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With rain on the way, Imperial Beach braces for Tijuana River sewage

Sewage-contaminated runoff in Tijuana River prompts Imperial Beach water closure
Posted at 4:28 PM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 19:28:07-05

IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. (KGTV) — Two winter storms expected to roll over San Diego County this month are renewing worries over sewage flows from the Tijuana River Valley.

Almost routinely after it rains in the county, many South Bay beaches are closed due to sewage-contaminated runoff from the Tijuana River.

Then last September, it appeared a fix was finally on the horizon after the EPA announced $300 million allocated to address the pollution via the newly negotiated United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA).

The EPA also planned to design and construct a diversion system to treat 10 million gallons of Tijuana River flows daily at the International Boundary and Water Commission's (IBWC) International Treatment Plant (ITP) and to work with the City of San Diego to control sediment and trash in Smuggler's Gulch — located just north of the border in the Tijuana River Valley.

So what's the status of projects right now?

The EPA says it has scrapped the plan to treat another 10 million gallons of river flow at the ITP. An EPA spokesperson told ABC 10News that dry weather river flows across the border have been either low or zero for the past few months, so the need to temporarily divert river flows was less urgent. At the same time, the ITP was treating significantly more sewage from Tijuana than it's designed to handle, resulting in "operational difficulties."

"Therefore, as the need for a diversion is not as pressing as it was, and since the ITP may not be able to reliably treat flows in excess of 25 million gallons per day, we are not currently planning to implement this project. However, we continue to work with IBWC and the County to evaluate this option in the future if needed," the spokesperson said.

The EPA added that San Diego County applied in early January for funding from the California Coastal Conservancy for a project addressing Smuggler's Gulch sediment and trash, and the agency expects a decision on funding in the spring.

Last summer, the EPA helped Mexico with funding to repair various sections of broken sewer mains, according to Imperial Beach's Environmental and Natural Resources Director Chris Helmer. The State of Baja installed new pumps at the Tijuana pumping plant, PB CILA, in August and is working to improve PB CILA's diversion system to better manage transboundary flows.

"Even with these recent improvements, Mexico still has a very fragile wastewater system with vulnerable sewer mains, damaged pump stations, and an unreliable diversion system at PB CILA. We have learned to expect damage to the Mexican wastewater system after any major storm so we are definitely worried about the rainstorms in the forecast," Helmer said.

Helmer said a half-inch of rain that fell around Christmas caused transboundary sewage flows lasting through Jan. 17.

"We expect to see major pollution in the river from the forecasted storms and only hope there is no major damage to any sewage or diversion infrastructure in Mexico," Helmer said.

What about the $300 million from the USMCA?

Imperial Beach and the EPA are still collaborating on a year-long evaluation of projects before any are selected for USMCA funding, according to Helmer.

Even after any projects are selected, they'll have to undergo environmental reviews. Helmer says there are also many unknowns as to what Mexico is implementing in regards to water reuse projects and increasing treatment capacity.

"It’s a challenge to design a system in the U.S. for diversion when Mexico is not fully engaged as a partner," Helmer said. "The same can be said about the (IBWC) who have historically, and still to this day, are not doing a good job of managing and planning ahead for binational water quality projects for the Tijuana River."

Helmer says the EPA is "stepping into a big mess" — no pun intended.

"The EPA has the best technical experts and understands the complexities that are required to implement a long-term fix, however, we all recognize it will require additional political pressure, binational agreements, and commitments from both sides of the border to achieve the best outcome," says Helmer.

When will we see any border sewage projects implemented?

The USMCA funding can be used in the U.S. or Mexico and can only be used on the construction of projects. Helmer says the city is advocating for most of the funding to go toward U.S. projects to "allow for greater accountability in the future."

A timeline for when these projects will see any movement remains unclear. Helmer said the EPA's technical analysis may have a recommendation on projects as soon as March.

Ultimately, it will be up to the new EPA administrator and new Biden administration to authorize the start of any projects.

At this point, Helmer says leadership from local, state, and EPA officials is needed to make sure the right technical decisions are made. He says that the tools are already in place to address this problem.

"We believe all the policy tools and existing allocated funds are already in place for a comprehensive solution to the Tijuana River problem. This includes expanding treatment and conveyance capacity in Mexico, water reuse of treated wastewater in Mexico, expanded river diversion in Mexico at PB CILA, backup diversion and pollution control basins in the U.S., and expanded treatment capacity at the IBWC treatment plant," Helmer said.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina adds that Cross Border Xpress offers a look at how public-private partnerships on border issues can be successful.