Toxic Water in Demand
July 6, 2006 8:29 AM   Subscribe

"It's filthy. It's toxic. But it's water. And as we know in California, people are fighting over it." It's North America’s most polluted river, made up of 70% waste material and raw sewage. The New River, which starts in Mexicali, Mexico, flows past homes in the California border town of Calexico and winds up in the Salton Sea. The river contains a nightmare stew of about 100 biological contaminants, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and pesticides including: DDT, PCB, selenium, uranium, arsenic and mercury. The scary part? It's enough water for about 300,000 homes. Filthy or not, that’s real water. So L.A.’s Metropolitan Water District has filed a claim on New River water.
posted by thisisdrew (38 comments total)

DDT? So much for "elimination by 2006."
posted by Gator at 8:42 AM on July 6, 2006

So chunky, you'll want to use a fork... but use a spoon, so you get every drop.
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:43 AM on July 6, 2006

[Oh god, this is a set-up for such a good snark, but I'm not up for causing a shitstorm at the moment.]
posted by keswick at 8:46 AM on July 6, 2006

DDT? So much for "elimination by 2006."

Like many pollutants, our chemical companies only respect local laws. DuPont and other corporations happily manufacture and sell EPA-proscribed materials outside the US.

When a high-regulation state borders a low-regulation state, there is economic pressure for pollution to accumulate on the low-regulation side of the border.

Disease rates increase as a result. The border between Texas and Mexico, for example, is an epidemiologists wet dream, with cancer, asthma and other disease rates well beyond statistical norms. [1] [2] [3]

[1] Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention Vol. 10, 1129-1136, November 2001
[2] Rev Panam Salud Publica v. 3 n. 6 Washington Jun. 1998
[3] Arch Environ Health. 2003 Mar;58(3):156-62.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:57 AM on July 6, 2006

70% waste material?!
I find that a little hard to swallow.
posted by Flashman at 8:58 AM on July 6, 2006

I wonder what the source of the headwaters is. The area around Mexicali (famous for it's chinese food, btw) is very arid.
posted by Keith Talent at 9:08 AM on July 6, 2006

I wonder what the source of the headwaters is

Sounds like the sewers of Mexicali.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 9:20 AM on July 6, 2006

The issue for me in all this is whether local and state governments are taking into account the true costs of what using this water (properly purified or not) will cost the Californian taxpayer.

Down the road will it be found that the process only took care of 99.9% of contaminents and the remaining .1% is a toxin that could be traced to far worse health problems than could have ever been predicted today?

We'll see....
posted by pezdacanuck at 9:30 AM on July 6, 2006

i watched that film ... aside from the utterly nasty look of the river itself, i couldn't help but notice that the water taken out of it looked more like piss than water
posted by pyramid termite at 9:30 AM on July 6, 2006

(To the tune of Mexical Rose)

Mexicali Stew keep flowing
With the waste we flush away.
Every night I know that you'll be glowing
Every hour a year and every day.
Still that brown sludge makes me smile, dear
It's water not for all, but just for some.
Take a sip, it tastes like progress
Oh, you sweet effluvium.
posted by Floydd at 9:42 AM on July 6, 2006

Quickly doing the math...

It has a flow of 200 cubic feet per second (Wikipedia doesn't say if this is the average flow velocity or not year round... so I'm assuming it is.).

According to Google, 200 cubic feet per second in acre feet per year is ~145,000 acre feet per year. (I love Google Calculator! ;)

Since one acre foot is basically defined as the amount of water a family of four will use in one year, this really is only enough water for about ~145,000 homes.

Of course with all the booming development going on out here in California and subdivisions of homes going up at a feverish pace, I suppose we need all the water we can get.
posted by RockBandit at 9:57 AM on July 6, 2006

Stupid question: why doesn't california build desalination plants and get the water from the Pacific?
posted by Pastabagel at 9:58 AM on July 6, 2006

Desal plants take up huge amounts of 1) money and b) energy. Almost any other way of getting water is cheaper.
posted by Skorgu at 10:06 AM on July 6, 2006

I'm going to guess a combination of the following: (a) we're doing a bang-up job of polluting the Pacific (thanks again, Mexico, (b) coastal and environmental regulations, (c) until recently, it's been easier for SoCal to pilfer water from NorCal and other states and (d) desalination is energy intensive and we already have energy issues?
posted by keswick at 10:09 AM on July 6, 2006

Sounds like they're working hard to have this turn into the river Ankh...

(Those unfamiliar with this reference can check out Terry Pratchett's work here.)
posted by Zinger at 10:11 AM on July 6, 2006

los angeles needs to not exist.

it looks like cancer from the window of an airplane.
posted by StrasbourgSecaucus at 10:15 AM on July 6, 2006

Desal plants take up huge amounts of 1) money and b) energy. Almost any other way of getting water is cheaper.
posted by Skorgu at 1:06 PM EST on July 6 [+fave] [!]

I find this hard to believe. Wasn't CA shutting down nuclear reators and other power plants over the last few years? And at some point, aren't they going to run out of other sources, and have to do this anyway? Or is this another case of manufactured scarcity? In other words, let the price of water rise to a certain high price, and then build these plants to stabilize the supply at these high prices, rather than doing it now.

This reminds of the Canada tar sands/peak oil thing. The tar sands are too expensive to exploit, so we'll just wait for oil in wells to peak, and then the price will rocket skyward making tar sands feasible. All of which serves to raise the price to that high level right now.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:19 AM on July 6, 2006

All of which serves to raise the price to that high level right now.

High prices do not equal high profit margins.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:24 AM on July 6, 2006

Desalination is much cheaper than what it used to be. $3 per gallon US is not that expensive when you look at in terms of a health issue cost. One bed in a hospital is over $300/day US. What's cheaper?

As for the oil sands, the costs have been coming down (tech) for processing and oil prices climbing sees that lower cost production ratio at a real profitable margin. The real issue for technology is now to reduce the energy consumption factor from production. That will be the challenge.
posted by pezdacanuck at 10:27 AM on July 6, 2006

keswick: I'm going to guess a combination of the following: (a) we're doing a bang-up job of polluting the Pacific (thanks again, Mexico,

Shouldn't matter in the scheme of things. The currents in our neck of the woods flow down from Alaska towards the equator (hence why swimming in the ocean while in California is such an unpleasant/cold experience).
posted by RockBandit at 10:27 AM on July 6, 2006

The Salton Sea has no outlet so this brew sits there and concentrates as the water evaporates out. The waterline is encrusted with tiny dead fish and multicolored crystals of various petrochemicals
posted by subtle_squid at 10:31 AM on July 6, 2006

o rly
posted by keswick at 10:36 AM on July 6, 2006

Desalination is much cheaper than what it used to be. $3 per gallon US is not that expensive when you look at in terms of a health issue cost.

$3 per 1000 Gallons. At three bucks a gallon, no wonder Los Angelenos are considering drinking piss.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:50 AM on July 6, 2006

Desalination is much cheaper than what it used to be. $3 per gallon US is not that expensive when you look at in terms of a health issue cost. One bed in a hospital is over $300/day US. What's cheaper?

Cheaper than $3 per gallon? How about Dr Pepper? Cripes, how about Perrier?

Your link says desalinated water is around $3 per 1,000 gallons, which is pretty different. Still, that adds up. Agriculture uses loads of water.

I imagine that the simplest, fastest, cheapest, and most effective way to multiply the water supply is the boring, tried-and-true, completely un-American practice of conservation. Stop watering the lawn, reduce the number of times you wash the car, get a water-saving shower head and toilet, use a front-loading washer, etc. Whatever water-supply developments may come, conservation will always boost the utility of whatever supply is available.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:57 AM on July 6, 2006

In comparison, NYC municipal (metered) water rate is $1.52 per 100 cubic feet. That's $2.03/1000 gallons. A 50% increase in water prices might not be a lot for your drinking wter supply but if you're a farmer who buys water by the acre-foot that could mean the difference between certain crops being economically sound and not or between breaking even and going bankrupt. Farming isn't exactly a high-margin enterprise (unless you're ADM or something).

The source of the water shouldn't bear on its quality. Obviously in the real world it does but tap water has to meet the same standards whether it comes from the ocean or your neighbor's toilet.
posted by Skorgu at 11:18 AM on July 6, 2006

Sorry for the mental typo.

For the farmer, yes it is costly, but why are we looking at farming in those regions anyway? Farm in known areas with proven water reserves, and locate low water usage industry to those areas where it would be practical to have desalination plants running.
posted by pezdacanuck at 12:32 PM on July 6, 2006

The idea is that you really only need to desal once and then from there use the water twice. Once in your home, then recycle it and use it for irrigation (gray water) for things like golf courses and such. Its all about stretching your water source.

Southern Nevada is actually looking at paying Cali to build desal plants so we can take some of their allotment from Lake Mead (CA gets 4.4M AF, NV gets 300,000 AF) per the Coloado River Compact signed in 1922.
posted by SirOmega at 1:05 PM on July 6, 2006

Pezdacanuck, that's easy for you to say, but what about California politicians? They can't very well tell farmers they are stupid to be farming in a desert. After all, most of the irrigation infrastructure in this area is public, or at least heavily subsidized with public money. Not only is it politically infeasable to tell the farmers where to stick it, it's pretty two faced to give all these artificial incentives to farm, then tirelessly work to promote california agriculture, only to tell the farmers that they are living on borrowed water, and now they want it back to feed the ravenous, bloated, cancerous metropolis the farmers helped create.

The simple fact is there are no easy solutions to California's water problems. There is simply too little to go around, and conflict is inevitable. The farmers feel they have a historical stake to it, and you can bet they will fight tooth and nail to keep it, and you can bet the politicans they bought and paid for to do the same. This goes for the city dwellers as well.

At least the farmers are producing something of value. The people I have no sympathy for are suburbanites who want taxpayer subsidized green lawns in the middle of a fucking desert.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:16 PM on July 6, 2006

One of the "big pictures" here, which is touched upon somewhat in the article, is what will happen to the Salton Sea. I have done research at this lake (California's largest) for over eight years and I'm doing my dissertation work out there currently. A large contingent of scientists and environmentalists have been warning the public that if the water leaves the area, and the Sea is allowed to shrink substantially, there will be consequences that are only currently seen in Africa and China - dust storms on a massive scale.

There are more misrepresentations and misconceptions about the worth of the Salton Sea than almost any other environmental region in the U.S. Without getting into a debate (read: red herring) about how the lake is "not natural", it currently exists as critical habitat for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, many of which are endangered. The necessity of the Salton Sea as a major migratory stopover for these birds exists because of the almost complete destruction of California's wetlands - in the quest for land to build homes.

It is my opinion that California has made it's choices in how it will handle water shortages and the environmental impacts that results from them - very poorly and with much short sightedness.

By the way, some of the lies and misconceptions about the Salton Sea can be cleared-up by visiting this link a professor at San Diego State University runs (). I was a graduate student under this professor and the site is quite extensive, covering everything from the ecology of the lake to the political issues surrounding the region.

Gator - Yes, there is DDT in the region, but virtually none of the residues are present in much of the biota or sediments in the lake. This is strange since it is a terminal lake; however, we have recentlly discovered some microorganisms that utilize biochemical pathways that use these compounds for energy (source of electrons). I could give more details, but then I'd have to kill you.
posted by Unique Metabolism at 2:23 PM on July 6, 2006

Sorry about the link; here it is:

posted by Unique Metabolism at 2:27 PM on July 6, 2006

Nope; can't get the link thing to post correctly (good thing I'm still in school). Just copy and paste. Sorry.
posted by Unique Metabolism at 2:30 PM on July 6, 2006

unique metabolism: what's the big deal in regards to the dust storms? presumably there were dust storms there 100 years ago prior to the formation of the Salton Sea.
posted by keswick at 2:43 PM on July 6, 2006

Pacific Institute Report on Salton Sea.

Keswick: In regards to dust storms - I don't think I made the problem out to be nearly as big as it is going to be. Instead of a long-winded post on the impending (and current) atmospheric pollution in the Salton Basin region, I've posted a link to the Pacific Institute's recent report that outlines some of the results of a "no action" decision on restoration of the Salton Sea. In a nutshell: not only will dust be generated from an area of about 134,000 square miles, this dust contains high concentrations of selenium and other metals (a result of natural deposition from the Colorado River). One hundred years ago there were not nearly half-a-million people living in the basin, who will be the ones left to deal with this future disaster. Also, there was not the production of fine particulate matter being produced in the lake from primary production because the lake did not exist one hundred years ago. Air quality in the region is already some of the worst in California, so why not shoot for worst in the country? What the public (taxpayers) need to accept is that it will either cost money now to manage our water, or cost potentially much more managing disaters like this in the future.
posted by Unique Metabolism at 4:03 PM on July 6, 2006

To follow up on Unique Metabolism's comments...

A similar situation can be seen in Owens Valley as well. After Los Angeles sucked all the water out of Owens Lake, the area was prone to huge dust storms and caused major health issues in the valley (such as in Ridgecrest).

After going to court over the issue, Los Angeles has been forced to install drip irrigation systems in the former lake bed to keep the dust down.
posted by RockBandit at 10:42 PM on July 6, 2006

Another reason there are dust storms.... (I saw huge dust storms at the Salton Sea myself this December -- near the Sea but shielded by a rise. The dust was clearly coming from ORV trails nearby.)
posted by salvia at 1:46 AM on July 7, 2006

Details on public subsidies for irrigation:

"[Central Valley Project] farmers get about one-fifth of all the water used in California, at rates that by any measure are far below market value. In 2002, the average price for irrigation water from the CVP was less than 2 percent what Los Angeles residents pay for drinking water, one-tenth the estimated cost of replacement water supplies, and about one-eighth what the public pays to buy its own water back to restore the San Francisco Bay and Delta."
"Twenty-seven large farms received subsidies each worth $1 million or more..."
posted by salvia at 1:53 AM on July 7, 2006

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