Feb. 6, 2021 marks the four year anniversary of the “Big Spill of February 2017.” For 17 days, from Feb. 6 - Feb. 23, Mexico dumped what experts and residents alike would deem as an unprecedented amount of raw sewage, toxic chemical contamination and trash into the U.S. via the Tijuana River. The country of Mexico admitted to only a four day period, totalling 28 million gallons of raw sewage released and “diverted” from Rio Alomar into the Tijuana River, resulting from the point collector collapse, a piece of infrastructure that suffered catastrophic failure.
However a bi-national investigation into the the incident used time-lapsed google earth satellite imagery to determine at least 256 million gallons were basically “unaccounted for” by examining the rate per second and time duration of the transboundary flow that resulted in the ghastly sight and absolute horrific smell of urine, raw sewage and industrial grade chemicals that were present all through the Tijuana River Valley, Border Field State Park, Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Estuary Preserve and the beaches from Playas de Tijuana northward, all the way into San Diego Bay. Dead birds and other fallen sea life were visible from the border all the way to Coronado along the shoreline. USIBWC (United States International Boundary and Water Commission) claimed if they had had advanced warning, this all could have been checked and the crisis avoided by capturing and diverting the flow here in the U.S. But Mexico failed to communicate the failure and only responded under immense pressure from the U.S.
The resulting outrage from the public overspilled in a standing room only conference room at the Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center during a Citizens Forum Board Meeting of the USIBWC. Mexican officials from Tijuana’s CESPT (municipal water utility) and CILA (Mexican IBWC) were present to give their version of the sequence of events in the chronological order in which they transpired. Nonetheless, the majority of the citizenry remained unmoved and still outraged at being at the bottom end of Mexico’s failed infrastructure and apparent lack of ability to handle such events.
From the Imperial Beach coastline, the toxic soup of poisonous concoction could be viewed all the way to the horizon, again, an unprecedented spectacle of “usual” sewage plumes that make their way into U.S. waters from Mexico. This particular spill, for all practical purposes, scrapped most any plans that had been implemented at the time, for Tijuana River Valley recovery efforts. These events still have most residents reeling today, especially when transboundary sewage flows contaminate our air and water.
Currently Mexican IBWC officials have replaced CESPT as the overseeing entity of Mexican pump stations and infrastructure in the city of Tijuana, Mexico, giving a small ray of hope that we may be turning a corner into getting an upper hand on the management and implementation of effective infrastructure solutions that may avert such disasters in the future.