Nogales sewage pipe to receive life-saving repair

Susan Barnett Special for the Arizona Daily Star

In the summer of 2017, over 600,000 gallons of sewage flowed from a sewer leak in eight days near the town of Nogales, Arizona.

It wasn’t the first or the last time, but it was the number one indicator of the condition of the sewer line. Sewage leaks are common in Nogales, bringing the rancid smell of sewage throughout the town.

“All the way from City Hall to the border, which is about a mile or two, the smell is so bad,” Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino said, referring to the sewer pipe that runs through the heart of downtown. “We’re standing here next to the plant, and it doesn’t smell like it smells (in Nogales).”

The 9-mile sewer pipe that begins in Nogales, Sonora and runs through Nogales, Arizona to the Rio Rico plant is finally being repaired, marked by a groundbreaking late last month at the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant. But some say the much-needed fix to the International Outfall Interceptor, also known as the IOI, doesn’t go far enough to address long-standing problems.

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After years of planning, the city of Nogales secured $38 million to repair the sewer line. Since 2010, Congress has allocated a total of $34.2 million in funding annually for the rehabilitation of the IOI. About $1.36 million in costs were shared with Mexico, and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality provided $2.59 million. An additional $1 million came from Freeport-McMoRan Inc., an American mining company incorporated in Phoenix.

“It takes a while to build infrastructure, it takes a while to plan for it, it takes a while to develop the right solutions. And it’s taking a while to get the funding,” said Maria-Elena Giner, the commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission, a federal agency that resolves binational differences involving water, sanitation and water quality. “Nevertheless, it needs strong advocates who will push for this infrastructure. And we just had the right advocates.”

The battle over who would fund the project was ongoing, and much of the reason it took so long to get the project off the ground.

Previously, Mexico had not agreed to share the construction costs for the IOI and also stated that it bears no responsibility for the operating and maintenance costs. According to the commission’s documents, Mexico was granted a $1.36 million order to fund the IOI repair, stating that the remediation was necessary.

“Today we highlight what can happen when we abandon conflict and dispute and instead choose cooperation and collaboration,” said Misael Cabrera, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. “Today we’re highlighting what’s possible when we stop pointing fingers and start solving problems.”

“Trouble and Deterioration”

Originally built in 1951 and replaced in 1971, the condition of the pipeline was assessed in 2005 by Brown and Caldwell, a Tucson engineering firm. They determined that the pipeline’s lifespan was 50 years and identified “significant pipeline problems and deterioration.”

The International Water Commission previously spent a total of $5 million on emergency repairs in 2008, 2010, 2013, 2015 and 2017, but that repair would be a semi-permanent repair with a lifespan of another 50 years, spokeswoman Lori Kuczmanski said.

This repair comes at just the right time as 2022 will be the 51st year. It marks the bi-national, cross-generational efforts of past and present commissioners, mayors and representatives to keep the project alive.

The five-phase project is being carried out by SAK Construction under a $13.8 million contract with the Water Authority for the first three phases. Each phase includes different sections of the sewer pipe. Phases one through three span 5.3 miles north of the international border and will be completed by October 2023.

Phases four and five, which have not yet received a construction contract, comprise 3.4 miles ending at the Rio Rico Wastewater Treatment Plant and are expected to be completed by October 2024.

The repair consists of trenchless technology and cured-in-place piping, a method that involves placing a liner inside the pipe and then curing it in place to protect the walls from possible root damage and other structural problems that could lead to Guide sewage leaks out of the pipe.

“You don’t have to dig everything up and rip out old pipes and create these types of problems that can have a variety of impacts on a community,” said Sally Spencer, the US Secretary of the Water Commission.

A ‘Band-Aid’ repair

There are still critics of the project who say it’s not enough to address long-standing problems. The mayor of Nogales, Arturo Garino, calls it a patch.

“It will protect us,” he said. “But it will take time. It’s not like having a leash of the right size and capacity. When you have a small line like this and you have almost half a million people, the lines are going to be under pressure. That’s what causes the problems.”

Garino argues that the pipeline would need to be 48 to 60 inches in diameter to move without pressure. However, Kuczmanski of the Water Commission said the pipeline is already fed by gravity and isn’t moving with pressure as Garino claimed, although the pipeline’s needs could change as populations on either side of the border increase.

Garino has been a proponent of rebuilding the pipeline since talks of a reconstruction project began in the early 2000s.

“Studies have been done, and it’s just not feasible,” Kuczmanski said, referring to Brown and Caldwell’s 2005 study. “It would be a lot of money to completely remove this IOI from the laundry that will.” just don’t happen. So the next best thing is to use CIPP technology. And it’s like a new pipe for the next 50 years.”

The pipeline passes under the Nogales wash and is transported to the Rio Rico sewage treatment plant where it will be treated. The sewage is then diverted back into the Santa Cruz River, which flows north toward Tucson, where it dries up.

Near Rio Rico and Tubac, however, the water brings life to the desert, where the critically endangered Gila topmink thrives and aquatic invertebrates thrive, according to the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving natural resources to protect the region.

It’s a “beautiful, lush riparian corridor,” said Luke Cole, a spokesman for the Sonoran Institute, which has published annual reports on the state of the Santa Cruz River since 2008.

Problems with outdated sewage systems on both sides of the international border in Nogales had caused health threats to residents from fecal coliform bacteria, according to the Arizona Daily Star archives. In 2011, the report stated that the fish population was increasing again due to a $59 million renovation of the sewage treatment plant.

A sewage breach dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Santa Cruz River in 2017, raising serious concerns about the health of the river and E. coli potentially entering the river people were visiting.

Two years later, a report from the Sonoran Institute found that high levels that do not meet Arizona’s E. coli standard continue to be seen in the river, with 73% of the exceedances occurring during the wet season, suggesting that rain faeces washes in the river.

“Maintaining an IOI that brings water to the United States is creating the Santa Cruz River in Nogales as we know it, and it’s a large, beautiful river corridor that we believe will benefit the people who live here.” live, and the fish must be protected, the bugs and wildlife,” said Cole.

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