Tijuana water official: Sewage spill numbers were exaggerated

Posted at 6:13 AM, Apr 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-01 12:56:47-04

TIJUANA, Mexico (KGTV) - For weeks 10News has been trying to get an interview with the man in charge of Tijuana’s crumbling sewage system that caused polluted water to flow into Imperial Beach.

We talked with him Thursday where he promised to fix the problem, but said the sewage spill was not nearly as bad as what’s been reported. His estimate of the damage may sound shocking to some on the U.S. side of the border.

Shortly after we arrived in Tijuana, what we witnessed at one location in the heart of the city was an overhaul at a rapid pace. An enormous excavator was digging a huge trench to repair Tijuana’s sewage system that has needed an upgrade for years. The system has caused problems not just for Tijuana but the entire region, including our San Diego beaches.

RELATED: Baja California officials expected to declare state of emergency over TJ sewage system

There are projects like this taking place all over the city of Tijuana. But this is an area the CESPT, Tijuana’s water services department, considers an emergency repair. In fact, they’ve been working on this project here for the last month. Crews there told us they are working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get this finished. And they hope to do it before the next rains come.

“We try to end before the rain comes again,” Manuel Ocejo, who is the manager on this particular site, said. 

Ocejo tells us he fears delays or worse if more rain comes before they can finish the project.

It was the constant rain that overwhelmed Tijuana’s crumbling sewage system in February causing a massive sewage spill that flowed into the Tijuana River Valley. And it wasn’t until angry residents of Imperial Beach began to complain about the smell of polluted water before anything was officially reported.

RELATED: Tijuana sewage spill now 230 million gallons

Miguel Lemus is the man in charge of Tijuana’s water department, and the person taking the heat for the sewage spill. He said his crews are working every day to fix the problem.

He showed us an Emergency Declaration signed by the Governor of Baja just days ago, funneling $6.3 million for repairs to Tijuana’s underground system. 

Lemus told us if not for the State of Emergency, the repairs would have been delayed for months. Now they hope to have everything finished by November.

Later we visited the Tijuana River Canal where recent runoff of flowing brown water still heads north towards the U.S. Border. And there is still a stench to this day.

RELATED: U.S., Mexican officials to launch investigation into sewage spill

The damage has been done; there's no turning back the clock on what has already happened. But Lemus said one of the biggest problems now is miscommunication. Early reports estimated as much as 230 million gallons of raw sewage flowed north towards the U.S. border, but Lemus claims that number is highly exaggerated.

“The spill was only 9 million gallons and contained in four days,” Lemus said.

The discrepancy in the numbers is a bit shocking. 

Lemus claimed the sewage spill was limited to 9 million gallons. And it happened only between February 1st and the 4th. He also said another department failed to notify U.S. authorities about the spill until February 17th, leading to the inflated figures.

RELATED: Dead, sick wildlife at site of Tijuana sewage spill

Imperial Beach's Mayor Serge Dedina said despite the International Boundaries Water Commission's (IBWC) investigation into February's spill, the issue underlines the need for increased cooperation and oversight of Tijuana's sewage infrastructure:

"Regardless of the outcome of the IBWC investigation into the massive February sewage spill that contaminated a 20 miles stretch of coastline, it is clear that Baja California authorities who manage Tijuana's sewage system are continuing to discharge sewage into the Tijuana River without notifying Mexican and U.S. federal agencies. Large sewage spills occurred again this week as well as last week with no notifications, illustrating the need for greater oversight by U.S. agencies such as the IBWC and Mexican agencies such as CONAGUA and the need to upgrade Tijuana's aging and failing sewage infrastructure."