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U.S. Congress Taking Steps To Alleviate South Bay Sewage Crisis

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Posted: Friday, January 3, 2020 12:49 pm

Sewage and other pollutants entering the United States from Mexico and flowing into the Pacific Ocean has been a problem since the 1930s. Many factors including a growing population base and a deteriorating infrastructure in Tijuana, plus an over-matched and outdated wastewater treatment plant at Punta Bandera on the Tijuana River, have all contributed to make the matter much worse in recent years.

Ample evidence of the problem occurred in February 2017 when the rainy season caused an outflow of an estimated 143 million gallons of untreated sewage including toxins, trash, hazardous chemicals and heavy metals via the Tijuana River into the U.S. and subsequently into the Pacific Ocean. Lest you think the 2017 episode was an outlier, in September 2019 an additional 110 million gallons of sewage took the same path from Tijuana to the Pacific Ocean.

That series of incidents seemed to heighten the already growing outrage that had been building over the years in the South Bay, in turn triggering lawsuits and lobbying efforts to address the issue. However, as this article is being written, beaches extending from Border Field State Park north to Silver Strand State Beach are closed due to pollution discharge, exacerbated by recent heavy rains. The sewage is a long way from being solved.

Lobbying efforts were ramped up earlier this year. September 24, 2019, a delegation from the San Diego Region including San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, Port of San Diego Board Chairman Garry Bonelli, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey and Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina met with representatives of the Trump Administration in an effort to gain funding to stop the sewage problem. In an article written about the meeting that appeared in the Coronado Eagle & Journal, Bonelli said, “I think our delegation did a very good job laying out the details of the sewage problem that has been chronic for decades. We also talked about how the problem has gotten worse and that we really have seen a spike (of sewage flows). We have mentioned several times that we have a problem during the rainy season, but now the flows are occurring during the dry season. One of the problems is there are now four million people on the other side of the border in the Tijuana area, which is growing much faster than San Diego and the South Bay Area. Greg Cox did a good job of laying out the (sewage treatment) components on our side of the border, on federal land, and that if $404 million can be put into an infrastructure system, that would probably relieve the problem by more than 90 percent. We would go from 120 days of beach closures down to a handful.”

As you navigate this column, keep the $404 million funding target for sewage treatment in mind.

Fast forward a few months and good news is emanating from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), which contains a $300 million funding provision for upgrading the Environmental Protection Agency’s Border Water Infrastructure Program, was passed by the House of Representatives in mid-December. It now moves to the Senate, which won’t consider the legislation, a major platform in President Donald Trump’s agenda, until after Trump’s impeachment trial. The trade agreement is expected to pass, but in the current political environment, there are no sure things until the legislation is actually signed.

The bill however comes with some caveats, which Bonelli described in detail. “When you look at the $300 million, that will be spread from the Pacific Ocean to the East Coast of Texas. How much money the Tijuana River Valley receives remains to be seen. A key is the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) will have a total budget for the year of around $40 million, which is a big plus-up. A fight for this money is a fight worth having. I try to be the guy who sees the glass half full. We’ll go through the appropriations and the committees and see how much money winds up coming to San Diego. The other issue that comes up and one we argued in the Nation’s Capital is the health and welfare of the Border and Customs personnel and the Military personnel in the water. Where and when the money goes, whether it comes in three months or three years, is up in the air. From the Port of San Diego’s perspective, we’re in a wait and see mode right now. The reality is nobody really knows yet. Again I remain optimistic. I know how polluted San Diego Bay was 50 years ago. There were dead spots in the Bay and now it’s cleaner that it’s ever been.”

It should be noted the USIBWC is headquartered in El Paso, Texas and in the FY 2020 Congressional Budget Justification for the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, it says, “The FY 2020 Request for IBWC Construction is $26 million, including funding for the Rio Grande Flood Control System Rehabilitation. This funding provides for the engineering and design mediation of deficient levee segments at Fabens and Fort Hancock, Texas, as well as the design and construction of two levee improvements.” Notice the Golden State is not included in that request.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina has been at the forefront of the drive to solve the sewage crisis. He said of the Congressional funding efforts, “The City of Imperial Beach is grateful to the San Diego County Congressional delegation including Scott Peters, Juan Vargas, Mike Levin and Susan Davis, as well as Senators Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris for working proactively to secure $325 million in funding to stop the flow of toxic waste and sewage that is polluting our beaches in Imperial Beach and Coronado. We are also grateful to all of our local partners and residents who worked together to advocate to secure federal funding to address this environmental and public health disaster. We will continue to push hard to make sure Mexico fixes its collapsing sewer system which is resulting in the recent record sewage flows and beach closures. This has been a team effort all the way and I am grateful that Imperial Beach, Coronado, Chula Vista, San Diego, County of San Diego, Port of San Diego along with the State of California are working more closely than ever with our Congressional partners and federal agencies to make sure we can once again have clean beaches 365 days a year.”

Coronado City Councilmember Whitney Benzian provided his insights on the funding, a related $25 million from Congress and plans for the City of Coronado regarding the sewage issue going forward. “We don’t know exactly how the funding is being divided up. There are several zones from here to Texas the money has been allocated to. The long and short of it is Richard Bailey, (City Manager) Blair King and I are going back to Washington in early February and we’ll put on our lobbying hard hat to push our message and cause again. I think the lobbying has been helpful and everyone has played a role. We haven’t met yet on our specific message points, but we won’t veer too far off what we have presented in the past. It’s a national security issue with our Border Patrol, the Navy SEALs and the $4 billion Navy Coastal Campus nearly done. It’s not a good return on investment or for the environment, to have the beach closed one-third of the year. That’s our message and our plan. It’s more detailed than just showing up in D.C. We’ll go out for two full days and we’ll be more focused on Congress, EPA officials and the various other agencies. We had good meetings with the EPA from the get-go and they understood the issues. Ken Wagner, who is a Trump appointee, was a good advocate for us. With our lobbying we laid a good foundation at the highest levels. We’ll tap into the folks we met and the relationships we have. The Senate did vote to approve the $25 million, which will go to the Border Water Infrastructure Program (BWIP). The effort in 2020 will be to help get approval for the Tijuana River project from the EPA, IBWC, and other agencies to help get as much BWIP money as possible directed to the project.”

The dizzying array of governmental agencies referenced in the previous paragraph is just the tip of the iceberg. As the former Force Commander of the Navy SEALs, Admiral Bonelli knows his way around bureaucracy. As he said in September 2019, “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the head honcho and enforcer of the Clean Water Act. They are in the position of saying, ‘You guys figure it out.’ Name a government agency and they are involved, including the Army Corps of Engineers and locally, the California Coastal Commission. And this is a bi-national deal which includes Mexico and the IBWC.”

Senator Diane Feinstein said in a press release when the USMCA Trade Bill passed the House, “San Diego and surrounding communities have long dealt with the critical problem of sewage and other pollution coming across the border from the Tijuana River. This is a major issue that requires federal involvement. That’s why I’m so pleased that both the federal spending bills and the recently announced trade agreement will help address this problem. This is an issue I’ve worked on for over a decade, and it’s an issue vital to the health of San Diegans. It’s absolutely unacceptable that raw sewage is entering our country from Mexico. This will remain a top priority for me until we’ve solved the problem.”

Feinstein’s press release referenced a couple of additional provisions included in the federal bills and the trade agreement that are of note. They include:

Authorization for the North American Development Bank to fund additional projects related to water pollution, wastewater treatment, water conservation, municipal solid waste, stormwater drainage and non-point pollution.

A requirement that the Secretary of State creates an interagency plan to address the effects of toxic cross-border flows on communities in the United States. The plan will include which agencies are responsible and what steps will be taken to ensure it’s a priority for Mexico and,

A requirement that U.S. Customs and Border Protection submits a report on efforts to protect its agents from toxic cross-border flows.

Progress is being made on the sewage treatment issue and some portion of the $325 million in funding either approved or in the works, is an amount not to be dismissed. Lobbying efforts from the City of San Diego, San Diego County and the City of Coronado are paying off. Legal action undertaken by the Port of San Diego, the City of Imperial Beach and the City of Chula Vista against the IBWC likely contributed to the attention the issue is receiving as well as the funding. However, if the $404 million in funding referenced above is the targeted amount of money needed to upgrade the existing South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant and construct a new plant, there is still a long road ahead.

Alessandra Selgi-Harrigan contributed to this story.

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