Exposed line (copy)

In this photo from June 2013, a section of the International Outfall Interceptor, which carries sewage from Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Ariz. to a treatment plant in Rio Rico, lies exposed in the Nogales Wash about 100 yards south of the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division office on North Grand Avenue.

A measure that would relieve the City of Nogales of its disproportionate financial responsibility for a cross-border sewer line and treatment plant is getting a second shot in Congress.

The Nogales Wastewater Fairness Act died after being introduced in both houses of Congress in 2017 by then-Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake and then-Rep. Martha McSally. On Tuesday, four members of the state’s current delegation in Washington – including now-Sen. McSally – submitted it for another try.

The sponsors say they believe the measure now has a better chance of becoming law because of the different makeups of both Congress and the bill’s sponsorship.

“Unlike in 2017, this legislation has funding to go with it and a vehicle to pass it,” McSally spokeswoman Amy Lawrence wrote in an email. “This time, we’re working under divided government – where bipartisan, bicameral bills tend to fare better.”

The sponsors of the bill in 2017 were all Republican, including McSally, and both houses of Congress were controlled by Republicans at the time. This time, the measure is backed by a Republican and three Democrats – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Reps. Raul Grijalva and Ann Kirkpatrick – and the House has shifted to a Democratic majority.

Geoff Nolan, a spokesman for Grijalva’s office, wrote in an email that “we are optimistic that with the new Democratic majority, it will have a better chance of passage.”

The International Outfall Interceptor, as the sewer line is formally known, carries more than 10 million gallons of wastewater each day from the border to the Nogales Wastewater Treatment Plant in Rio Rico.

Maintenance of the pipeline is the shared responsibility of the city and the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) as the result of a deal struck back in 1953. A settlement in a 2004 federal lawsuit requires Nogales to pay 23 percent of the treatment plant’s more-than $5 million annual operating costs until the city repairs or replaces the aging sewer line.

The city, however, has balked at the 23-percent share, saying Nogales contributes only about 8 percent of the sewage treated at the plant, with the rest coming from Nogales, Sonora. And it has fought the IBWC in court over the ownership of and responsibility for maintaining the deteriorating and leak-prone line.

The Nogales Wastewater Fairness Act would require that the City of Nogales only be charged operation and maintenance costs based on the average daily wastewater that originates from the city. It would also relieve Nogales of the obligation to contribute to the costs of repairing or upgrading the pipeline or treatment plant.

“We are bringing fairness to the people of Nogales by making sure they’re no longer forced to pay for Mexico’s sewage costs,” Sinema said in a news release. “Our commonsense legislation protects Nogales taxpayers by fixing the outdated financial agreement over this pipeline.”

To help make sure the IBWC would properly maintain the IOI, Grijalva also submitted an amendment to a government funding bill that would direct $4 million of the entity’s budget for that purpose.

“This amendment is another avenue to allocate critical resources to address the future maintenance of the IOI,” Grijalva said in a news release. “No community should have to live under the constant threat of water contamination, and clarifying the responsibility of the IOI is an important step toward making this a reality.”

The revival of the Nogales Wastewater Fairness Act was cheered by local leaders, including Mayor Arturo Garino, who called it “great news for the ratepayers of the City of Nogales,” and County Supervisor Bruce Bracker, who said: “We have been advocating for a long-term solution to this problem and it is clear that local governments simply don’t have the resources to address what is a federal and an international issue.”

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