Pollution on the New River between the United States and Mexico

New River (Río Nuevo) flows between Calexico, US, and Mexicali, Mexico, crossing political borders and connecting the two countries. The modern-day river was formed following major flooding, a result of heavy rainfall and levee failure in 1905. The river is commonly considered the most polluted waterway in North America, causing severe health and environmental problems; it is a source of political conflict between the US and Mexico. Many US-owned industrial firms have already moved south of the border into Mexico as US environmental protection laws become stricter. Mexico, meanwhile, supports new industries that are valuable for employment and regional development, but they have little regard for sustainable practice, resulting in the permanent contamination of the Río Nuevo. Treated and untreated municipal, industrial, and agricultural waste are all dumped into the river, containing pesticides, toxic metals, noxious bacteria and strains of diseases such as polio, hepatitis, and typhoid. The pollution is harmful to the watershed and to the residents living close by. Communities surrounding the river have very little power to change the situation: north of the border these communities are mostly made up of minorities and illegal immigrants, and south of the border they are generally of lower classes and lack a strong political voice.  

Contributed by Christina Garcia
Course: Modern Global Environmental History
Instructor: Dr. Wilko Graf von Hardenberg
University of Wisconsin–Madison, US

Further Readings: 
  • Gruenberg, Phil. New River Pollution in Mexico: A Historical Overview. Colorado River Basin Region: California Regional Water Quality Control Board, 1998.
  • Fernandez, Linda, and Richard Carson, eds. Both Sides of the Border: Transboundary Environmental Management Issues Facing Mexico and the United States. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002.
  • Perry D., R. Sanchez, W. Glaze, and M. Mazari. “Binational Management of Hazardous Waste: The Maquiladora Industry at the US-Mexico Border.” Environmental Management 14, no. 4 (1990): 441-450.