On Wednesday, Sept. 2, I attended a meeting with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to discuss recent and proposed improvements to border wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. Participants in the meeting included U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, County Supervisor Greg Cox, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey and high level officials from the Department of Homeland Security, Coast Guard, Customs and Border Patrol and the California Water Quality Control Board.
At the meeting Wheeler announced that recent repairs of two broken collector pipes in Tijuana had resulted in 4.5 million gallons a day of sewage being taken out of the Tijuana River. That combined with the installation of new pumps at the border by Mexico resulted in the Tijuana river flow being being pretty much completely captured at the border. Unfortunately that didn’t help over Labor Day weekend when after strong south winds and swell, the beach was closed again, (the closure more than likely was caused by a combination of residual sewage in the river and estuary and beach pollution from south of the border).
The EPA also announced additional new fixes to come. According to the EPA, to increase treatment of Tijuana river flows by 10 million gallons per day, the federal agency will enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the IBWC to divert additional water for treatment at the IBWC International Treatment Plant. The EPA will fund the design and construction of the diversion. Additionally, EPA is partnering with the City of San Diego to rapidly develop and deploy a permanent solution to better control sediment and trash in Smuggler’s Gulch—just north of the U.S. – Mexico border. In addition to capturing sediment and trash that would otherwise flow into the Pacific Ocean, this project will help reduce flood risk for the community. Funding for these near-term projects will be provided by the agency’s Border Water Infrastructure Program.
Wheeler announced that design and construction of a new diversion system funded by $300 million in USMCA funding should be underway next year. That should help tremendously with significantly reducing the unacceptable beach closures that have plagued Imperial Beach and Coronado over the past year. To date the main part of our beach has been closed over 160 days so far this year and the Silver Strand State Beach in Coronado has been closed over 60 days (a record).
On Sept. 3, I met with high level officials from the U.S. and Mexican sections of the IBWC together with City Manager Andy Hall and Natural Resources Director Chris Helmer. Recently appointed Humberto Marengo, Mexico’s Commissioner of CILA, or the Mexican Section of the IBWC, assured us his agency will continue to prioritize making upgrades such as installing new pumps and addressing the need for water reuse (the only long-term solution) so that sewage flows from Mexico are no longer discharged into the ocean. Jayne Harkins, Commissioner of the U.S. Section of the IBWC committed to working with the EPA and CILA for future improvements. We also explained the need to eliminate daily sewage discharges spills into Mexico’s shoreline from Playas to Tijuana south toward Rosarito Beach as well as western canyon spills.
Overall, the federal governments of the U.S. and Mexico are moving in the right direction, but the fact that we had to endure the past nine months of record sewage flows (over 500 million gallons in June alone) and beach closures before repairs could be made, shows how much more needs to be done and why it should be done quickly. All of this combined with the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that investments in protecting public health and clean air and water should be our top priority first and foremost.