By Mark West
On Friday, Feb. 24, the city of Imperial Beach received an e-mail from the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) in San Diego, with a federal sewage spill report attached from the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The news wasn't good, and in fact it confirmed our worst fears.
According to the report, over 143 million gallons of sewage was discharged into the Tijuana River from Feb. 6 to Feb. 23, during the course of a construction project upstream in Tijuana. The timeline of the report clearly coincides with a period of significant odor and stench that affected residents in south San Diego, Imperial Beach and Coronado, which prompted several news stories.
During this time, multiple inquiries were made to the IBWC and Baja California to find out what was going on. Despite the overwhelming evidence that a major sewage spill was in progress, what was remarkable, exasperating – and now possibly criminal – was the deafening silence from authorities on both sides of the border.
While this is the largest sewage spill in the Tijuana River in at least 10 years, it's important to remember there is a difference between storm-related runoff and the deliberate dumping of raw sewage into the Tijuana River when it is flowing. This was the latter – and while dumping has occurred before, it has never occurred at this scale or magnitude.
Activists have documented dozens of illegal sewage flows in the Tijuana River over the last several years and were able to stop them, even when authorities denied they were occurring. Last summer a group of activists even documented an illegal sewage discharge on the beach at Playas de Tijuana, right into the Pacific Ocean, and were successfully able to shut it down. As a result of these ongoing spills, Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina called for the dismissal of IBWC director Ed Drusina in July 2016.
Curiously, on Thursday, Feb. 23, the day before the official notification of the sewage spill from the IBWC, the city of Imperial Beach received a letter from the North American Development Bank (NADBANK) outlining plans by Baja California to build new sewage infrastructure in Tijuana to reduce beach pollution. So just as a bi-national group has been taking needed "baby steps" forward, this spill takes us back.
An additional concern is with U.S.–Mexico relations at a new low, these kinds of spills and the resulting lax notification could become the new normal – in which sewage spills that are supposed to be reported as according to the U.S.–Mexico Water Treaty Minute 320 are instead covered up without any regard for human safety.
So what can you do? Please call and write the San Diego offices of Congressman Juan Vargas, Congressman Scott Peters, Senator Diane Feinstein and Senator Kamala Harris, and ask for the following:
This isn't just an Imperial Beach problem. These kinds of spills impact all the residents of San Diego, Imperial Beach and Coronado, as well as the training of special warfare service members and all of the beaches of northern Baja, from Playas Tijuana to Rosarito. Any spill that contaminates a watershed as significant as the Tijuana River and a swath of the ocean from Rosarito to Coronado is entirely unacceptable.
We have the tools in place to stop such spills, and the communications available for our two countries to notify each other in a reasonable amount of time. What we need is greater advocacy, vigilance and effectiveness in implementing the processes the U.S. and Mexico have in place to enure a cleaner Tijuana River.
Mark West is a retired U.S. Navy officer and an Imperial Beach city council member.
Photos courtesy of the San Diego County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.
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