Toxic Tide: The sewage crisis at the border

January 8, 2024

San Diego’s health and economy continues to be threatened by the flow of raw sewage. That’s why Congressman Peters recently led his colleagues to call on Congress to provide the $310 million that POTUS requested to repair the treatment plant. He’ll keep pushing to get the funding and attention needed.

Read more about it in this December 31st piece from NBC San Diego, posted below:

Toxic Tide: The sewage crisis at the border

By Joe Little

December 31, 2023

Imperial Beach in San Diego County is one of the most polluted beaches in the United States. The water is polluted. The air is polluted. And local leaders think no one with the power to help cares.

“Our local beach here behind me has been closed every single day this year,” said Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre. “It’s devastating. We have an entire generation of kids that are now college age that don’t know what it is to have clean water at their hometown.”

The problem begins just south of Imperial Beach, on the other side of the international border. There, Tijuana, Mexico is growing faster than its infrastructure.

“In Tijuana, they always seem to be fixing the same broken pipe,” said environmentalist — and former mayor of Imperial Beach — Serge Dedina, Ph.D. “There is always a pipe broken, there’s always some problem. And the problem now is 365 days a year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

Dedina accused Tijuana and Baja California government leaders of not taking care of the city’s sewer system to the point that the system has collapsed, allowing raw sewage to enter the United States through the Tijuana River and the Pacific Ocean.

“And no one’s going to say a word about it,” he said.

Aguirre said Imperial Beach is hit by roughly 40 million gallons of sewage from Tijuana every day.

“You have anything from heavy metals in the water to chemicals to chlorinated pesticides,” she said. “There’s traces of feces in the water.”

“It’s the worst stuff you can possibly imagine,” Dedina said. “Raw human waste.”

Two big problems contribute to the toxic tide of sewage into San Diego County

Aguirre said the sewage hits San Diego County from two directions: The Pacific Ocean and the Tijuana River.

The first big problem is wastewater from thousands of Tijuana homes that enters Tijuana’s faulty sewer system. Millions of gallons of that raw sewage are pumped to a Mexican wastewater treatment plant, which does not work. That untreated wastewater is then pumped directly out to the Pacific Ocean a few miles south of the border.

The water eventually flows north to Imperial Beach, the Silver Strand State Beach, and Coronado Beach. The water at those beaches has been off-limits for days and weeks at a time because of polluted water conditions.

Imperial Beach’s beach has been closed most of the past two years.

“The problem just kept getting worse,” Dedina said. Mexico “kept dumping more sewage, the sewer system got worse. And instead of saying, ‘We’ve got an emergency, we need to get this fixed,’ they just said, ‘Whoa, slow down. We can’t do anything at all any time soon,’ which actually is driving a lot of us completely insane.”

The second big problem comes through the Tijuana River. Thousands of Tijuana homes aren’t even connected to a sewer system.

Their wastewater directly enters the watershed and Tijuana River, which flows north across the international border into the Tijuana River Estuary, which neighbors Imperial Beach. That river water also eventually weaves its way to the Pacific Ocean.

A U.S.-owned wastewater treatment plant built in San Ysidro just north of the border to clean the Tijuana River water is also in desperate need of repair.

All of these problems have created an unmitigated environmental nightmare that led to hazardous pollution that threatens the health of hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the border.

“It’s unconscionable,” said Aguirre. “It’s unfathomable that here we are having to live these conditions, every single day and not getting any assistance. All I hear, frankly, are excuses.”

Surfers, lifeguards, and locals will tell you the problem has existed for decades. However, it got worse in the last few years when Tijuana’s population exploded and its infrastructure imploded.

“It’s like you’re sounding the alarms left and right with people who are responsible to ensure your well-being, to ensure public safety, to ensure high quality of life and we’re treated as second class citizens,” Aguirre said.

“Governor of Baja, authorities in Baja California have made a decision, a conscious decision to ignore this,” Dedina said. “They have no interest in fixing the sewer system. They’ve shown no interest, no vision, no commitment to doing so. It’s frankly an embarrassment.”

Monica Vega, Baja’s Secretary of the Environment, disagreed. She said the current state leadership is committed to find solutions.

“It’s a problem that we share, but also, it’s a problem that we can solve together,” Vega said.

Examining ‘Problem One’ of the sewage crisis at the border

Evidence of Tijuana’s broken infrastructure can be seen at Punta Bandera, a few miles south of the international border.

Fay Crevoshay called it the “caca river.”

“It is a permanent river, 24/7 that comes from the plant into the ocean,” Crevoshay said while standing on a hill above a brown, flowing river that ended in the Pacific Ocean.

Crevoshay is the Policy Director for the environmental group Wildcoast. She said the sewage came from the nearby neglected wastewater treatment plant, which she said isn’t operational.

The plant pumps in sewage from Tijuana and simply pumps it out to the ocean without treatment, she said.

“This plant was built in 1990,” Crevoshay said. “Two, three years ago, four years, they started saying, ‘Yeah, well, it really doesn’t work.’”

When NBC 7 visited Punta Bandera, no one was on the beach or in the water.

“This is the most contaminated beach in North America,” Crevoshay declared. “It contaminates people, flora, fauna, everything.”

The smell is also overpowering.

“Sometimes the smell is so terrible that your stomach churns,” said Crevoshay. “Makes me feel like the government does not care.”

The brown river merges with the blue Pacific on the beach. The current pushes that water right along the west coast up to Imperial Beach and the southern coast of San Diego County.

“Poor United States has to deal with this because their neighbor Baja California’s government has not dealt with this for 20 years,” Crevoshay sighed.

Examining ‘Problem Two’ of the sewage crisis at the border

Fewer people know about the second problem in Tijuana. However, it’s equally devastating to people on both side of the border.

Los Laureles is a Tijuana neighborhood sitting only a few hundred yards from the international border. It’s a mishmash of homes built into the valley.

Crevoshay said there’s no code enforcement, many of the homes don’t have running water, and just as many aren’t attached to a sewer system. When NBC 7 toured it, wastewater dripped out of PVC pipes into channels running down hill between homes and businesses. Those channels work their way into San Diego County through streams and other waterways.

Crevoshay and Dedina said Wildcoast and some volunteers built a trash boom in the middle of one of the larger channels to capture trash from flowing across the border.

“We didn’t spend a lot of time doing a lot of studies,” Dedina explained. “We just built something. That’s the kind of can-do attitude we need on the part of the state and federal government and frankly, Mexican authorities.”

“Some Tijuanans don’t realize, or they know, but they don’t want to know,” shrugged Crevoshay. “They never come here.”

Lupita Camacho owns a health juice bar in Los Laureles. The entrance to her business faces the channel with a green flow running down the middle.

“When it’s very hot, we have to close our windows because we cannot eat because of how it smells,” said Camacho.

“Everybody has to close windows, doors because you cannot eat with the smell,” Camacho added. “There are people. There are preschoolers. Everybody leaves here with this stink and those flying diseases.”

“All the beaches in northern Baja are polluted all the time. There’s sewage in the streets all over Tijuana and much of Tijuana smells like raw sewage,” Dedina said.

“We as a government of Baja California are working on the money for our responsibilities,” said Vega, the Baja secretary for the environment. “Unfortunately, for the last governors, instead of facing the problem or recognizing the problem, they just were in a war of public declarations with our counterparts on the other side of the border.”

Dedina was one of those counterparts on the other side of the border.

“They’re saving millions of dollars a year by dumping their sewage on us. They know exactly what they’re doing,” he said. “Let’s be clear, there isn’t another major coastal city in Mexico, and I’ve been to all of them on the Pacific, where they dump anything like the sewage that they do in Tijuana into the Pacific Ocean.”

The sewage flowing through the Tijuana River can be seen in piles of trash that collect along the river throughout southern San Diego County. Piles of plastic bottles, buckets, cans, and trash pile up at different spots throughout the Tijuana River Estuary. And that’s just what’s visible to the naked eye.

“It’s human waste, it’s poop. It’s really awful. Mixed, probably with chemicals and toxic waste. It’s as bad as it gets,” said Dedina. “You don’t see that issue in Mexico City. You don’t see that problem in Acapulco or Los Cabos. But Tijuana has got a real problem.”

Dedina was quick to blame U.S. state and federal leaders as well.

“The City of Imperial Beach, along with the City of Chula Vista, San Diego, the Port of San Diego, State of California, Surfrider; we won a lawsuit against the United States government, ordered them to clean up the problem. We won. We got money allocated thanks to our congressional delegation to fix the problem,” he said.

“Then the agencies, US, EPA, the International Boundary and Water Commission said, ‘Whoa, let’s do a study, let’s have some meetings, and you’ll be lucky in five years if we actually fix the problem.’”

The International Boundary and Water Commission’s underfunded plant

Just north of the border in San Ysidro sits the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant operated by the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission. It was built more than 20 years ago to help clean Tijuana’s wastewater.

But the United States has failed to spend the money needed to maintain the plant, according to its operators. And now, it’s broken.

NBC 7 was given a tour of the and saw sediment tanks out of service because excess flows had overpowered the plant. Wastewater still passes through the plant, but the solids aren’t removed from the broken tanks.

It’s been so long since the facility was at 100% that tomato plants are growing in the thick sediment resting on the water’s surface.

“Problem is, they’ve been treating more and more of the sewage that has more stuff in it that’s really damaging the plant,” Dedina said.

The plant is supposed to clean 25 million gallons of wastewater a day coming out of Tijuana. However, the U.S. government didn’t do enough maintenance on the plant during the last decade.

“This facility has a history of being underfunded,” acknowledged Frank Fisher, chief of public affairs for the International Boundary and Water Commission.

Fisher said the plant received roughly $4 million for maintenance during a ten-year span ending in 2020. He said the plant needed $4 million a year to keep up.

“If you run your car and don’t put oil in it, engine is going to blow up,” Dedina said. “And that’s what we’ve had here. Our sewer systems are essentially blowing up or imploding because we’re not taking care of them and we’re not making them better.

“The United States government didn’t allocate enough money to fix the plant and keep it in good shape,” he said. “So now it’s falling apart.”

“That’s part of the challenge that we have. We’re working through this constantly to identify those funding sources,” Fisher said.

In the meantime, even more water is bypassing the plant in the Tijuana River, according to the IBWC’s area operations manager, Morgan Rogers.

That’s leading to unprocessed water flowing in the river when the river shouldn’t be flowing at all.

“Right now, we have continuous flow,” said Rogers while looking at a map of the Tijuana River area. “We’ve had flow down the river almost every day this whole year. And it should be dry. We shouldn’t have had any flows after like April or so when the rain stopped.”

“The downside of that is now we have transboundary flows,” said Rogers.

Those transboundary flows run right into San Diego County.

Fisher said the IBWC is working to fix and expand the plant to increase treatment from 25 million gallons a day to 50 million gallons a day with the ability to treat 75 million gallons a day in peak conditions.

“We have enough money now to start the process,” he said. “We’ve ordered parts to rehab all these (problems). So, we have a contract. It’s already awarded. It’s in place.”

The IBWC just needs to find the rest of the money.

“Obviously, wastewater treatment is not a free proposition. It does take money. And that’s what one of our plans we’re working through, identifying those funding sources,” Fisher said.

Imperial Beach Mayor Aguirre is frustrated. Former IB Mayor Dedina is frustrated. Crevoshay is frustrated. They all want to know why the money isn’t already available.

“I’m tired of the promises. I’m tired of, you know, you need to praise, give a for effort. Like that’s nothing to us. It doesn’t help us,” said Aguirre.

Dedina added, “And the response in the United States government is they’re actually falling asleep. They’re not doing anything at all.”

Imperial Beach residents worry about their health

Imperial Beach residents Tom Csanadi and Marvel Harrison wish the United States and Mexican governments would wake up.

“It’s hard to describe how enraged I can be about this human-made problem,” Harrison said. “We live in a polluted, environmental, economic, public health crisis. We’re right here in the middle of it.”

Csanadi and Harrison invested their retirement into a beach house right along the ocean in 2020. The view of the beach and ocean from their back patio is stunning. They just can’t go in the water, and the stench sometimes is overwhelming.

“There are so many days where we just can’t open this door,” said Csanadi. “This has been such a huge investment on my wife and my part, putting everything into this house and where we live and we’re actually considering moving.”

“Who’s going to want to come to a polluted beach?” Mayor Aguirre asked. “Young working families telling me, ‘You know what? We put everything we could to to buy this house and Imperial Beach because we love it. But we’re done. We’re leaving.’ I mean, how is that not devastating?”

Aguirre said businesses from Imperial beach to Coronado suffer from fewer tourists. She said property owners suffer from fewer vacation rentals.

It’s hard to sell a trip to the beach when you can’t go in the water.

“People in government, in power know that it’s a huge health risk for for you and for me and for the children we see playing on the beach, but, yet they let it go,” shrugged Csanadi.

“And now we have studies that show that the pollution isn’t just in the water, but it’s also in our air,” said Aguirre.

Organisms floating from the sewage, to the air, to residents’ brains

Research from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has shown the breakers from the waves off Imperial Beach’s coast create a spray from the polluted water that people can breathe in several miles from the beach.

“People tell me, ‘My my little girl is sick again. She’s vomiting all night. She didn’t go to the beach.’ I would always wonder, ‘Is this in our air?’ And this study has shown us that it is,” said Aguirre.

Csanadi and Harrison participated in the study.

“It was through UCSD, and it was looking at the micro-aerosolized particles that get churned up from the surf,” said Csanadi. “We had a couple of sensors detecting on the ground level and on our rooftop deck.”

Aguirre said, “One of the leading researchers during COVID that was looking at how COVID was transmitted through aerosolized forms started to look at the pathogens and viruses here in our environment, in Imperial Beach, and they found that those pathogens can travel some distance when they are in aerosolized form. Basically, every time a wave breaks, the sea spray comes out into the air, the mist, if you will, and that could be carried inland with the wind.”

“It’ll go several miles inland, too,” said Csanadi, who is also a pediatrician. “So, that’s going to affect not just the 20 or so thousand people right along the strip of beach, but it’s it’s going to affect tens of thousands of people in this area.”

Researchers have not identified the direct health impacts yet. Dr. Csanadi said it can’t be good.

His description is unsettling.

“We sort of know what we’re breathing in,” he explained. “Some live organism that was in someone’s colon not too long ago is being turned up in the water, aerosolized. And we breathe it in. It goes up through the cribriform plate and into our olfactory bulb and into our midbrain, in our brain.

“And so, what was a short while ago, a live organism in someone’s colon is now in our brains.”

“Everything that goes through one’s body and comes out the back end,” Harrison said.

“As we’re speaking, you and I are breathing the sewage in the air. It’s having a significant impact on people’s health,” Dedina said. “It’s exhausting. It frankly broke me as mayor. It broke me because I got sick, physically sick, two sinus surgeries, ear surgery, countless times in urgent care, ear infections.”

Dedina said he wasn’t in the water during that time. He said he was in his Wildcoast office one block from the beach.

“It is stressful. It’s stressful to be scared to not know what we’re breathing,” said Harrison.

“Devastating to the growth and development of normal growth and development of children. They’re devastating,” said Dr. Csanadi. “And that’s what you get for spending a day at the beach in Imperial Beach.”

How to end the sewage crisis at San Diego’s border with Mexico? Money and will

Aguirre said this problem will only get fixed when it becomes a priority for the U.S. and Mexican governments.

She wants the State of California and U.S. federal governments to declare a state of emergency to streamline funding and cut the red tape.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said the problem is the White House’s job to fix. President Joe Biden has partially responded but hasn’t come close to declaring a state of emergency.

“This is a test of how we deal with national emergencies and frankly, we’re failing,” Dedina said.

“When 300,000 gallons of sewage are discharged in the ocean and in L.A., it’s a national emergency. It’s crazy to see the response: ‘Oh, my God, it’s outrageous.’ When we get 700 million gallons that we did in September last month in the ocean in San Diego, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, so what?’”

“If this were happening in La Jolla, if this were happening in Solana Beach, if this were happening anywhere up north in the Bay Area, it would have been taken care of,” said Marvel Harrison.

“It would have been a national emergency day one and would’ve been fixed in two weeks,” Dedina said. “The problem is the United States EPA and the United States government decided that they need to spend five years doing studies and spending a lot of time doing reports and having meetings.”

Meetings aren’t very popular with people dealing with the pollution.

“Meetings galore. Action? Nothing,” said Fay Crevoshay.

“No, I don’t want another meeting,” said Harrison. “We know it’s messed up. It’s broken. You don’t have to spend more time telling us it’s broken.”

There is progress finally after years of pollution, billions of gallons of sewage, and cries from people on both sides of the border.

The IBWC said it needs roughly $900 million to upgrade the plant completely. In 2022, the U.S. Congress finally ponied up roughly $300 million to repair and upgrade the IBWC’s plant in San Ysidro. Mexico pledged an additional $144 million for its own repairs.

The Biden Administration earmarked an additional $310 million in the fall of 2023, but that’s still waiting Congressional approval.

If approved, it still won’t be enough. It also won’t fix Tijuana’s broken sewage plant or the neighborhoods without a sewer system at all.

“I really think maybe we need to put more pressure on this government, but real pressure,” said Crevoshay.

“The problem is the problem. Whether it’s in Mexico or here in San Diego. There still is wastewater to be treated, and that’s our responsibility, no matter where it comes from,” said the IBWC’s Frank Fisher.

Fisher said they regularly meet with their Mexican counterparts. Fixing the infrastructure, creating a sewer system in the Tijuana neighborhoods, and cleaning up the pollution already invading the environment will take years and hundreds of millions of dollars from both governments.

“This is a violation of citizens on both sides of the border that can be managed, and it just is not being managed. There are excuses after excuses,” said Harrison.

Some repairs are underway at the IBWC’s plant.

“Within 9 to 12 months, they are going to start seeing improvements,” said Fisher.

Even Mexican leaders offered hope. Baja Environmental Secretary Monica Vega said they’re working towards a new treatment plant near Punta Bandera.

“Probably in the next couple of years, we’re going to have better news for Baja, California and also California on this matter,” Vega said. “So, we can end with this historic problem that we have in Tijuana and on the other side of the border.”

She may have to forgive the people living on both sides of the border. They’re tired of holding their breath.

“When there’s a will, there’s a way. And there hasn’t been the will to help us here. And that’s the bottom line,” concluded Aguirre.



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