By Michael Torti
The Tijuana River Valley encompasses 1,750 miles and is home to an astonishing biodiversity of plants and wildlife in 12 major watersheds, with miles of hiking and horseback riding opportunities and scenic beaches. But as many San Diegans know, there is an odorous issue that inflicts ongoing environmental damage to this otherwise gorgeous area.
Earlier this year, on Feb. 24, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) alerted authorities that raw sewage from Mexico had been released into the Tijuana River due to rains that overwhelmed upriver pump stations. Estimated to be between 30 and 143 million gallons, the spill entered the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Tijuana River just south of Imperial Beach and the Silver Strand. While the spill sickened residents, impacted the local economy and killed wildlife, neither the state or federal government funded an emergency cleanup.
Sadly, this is not a new event. The Tijuana River Valley has been polluted by raw sewage and trash since the 1930s, and as the population of Tijuana has swelled to 1.8 million people, the city's trash collection and sewage infrastructure has failed to keep pace. The result is abundance of trash mixed with sediment and persistent sewage spills.
Raw sewage spills occur when area sewage treatment systems, already overwhelmed by the increase of sewage due to the increase in population, become overwhelmed by rain. This is aggraveted by the concrete channelization of the Tijuana River through downtown Tijuana, built in the 1980s following the calamitous flooding of Tijuana during the 1982 El Niño.
While Mexico's CILA pumping facility went on-line in 1991, it can only collect up to 23 million gallons per day and operates only during dry weather. The nearby Mexican wastewater treatment plant also pumps untreated water into the CILA facility, further limiting its capacity of sewage flows.
On the U.S. side of the border, the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant off Dairy Mart Road is a secondary wastewater treatment facility built in 1997, but it can only treat 25 million gallons of water per day – and this is on a normal day, not during a major rainfall event.
Rain creates smaller, but frequent sewage flows in the Tijuana River. Sixty percent of Tijuana River sloughs and 20 percent of beaches in I.B. are closed each year due to sewage contamination, prompting massive health, economic and environmental consequences. Our nation doesn't need to build an absurd border wall, but it does need to spend money on adequate infrastructure to prevent sewage flows from entering the Tijuana River once and for all.
A coalition of bi-national stakeholders, added on as an accord or "minute" to the larger 1944 water treaty between the U.S. and Mexico, is referred to as the Minute 320 work group. This group has been tasked with proposing waste and pollution solutions. During this month's meeting, the group reviewed the condition of pump stations and how to optimize the diversion of sewage flows. One solution that was discussed was the construction of additional diversions in Mexico, plus new diversions and pumping on the U.S. side of the border. While this is progress, further funding must be secured.
Federal money to support border sewage projects is typically funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Unfortunately, as we're all well aware, these are not normal times for the EPA, or for responsible levels of environmental funding. In the face of the EPA's politically-fueled intransigence, Senator Dianne Feinstein has requested an additional $24 million in funding for the IBWC, and State Senator Ben Hueso has proposed $2.1 million towards restoration efforts. Baja California has similarly proposed a plan to upgrade Tijuana's sewage system by spending $357 million MXN on upgrading wastewater treatment ponds.
What can you do? There are several ways to make a difference. The first is to contact your federal representatives and demand that funding at last be provided to the IBWC to fund clean-ups, restoration and infrastructure. You can also get involved in the clean-up. Each year the Tijuana River Action Network, a collaboration of local non-profits and community groups, comes together to remove trash and restore the estuary. Last year 2,934 volunteers removed 64,000 pounds of trash.
If you want to get more involved, organizations like Wildcoast, the Surfrider Foundation, and Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve offer a variety of volunteer opportunities, and would be grateful to have your help.
Please take action and together we can protect the Tijuana River Valley, and in time, restore the river to its full health and splendor.
Michael Torti serves as the chair of the San Diego County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.
The blog component of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action welcomes content from SDCDEA members, guests and leadership.