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A plan to boost Tijuana’s sewage treatment capacity is raising concerns about whether it might do more harm than good. And this isn’t about Bajagua – a separate controversial plan to treat Tijuana’s renegade sewage.

The State Water Resources Control Board is warning federal officials that two new treatment plants due online next year may compound the existing sewage emergency along the border.

Rather than alleviating current problems, the plants – built in Tijuana by the Baja California state government and financed with Japanese low-interest loans – could add to the sewage-tainted runoff that closes beaches from the border to Coronado.

The plants could create a “public health threat” to border-region residents, Celeste Cantú, the executive director of the water board, wrote in a Feb. 15 letter to Carlos Marin, acting commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission. That’s the U.S. State Department agency responsible for cross-border sewage issues.

Here the problem: The plants would make sewage clean enough to be reused – a process called “water reclamation.” Mexican agricultural or manufacturing users would then buy the water. But if the plants don’t have customers, disposing of the water would cause serious problems, Cantú wrote, because the plants don’t have the infrastructure to get rid of unwanted water properly.

Treated water would simply be dumped, find its way into the Tijuana River and pick up pollutants along the way. By the time it got to the ocean, state officials said the water would be just as dirty as before it was treated.

During dry weather, the quiet brown water trickling from Mexico into California through the Tijuana River gets caught by diverters, which send it to be cleaned and released three-and-a-half miles off-shore.

But when it rains, downpours overwhelm Tijuana’s limited sewage infrastructure. The diverters can’t handle it, so they’re closed. The water – full of toxins, human feces and garbage – courses toward the Tijuana River and goes straight into the Pacific. After Monday’s rainfall, the sewage forced beaches closures as far north as Coronado. They remained shut yesterday.

Cantú said that same problem could happen in dry weather, if the new treatment plants don’t add infrastructure.

Adding 13 million gallons of water to the river each day would overwhelm the current system and send sewage-tainted runoff into the Tijuana Estuary and the Pacific Ocean – a problem Imperial Beach and Coronado residents already cope with.

City of San Diego and state water officials called the matter “extremely urgent.”

“If these plants come online and it’s discharged into the watershed, it will exacerbate the problem,” said John Robertus, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Board. “It’ll only make it worse.”

All reclamation plants need contingencies, because customers don’t always need water, said Scott Tulloch, director of the city’s Metropolitan Wastewater Department, which operates two reclamation plants in San Diego.

One San Diego plant, for example, has been open since 2002 and has not sold any water. But the city planned for that – it has ways to properly dispose of unsold reclaimed water. Tijuana has no such contingency plan.

“Most reclamation plants don’t reclaim every drop every day,” said Bart Christensen, senior engineer at the State Water Resources Control Board, which is charged with monitoring water cleanliness in California. “For all practical purposes, they will need someplace to discharge for a period of time – which could be years – until the markets are there.”

Tulloch said the most practical solution would be to send the extra water to a pipe in California that sends the unwanted water far offshore.

The International Boundary and Water Commission should be responsible for making that happen, local and state officials said.

“This is an issue IBWC should be taking the lead on,” Tulloch said. “We’ve communicated this concern to them in the past. They seem knowledgeable about it. I don’t know what they’re doing about it.”

Dion McMicheaux, project manager of the IBWC’s San Diego office, said he was unsure of the plants’ status (they’re under construction) and did not know how they would augment Tijuana’s existing infrastructure (they’ll add about 30 percent to its capacity). The plants, once expected to be ready in 2005, are “way overdue,” McMicheaux said.

The issue will get some attention in the Legislature. Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, D-San Diego, is crafting legislation to tighten regulations addressing the way treated sewage and wastewater might enter California’s coastal waters.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor here.

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