Levels of E. coli bacteria near the site of a breach in a cross-border sewer line north of city limits were so high during initial testing, they exceeded the capabilities of field equipment and easily surpassed recommended standards, health officials said Thursday.

“Samples have been found at levels of E. coli bacteria that exceed recommended levels at both below and above the breach,” according to the draft text of a news release from Santa Cruz County Health Services that was read to the NI in advance of a 5 p.m. news conference Thursday. 

However, because the limits of the tests were surpassed, specific particulate measurements were not available. Samples were taken again on Thursday and submitted for additional testing, the draft news release said. Results were expected within 24 hours.

Based on the initial test results, the Santa Cruz County government signed an emergency declaration that was submitted to the state. Gov. Doug Ducey responded by declaring a state of emergency Thursday afternoon, setting aside $200,000 in state funding to address the breach in addition to asking for federal assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The pipeline known as the International Outfall Interceptor (IOI), which carries up to 14 million gallons of raw sewage and runoff each day from Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Ariz. to a treatment plant in Rio Rico, ruptured near the National Forest Ranger Station on Old Tucson Road at some point prior to Tuesday morning. It continues to dump wastewater into the north-flowing Potrero Creek, which connects with the Santa Cruz River near the treatment plant.

A hydrologist from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and a city employee were at the site Tuesday afternoon taking initial water samples. County Health Services Director Jeff Terrell said public works employees monitored the breach late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning and “reported no significant change.” 

According to Ducey’s emergency proclamation, the line break “poses significant environmental concerns as well as health and public safety threats to the residents of Nogales, Ariz. and Santa Cruz County.” Furthermore, it says, the contaminants continue “to flow north and into the Santa Cruz River towards the City of Tucson,” and the magnitude of the situation far exceeds the city and county’s resources. 

In a separate letter sent to Col. Kirk Gibbs, commander of the Army Corps’ Los Angeles District, Ducey asked that the agency provide direct and technical assistance for “flood fight operations,” especially since it’s expected to rain throughout the weekend, which could exacerbate the problem. 

“This is an international concern affecting both the United States and the Republic of Mexico, which requires direct intervention at the federal level to appropriately address,” he wrote. 

The City of Nogales says it will cost more than $5 million to fix the breach, and as of Thursday morning, a plan of action had not been formulated due to the location and nature of the break, in addition to weather concerns. The cost also far exceeds the city’s Sewer Department budget, set at roughly $2.7 million, said City Manager Carlos Rivera.

In a state of emergency proclamation signed Wednesday by Mayor John Doyle, the city asked Ducey to “make available any and all assistance that may be available to meet this emergency.” The declaration also asserted that “the continued overflow of untreated sewage has caused and is causing a public safety and health hazard for the residents of the City of Nogales and surrounding areas.” 

E. coli, a bacteria found in the digestive tracts of humans and warm blooded animals, is generally spread through food or water contaminated with human or animal feces, according to the Mayo Clinic. E. coli infections can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever, and, in severe cases, kidney failure, which can lead to death if left untreated. Children, the elderly and pregnant women, as well as those with a weakened immune system, are the most at risk for developing severe symptoms.

“Santa Cruz County Health Services and the Arizona Department of Health Services is advising the public to stay out of the Nogales Wash and the Santa Cruz River,” the Thursday afternoon news release said. “Even in the absence of untreated sewage, stormflows are typically high in pollutants that can be harmful to human health, such as bacteria and pathogens. Water near and downstream of the International Outfall Interceptor partial breach is of particular concern and should be avoided.”

The Department of Agriculture also recommended that water from the Santa Cruz River not be used to water food crops or gardens, and said livestock should not be in the river or drinking from it.

'Not responsible'

Terrell said after a portion of the IOI became exposed – but not broken – Monday near Hohokam Drive in Nogales, a city public works employee assessed the rest of the line and discovered the breach north of city limits Tuesday morning. City and county public works employees, staff with the county’s Emergency Management Office, and personnel from the local fire departments went to the scene to assess the damage and potential risks.

Late Tuesday afternoon, sewage from the broken line could be seen bubbling up into the north-flowing creek on one side of the raised manhole, as well as pouring down into the water from a rocky bank on the other side as the ADEQ hydrologist and city employee collected their samples.

It’s unclear exactly when the break occurred at Manhole 89 in an undeveloped and sparsely populated area of the county, but Terrell said a dislodged portion of the cement casing around the manhole partially sheared the pipe below the waterline following a powerful rainstorm last Friday.

Maintenance of the sewer line is the shared responsibility of the City of Nogales and the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) as the result of an arrangement dating to 1953. However, the city’s emergency proclamation says it has repeatedly asked the IBWC to help repair the breach, but the federal agency “continues to deny any responsibility or assistance.”

Asked what IBWC’s position is on the current ownership of the IOI, Spokeswoman Lori Kuczmanski wrote in an email Thursday that “USIBWC does not own the IOI and is not responsible for its operation or maintenance.”

Speaking on a “report and recommendation” issued by U.S. Magistrate Judge D. Thomas Ferraro on April 4, which noted that the IBWC is at least a partial owner or operator of the IOI and that the agency is aware that wastewater is continuously discharged from the pipeline into the wash in violation of Arizona state statute, Kuczmanski said IBWC disagrees with the recommendation and has filed an objection. A final ruling has not yet been issued.

And though Kuczmanski said the agency was actively engaged in the process of addressing the breach after the IBWC was criticized for not attending an emergency meeting held Tuesday at the County Complex – which she argued they weren’t aware of – she added that a leak hasn’t yet been verified.

“We have not verified that there is a leak of wastewater into any surface water area or, if there is a leak, the extent of the leak,” she wrote Thursday. “We do know that the wastewater plant is receiving normal flows, which indicates no leak or a minor leak.”

Kuczmanski added that staff tested for E. coli upstream from Manhole 89 and downstream near East Ruby Road. She provided raw data from those tests, with no accompanying interpretation, on Thursday afternoon.

City officials sent a letter to the IBWC on Monday in regard to emergency repairs to a section of the IOI in the Nogales Wash along Hohokam Drive that became exposed as a result of recent erosion. However, the request was denied, Deputy City Manager John Kissinger said.

Crews covered the pipe with dirt on Monday and the city subsequently tasked a contractor with shoring up the bank along the wash to prevent the pipe from breaking. The contractor was at the site Thursday working on the project, and the city and county governments have agreed to split the cost of repairs.

A formal request for assistance to repair the broken line north of city limits is pending.

“We would hope that the IBWC would take the same position that this is extremely important and requires immediate attention,” Rivera said.

The situation is especially frustrating, he added, because only about 9 percent of the total wastewater flowing through the pipe and treated at the plant last month came from city customers, while the remainder came from Mexico.

Dams and diversions

As for fixing the breach north of city limits, County Manager Jennifer St. John said staff is willing to divert the water so that crews could evaluate the break, but it would have to be done before another monsoon storm hits.

Asked if creating a dam would be an efficient method to isolate the breach, St. John said the city has used sandbags during previous incidents but it wouldn’t be effective in this case. Shutting off the line is also out of the question, Terrell said, because it would cause the wastewater coming from Mexico to back up.

Kissinger added that because of poor infrastructure in Nogales, Sonora, there’s usually raw sewage spilling into the wash.

“On any given day there’s sewage in the Nogales Wash from breaks in Mexico,” he said. “To put it in perspective, we don’t know if the break out in Rio Rico (at Manhole 89) is any bigger or smaller than the break that’s currently dumping sewage into the wash in Nogales, Sonora.”

St. John said staff chlorinates the water to minimize any harmful effects from the contaminants, and workers checked chlorine levels near the breach on Tuesday and found that they were “a little bit high.”

“A partial break would theoretically make it a little bit worse,” she said of to the amount of contaminants found in the wash. She added that though another storm would help dilute levels found in the wash, if the problem isn’t fixed, contaminants could potentially seep into the ground.

“(I)f the problem doesn’t get fixed, there’s more potential for soil penetration or groundwater issues. So the longer it stays a problem, the more area that could be affected,” she said.

The county has established a hotline for public inquiries about the IOI breach at (520) 375-7784 and said updates will also be posted on the county’s Facebook page, Twitter feed (@santacruzaz) and at santacruzcountyaz.gov.

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