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Mexico leak causing wastewater overflow at border, U.S. beach contamination

Posted at 5:46 PM, Jan 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-12 20:48:25-05

IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. (KGTV) - A leak in Mexico is causing tens of millions of gallons of extra wastewater to flow into the United States, creating a domino effect on local beaches.

Imperial Beach’s coastline has been closed since Dec. 8 with a sign that reads:

“Keep out, sewage contaminated water,” which is not an uncommon sight in the area.

However, a new issue in the last week will likely contribute to the ongoing problem. A spokesperson for the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) called a recent leak “unprecedented.” In the last week, daily flows through Stewart’s drain have quickly grown, surpassing 40 million gallons in a five-day span, which is astronomical for that drain.

The daily flows during this time frame include:

Start Date/Time: 1/7 / 1330 End Date/Time: 1/8 / 0330 Duration: 14 hours Volume: 942,480
Start Date/Time: 1/8 / 1320 End Date/Time: 1/9 / 0340 Duration: 14 hours Volume: 643,280
Start Date/Time: 1/9 / 1450 End Date/Time: 1/10 / 0530 Duration: 15 hours Volume: 13,164,800
Start Date/Time: 1/10 / 1130 End Date/Time: 1/11 / 0630 Duration: 19 hours. Volume: 17,054,400
Start Date/Time: 1/11 / 1445 End Date/Time: 1/12 / 0600 Duration: 15 hours Volume: 8,213,040

“Everyone is very concerned and dedicated to try to eliminate or reduce the flows coming into the United States,” said Morgan Rogers, Area Operations Manager of IBWC’s San Diego Field Office.

Rogers said they’re in communication with Mexican officials to try to figure out exactly what is causing the increase in flow, but they believe it’s due to aging infrastructure and hope to find a resolution in the next few days.

He said their wastewater treatment facility at the border is prepared to intake about 25 million gallons of water every day but when they get more like this, the leakage overwhelms the system, causing a transboundary flow and leading to overflow into the Tijuana River Channel that ultimately ends up back in the ocean.

Advocate and Imperial Beach resident Barron Partlow closely follows the status of wastewater’s impact on local beaches and said he’s pushing for a faster fix of the problem.

“To know that it keeps happening and getting worse and worse, it’s just beyond our comprehension. How can this insanity keep happening?” Partlow said.

Rogers said they’re working to address the issue but acknowledges that it takes time. The federal government has allocated $300 million to solve the problem. It was recently determined that part of that funding will go toward expanding the wastewater treatment facility at the border, which IBWC will likely head-up. That, however, will take time. Leaders still need to conduct environmental impact reports then build the infrastructure, so the process will likely take at least two more years.

“It’s hard to do something immediately, it does take time,” said Rogers.

Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography closely monitor issues like this and their impact on oceans.

Professor Falk Feddersen said raw sewage in the water can spread to areas past Imperial Beach.

“Very high risk of getting sick and that has of course economic impacts and impacts to the ecosystems as well,” Fedderson said.

He said they’re now working to help with the issue as well. They’re in the early stages of creating a technology that will be able to predict the status of contamination in the water, hoping to give valuable information to visitors.

“One of the projects we’re currently developing is to build a forecast model of the ocean currents and the raw sewage and the health risks to people,” said Fedderson.

A written response regarding the issues from Chris Helmer, Imperial Beach’s Environmental and Natural Resources Director reads “The EPA is still in the project development phase for their proposed comprehensive solution for the Tijuana River. They are proposing over $600M of infrastructure improvement for the watershed. We all wish the construction on these proposed projects to proceed ASAP but realize there is a process to the planning, permitting, environmental review, and design before construction can proceed.”

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