off the press from: Laura M. Norman PhD, Research Physical Scientist, U.S. Geological Survey Western Geographic Science Center

“We had a meeting in June with the binational community about storm-water control in Nogales. I was asked to present the rainfall/runoff modeling research I have done with the Land Change Science Program, that got bolstered with funds from the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and US Northern Command (NORCOMM). We had a simultaneous translator and 25 people from all over (El Paso, TX; Juarez, Chihuahua; Hermosillo, Son, Nogales, Son., and Nogales, Arizona, as well as Tucson, AZ).

Outcome: The binational Commissioners decided the issue warranted a revision to the Treaty and current International policy. They will make a new "Minute" between the United States and Mexican Sections of the IBWC, to strategize a framework for Binational Cooperation on Transboundary Storm-water Control in the Nogales Watershed!”

  • What action can concerned activists take now?
    1. Look at FOSCR website for talking points for letters to Congress.
    2. Just mentioning concern that the IOI needs to be fixed is a good place to start and will get their attention.
    3. Join FOSCR! Attend FOSCR board meetings and find out what you can do to help.

Friends of the Santa Cruz River would like to express our heartfelt appreciation to Global Change Media for creating this awesome panel discussion during the Earth Harmony Festival, and to each panelist who participated.

Special thanks to Natalie Brassill for doing such a fantastic job of moderating the panel. She was successful in helping the panelists to present a lot of complicated information in a way that was understandable, and inspiring, to everyone.

Please take the time to view the entire speaker’s panel, on Friends of the Santa Cruz River Facebook page, and to share it with others.