San Diego’s environmentalists agree that there’s a considerable amount of sewage coming from Tijuana that is dangerously polluting area waters, but the issue of how to clean it up has provoked an argument among them that is as nasty as the problem itself.
When a controversial contract to build a facility to treat Tijuana’s sewage pollution was approved last week, some cheered it as a long-sought remedy. Others decried it, saying the expensive plan won’t improve water quality along the region’s coast.
The contract made the rift in San Diego’s environmental community more obvious. For a close-knit group with often similar interests, the project known as Bajagua is unusually divisive – and sometimes personal.
Marco Gonzalez stands on one side. The environmental attorney who represents the Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego chapter is pro-Bajagua. He is 36, with short-cropped brown hair, tanned skin and an earring in his left ear. He’s hardly the picture of the suit-and-tie attorney stereotype. On a recent Tuesday, he was walking around his office wearing a wrinkled tan button-down shirt – untucked – and jeans.
Serge Dedina stands opposite. The executive director of Wildcoast, an Imperial Beach environmental group, is vehemently anti-Bajagua. Dedina is 41, an Imperial Beach native who says he’s the product of an upbringing in a Jewish refugee family, where dinnertime arguments were always political. He describes himself as a “homeboy” from a “working class beach town filled with angry, articulate people.”
The two disagree about whether Bajagua LLC will be able to address an issue that has plagued San Diego for 70 years. Tijuana has an insufficient infrastructure to handle sewage. So, when it rains, raw sewage overwhelms the city’s system, and heads straight into the Pacific Ocean. Last year, beach access in Imperial Beach was closed 83 days because of sewage pollution.
Bajagua LLC signed a contract Wednesday to build a sewage treatment plant in Tijuana that would more than double the city’s treatment capacity. Once the plant is built, the United States will pay Bajagua – a private company – to operate it. Under the agreement, Bajagua shoulders the construction costs, estimated between $150 million and $200 million, then makes its profit through the plant’s operation. The first year’s operating costs could range from $29 million to $39 million. Unlike a majority of government contracts, the Bajagua project was not competitively bid.
Gonzalez and Dedina have worked together on issues before, fighting bow fishing off the Imperial Beach Pier, battling coastal development nearby, while supporting sand replenishment projects. They’ve been united on coastal water-quality issues.
They have similarities: They’re both around the same age. Both surf and both have advanced degrees. But on Bajagua, they’re as far apart as the areas where they grew up – Gonzalez in Oceanside, Dedina in Imperial Beach. And neither minces words when describing their rift – or each other.
Gonzalez on Dedina: “Serge, he may surf, but his politics get in the way of meaningful representation of constituents. … This project is big enough, and their opposition offensive enough, that it has seriously eroded our ability to do work together.”
Dedina on Gonzalez: “Bajagua has essentially co-opted a law firm. Anytime we bring this issue up, I literally have Marco screaming at me. This is something I’m used to dealing with in Mexico. It’s not something you see a lot here.”
Dedina says Bajagua is an outdated solution – one that isn’t going to solve sewage runoff from Tijuana’s homes without plumbing. Bajagua’s proposed treatment plant would boost daily wastewater collection by 34 million gallons and improve the quality of 25 million gallons already collected, treated and discharged in the ocean.
But already collected sewage isn’t the problem, Dedina says. Tijuana needs to collect sewage from homes that don’t currently have plumbing and Bajagua doesn’t.
Dedina also criticizes the way the project is advertised. Bajagua’s Web site repeatedly refers to it as a “comprehensive” solution.
It won’t plumb homes, says Bajagua spokesman Craig Benedetto, but it should serve as a catalyst to do so.
The environmental community was once united on Tijuana sewage issues. In 1994, the Sierra Club and Surfrider jointly sued the International Boundary and Water Commission, arguing that the agency responsible for solving the problem had failed to consider all solutions to it. Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, D-San Diego, worked with the Sierra Club as the lead party to the suit.
Today, Saldaña is one of Bajagua’s and Surfrider’s most fervent critics. She assails Gonzalez for hiring a law partner, Gary Sirota, who has done consulting work for Bajagua. She points to Bajagua’s well-documented political contributions as evidence of back-room dealings.
Sirota says he sees eye-to-eye with Saldaña on most issues. But he says he resents the characterization that Bajagua “pulled a Randy Cunningham, that our relationship is corrupt. It’s nonsense. I think it’s political grandstanding, frankly.”
Gonzalez says Surfrider and Bajagua have a unified interest. He describes the opposition of Saldaña and Dedina as a fringe element. Others in the environmental community dispute that.
“It’s not a splinter,” says Jim Peugh, chairman of the San Diego Audubon Society’s conservation committee. “A lot more people in the environmental community are opposed to the concept of Bajagua.”
A glimpse of the tenor of Saldaña’s opposition came Wednesday, after the contract was announced. Saldaña fired off a blistering 1,136 word e-mail. It was full of emphatic all-caps statements, and lacked the conservative tone of most press releases.
“A BINDING CONTRACT HAS SPECIFIC FINANCIAL DETAILS about the budget and costs of construction,” Saldaña wrote Wednesday. “NO FINAL COSTS HAVE BEEN IDENTIFIED – only ‘estimates’ ranging from $29 to $39 million per year, over 20 years.”
She had calmed down by Thursday morning, when her office issued the second release, edited down to 631 words. The all-caps statements had been reduced to lower case. The signed contract, Release No. 2 said, was “misleading.”
Bruce Reznik, the executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, has taken a neutral position on Bajagua. But he knows everyone involved, and counts Gonzalez, who represents Coastkeeper, as a good friend. While Reznik acknowledges the split, he also downplays the long-term implications.
“I think the people who are opposed to Bajagua are never going to sit down to Christmas dinner with the folks who are behind Bajagua,” Reznik says. “But the environmental groups … are going to work together again. We’ve collaborated through disagreements in the past and we will again.”
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