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Tijuana Sewage Flows Into San Diego Beaches: A Timeline of Events

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Tijuana Sewage at Border Field State Park on January 12, 2017 (Photo by Barbara Zaragoza)

On Wednesday, April 5th, Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina — a life-long IB resident and avid surfer — went on KUSI News to expose another sewage spill from Mexico into the Tijuana River after a resident complained of a renewed fetid smell.

Only days before, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) published “Report of Transboundary Bypass Flows into the Tijuana River,” a subdued 56-page explanation of events with no immediate relief for residents on either side of the border.

Tijuana sewage has been a chronic problem that dates back to the 1930s, but each year the cross-border sewage flows seem to get worse. Why has this problem persisted?

The Pump Station and Sanitation Treatment Plant

On the Mexican side, a pump station was constructed in 1991. However, the pump has always shut down if flows have exceeded its capacity. This is still true today, as Marty Graham at the San Diego Reader reported in September 2015.

Then, in 1997 the IBWC opened a sanitation plant that was supposed to help definitively solve the wastewater problem between Tijuana and San Diego. For two decades, the plant has treated up to 25 million gallons of Tijuana sewage per day. (I wrote about its history and provided a tour of the plant in 2015.)

However, sewage from Mexico contaminating U.S. beaches has persisted despite the pump and sanitation plant. Why? Because Tijuana continues to grow at about one block every month and infrastructure has not met the demands of population growth.

Desalination Plant Instead of Wastewater Treatment

In July 2016 Mayor Dedina called for the head of the IBWC, Ed Drusina, to be fired. Dedina maintained that Drusina had done nothing to stop the cross-border sewage flows even though it was a critical problem.

Dedina then protested the Otay Water District’s submission of an application for a Presidential Permit to construct a 4-mile long potable water pipeline that could transport water from the Rosarito Desalination plant across the U.S.-Mexico border to Otay Mesa.

Tijuana SewageThe plant in Rosarito Beach is set to become the largest desalination facility in the Western Hemisphere, creating 50 million gallons of drinkable water by 2019. Dedina publicly criticized the Presidential Permit precisely because money for a desalination project and a pipeline could be used instead to remedy the chronic sewage problem.

The article went on to explain:

When sewage is collected in Mexico, much of the waste is sent to a place called San Antonio de Las Buenos or Punto Banderas just 6 miles South of the Border.

WildCoast and Surfrider estimate that the sewage being discharged in the ocean each day “could be anywhere from 30 to 50 million gallons a day depending. No one’s really counting. We think it’s grown exponentially because of the increase in development…

In addition, Dedina explains, sewage is being discharged into the ocean each day at multiple sites from Las Playas down to Rosarito, Mexico. Some of the sewage is dumped illegally at night.

The Massive 2917 Tijuana Sewage Spill — Timeline of Events

January 1, 2017: According to an informational paper published by CESPT (Comisión Estatal de Services Publics de Tijuana), after heavy rains in the second half of December a wastewater line in Tijuana collapsed. Hydraulic work was conducted from February 1st through 4th and while the work was performed, it was necessary to divert sewage into the Tijuana River. The U.S. EPA using the date of January 1st, indicated that a potential volume of 230 million gallons had been bypassed to the river. (Pgs. 6-7 in report)

February 6, 2017: The IBWC started receiving complaints about strong wastewater odors in the Tijuana River Valley and adjoining neighborhoods and beach areas. The next day, the IBWC requested information from its Mexican counterpart.

February 23, 2017: The Mexican IBWC informed the U.S. IBWC that a wastewater line in central Tijuana had broken and repairs had been completed.

On February 24, 2017 the US IBWC filed a spill report with the California Office of Emergency Services and the San Diego Water Board for an estimated volume of 143 million gallons.

March 2, 2017: IB Mayor Dedina spoke to the Union Tribune, ABC 10 News and the San Diego Reader about the raw sewage spill. SD Councilmember David Alvarez came out with a statement demanding action. Then on March 2nd community members attended the IBWC meeting demanding something be done.

March 4, 2017: I drove to the Tijuana River Valley during the rain storm and took a video of fetid water crossing Monument Road.

March 24, 2017: Sandra Dibble from the Union Tribune reported that Baja California’s Secretary of Infrastructure and Urban Development would create a plan for a new sewage treatment plant on the Baja California coast.

And yet, the day before — March 23, 2017 — IB council member Mark West wrote on his Facebook: “This afternoon City of Imperial Beach is reporting a visible plume off the coast, and odors in the river valley and at the beach… IBWC is requesting that Mexico investigate and notify of source of any sewer system overflows.”

April 3, 2017: Dig Imperial Beach reported that the IBWC released a report.

The IBWC offered four recommendations in reaction to what newspapers were calling one of the largest spills in decades:

  1. Equipment was needed to address emergency situations: In particular, the report said “This spill highlighted the need for CESPT to have the appropriate equipment to divert and route flows within the collection system and not bypass into the river.
  2. Communication: There was a lack of communication between the governmental agencies in Mexico and the U.S.
  3. Infrastructure Assessment: “Investigate the possibility of providing additional infrastructure on the U.S. side to handle contaminated flows crossing the border in the Tijuana River.”
  4. Data collection: Determine a baseline condition for water quality.

Who will undertake these recommendations? How long will it take? How much will it cost? These questions remain unanswered.

In the meantime, sewage dumping continues. Foul odors waft across our communities. The dangers to beach-goers is unclear. We only have a tribute to surfer Barry Ault that gives us pause. Ault died in January 2015 from a staph infection possibly caused by storm bacteria.

(First published at San Diego Free Press)

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