Thursday, March 22, 2007 | Not long ago, U.S. Rep. Bob Filner put his own career into an interesting perspective: He compared it, in a way, to George W. Bush’s.

They’re not exactly soul mates, so I was intrigued. I had been interviewing Filner about Bajagua, the intensely controversial plan to build a United States-funded sewage treatment plant in Tijuana.

He had been explaining, in detail, the background behind his support for this project. And then, after I pressed him about the well-known fact that he had received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the people pushing Bajagua, he said his support for the project comes sincerely. So sincerely, in fact, the project would be his legacy.

“Just like George Bush has to live with the Iraq war, I have to live with Bajagua. Do you think I want something that is going to be a failure?”

No, I didn’t think he did. But like those of his fellow supporters of the project, Filner’s definition of what success would be has varied. Yes, building the plant would be, in itself, a remarkable accomplishment. What Filner meant with his Iraq war quote was that failure could still come even after building the project. If, after construction, it failed to achieve the ambitious expectations he’s put on it, he would take that stain to his retirement.

But what’s success? It seems that every supporter of the Bajagua project defines it differently. Sometimes they change even their own definitions over time. They do know, however, what they’re supposed to be fighting. And, although many critics attribute to them the worst kind of motives imaginable, it seems clear that they really do want to fight.

Like the war, though, ambition doesn’t necessarily get the job done.

The cross-border sewage invasion may not be an act of war, but it is a catastrophe. Every time it rains, rivers of feces and toxic waste flow across the border into Imperial Beach closing beaches and presenting a health hazard to swimmers.

What affects human health also hurts other animals. Steelhead fish no longer populate the Tijuana River basin. When you ask biologists in the area why, they say something simple like: “Well, it’d be worse than living in a toilet.”

After a rainfall, a plume of filth spreads into the Pacific Ocean like smoke from a fire. The bacteria cloud sometimes reaches North County. To fight a war against this disgusting tragedy is noble. To promise your country that you’ll win the war in a matter of a couple of years seems to be as foolish as it is ambitious. To actually win it, though, is almost impossible to imagine.

In that way, maybe it is like the war in Iraq.

Bajagua is Filner’s war machine. Its proponents have promised that they will be able to put up the money to build it privately — taxpayers will only have to pay for it, year by year, as it starts to produce results. In other words, some of the most frightening initial financial risk of such an ambitious project has been lifted off the taxpayers’ back. Over time, though, this arrangement could add up to $780 million from government coffers.

Filner’s machine satisfies a lot of concerns for him.

But how, exactly, will he judge its ultimate success?

Several years ago, Filner told his fellow congressmen what he thought it would do.

After Bajagua is built, Filner said, “all the hazardous and unhealthy sewage that now flows into our ocean without proper treatment will be cleaned. And much of it reused so that it never gets into the ocean.”

Several weeks ago, Filner struck a different tone. He told me the project would solve “almost all” of the problem — about “85 percent.”

Craig Benedetto, the spokesman for Bajagua, told me it would solve “95 percent” of the problem. The company’s website once touted Bajagua as a “comprehensive solution” to the problem. Now, the word “comprehensive” no longer appears.

Marco Gonzalez, an environmental lawyer who has actively supported Bajagua for years, put the expectations even lower. The project will improve the current, unacceptable status quo, he said. But he has no patience for those who seize on Bajagua’s shortcomings as a reason to oppose the plan.

“When I hear someone say that Bajagua is bad because it doesn’t solve all the problems everywhere, I say, ‘Well, no shit.’ Pun intended. It’s not meant to solve it all.”

It’s easy to empathize with all three of them. Gonzalez’ take seems like the most pragmatic. But, the inconsistency among them — the inability to settle on realistic expectations across the board — makes it difficult to support them.

They know two things for certain: that they can get support for what they are hoping to do by claiming it will solve one of the ugliest problems in the region. Yet they’re also aware of the limitations of the actual project they’re proposing — and the stark reality that at least 400,000 people in Tijuana defecate, essentially, in the streets and the barrancas, or ditches, adjacent their makeshift homes. Massive sewage treatment plants won’t change that.

These two truths — that San Diegans want desperately to solve the problem and that the problem itself is so desperately intractable — create the kind of awkward public message Bajagua supporters end up collectively sending.

They can’t solve the entire problem. But in order to justify a taxpayer investment of such magnitude into a project on foreign land run by a group with no experience doing it, they have to tap into that persuasive stream. They have to say that something noticeable will change.

And something will change. If Bajagua is implemented, it is certain that less sewage will enter the ocean.

But will it be enough to markedly improve the health of our southern beaches? Will it bring back the steelhead and keep the beach open for swimmers for more than one-third of the year?

I’m not an engineer. But even when following the logic of the project’s most adamant supporters, you can’t concretely conclude that the region’s quality of life will significantly improve after it’s built at a cost that could reach $780 million in public funds.

The reason is in the rain.

The Open-Ended Tubes

A lot of interesting terms come up in the course of following a region and its politics. You learn jargon.

But few phrases could be as frightening as this:

“Renegade sewage flows.”

The thought of rebellious feces is unnerving.

After my conversation with Filner I spoke to Gonzalez, the environmental lawyer. He has represented the Surfrider Foundation for years.

He made the point to me, repeatedly, that even with the construction of Bajagua, which he supports, “renegade flows” of sewage would be coming over from Tijuana that couldn’t be stopped.

I went out in search of them.

According to Mexican census statistics, in Tijuana, only 92 percent of the homes that are considered real homes are connected to what might be called a sewage system. This doesn’t include the shanties that aren’t considered real homes. The government of Baja California claims that 73 percent of the Tijuana population lives in places connected to a viable sewage system.

Tijuana’s population has been exploding, though. It’s difficult to trust even that number when you drive through the sprawling, mostly illegal settlements known as the colonias.

You don’t have to drive far into Tijuana to make your way to a colonia. Most are communities that have likely succeeded at connecting their homes to the electricity grids and water pipes — but not to the sewage system. The average colonia will wait 14 years to get wastewater service, according to one Tijuana-area university study.

Peppered among the abject poverty and the shanties constructed with spare materials are single-family houses that actually look like they are well constructed. Some have fences and little courtyards. They have dogs on chains. They have gardens.

And all of them, from the most decrepit of shanties to the most elaborate homes have one thing in common: a tube can be seen coming out of them with an open end. The open end is either pointed to the street or to a ditch. Many of these ditches were designed to keep Tijuana from flooding — not to carry its waste.

You’re liable to see two things discharged out of these tubes: Either a foamy liquid with the sweet unmistakable smell of laundry detergent. Or, of course, liquid feces, with their not-so-sweet odor.

If you’re there, like I was, while it’s raining, you’ll have to hop over the streams of brown water that run down the middle of some streets creating small canyons so deep, it would be an insult to call them ruts.

The rains combine the sweet foamy detergent and the stank effluent. They become streams, and the streams eventually make their way to Imperial Beach’s coastline.

It’s an environmental and public health disaster. A San Diego State University public health professor, Richard Gersberg, not too long ago discovered that Hepatitis A was among the pathogens in the ugly plume that spreads from the Tijuana River basin after rainstorms. Imperial Beach was closed to swimmers for more than half of 2006 — nearly 200 days — because of these so-called bacterial exceedances.

These beach closures and bacterial spikes around the coast of southern San Diego County occur almost exclusively after rainstorms.

It may not rain much in the San Diego-Tijuana region. But when it does, the little streams in Tijuana become bullet trains carrying sewage on a high-speed trip to San Diego.

A Waterslide

In Tijuana, near the site that San Diego businessmen say will be the home of Bajagua, there is a little waterpark. It’s not exactly Knotts Berry Farm, but when you look for the federal land that the Bajagua representatives claim they are close to obtaining, you can see — rising above a nearby neighborhood of the ramshackle homes — a waterslide.

It probably helps some local children take the edge off of a hot, dusty summer afternoon in that dingy urban enclave.

This scene is several miles uphill and east of the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is located north of the border in San Diego County.

The South Bay treatment plant doesn’t clean its share of sewage enough. It treats the 25 million gallons of sewage it takes in to a primary standard and then it spews it out to sea through a long pipe that stretches underwater for miles. This is unacceptable to U.S. regulators and environmentalists, who demand that dischargers treat sewage to a so-called secondary standard.

The International Boundary and Water Commission — a binational agency with commissioners from both Mexico and the United States — oversees the plant and is under court order to improve the sewage treatment. For a while, it planned on merely improving the South Bay plant. But it later worked out a preliminary deal with Bajagua executives.

Under the plan, some of Tijuana’s sewage would continue to flow across the border into the United States to the South Bay plant. The plant would continue to treat the wastewater it takes in, then pump it uphill, across the border and back to the waterslide plot, where Bajagua would treat it. Then Bajagua would send it back down, across the border again, to the treatment plant. Finally, pumps and pipes would release it out to sea through the same pipe that discharges the waste right now.

If this doesn’t seem like a natural solution, it’s because it is not. It’s like loading up the back of your pickup with your trash; driving it to a friend’s house miles away — in another country — where he puts it into real trash cans; then driving it back to your house and getting ready for the arrival of the trash truck.

Bajagua, though, will be bigger. Its supporters believe it will make the entire South Bay plant obsolete someday. They say it will not only help the IBWC meet its regulatory obligations but also take in and better treat sewage from other parts of Tijuana.

But this is where the expectations are, again, inconsistent.

Again: Bajagua will be bigger. One of the consistent selling points of the deal, in fact, is that it will be capable of handing 59 million gallons of sewage a day — more than twice the capacity of the South Bay plant. And, of course, it will treat it to the higher, more environmentally friendly standard.

If its main sewage contribution, however, comes from the South Bay plant, and the South Bay plant only produces 25 million gallons of sewage a day, then how is the extra capacity going to be utilized?

Benedetto, the Bajagua spokesperson, said the new facility would collect more runoff from the Tijuana River. He says the plant will collect more of the sewage that the river delivers to the Tijuana slough and out to sea. This is obviously the highway that delivers most of the sewage to the beaches, so this is music to the ears, right?

Well, Gonzalez, the environmental attorney said it was his impression that Bajagua’s extra capacity would be utilized not by collecting extra flows from the Tijuana River, but by connecting to Tijuana’s sewage system and improving the quality of the wastewater that Mexico lets spill into the ocean from other points around the city including the notorious plant known as San Antonio de los Buenos.

San Antonio de los Buenos just pours raw sewage into the ocean when it can’t handle its flows.

In other words, Gonzalez doesn’t pretend that Bajagua will change what comes out of the Tijuana River. It’ll just improve the quality of the waste that is already discharged deep into the ocean by the South Bay plant. It may also begin to provide a level of relief to the entire Tijuana system.

He said once that’s accomplished, more steps can be taken — and more lawsuits can be filed — to chip away at the other causes of sewage.

Even Benedetto makes a point to clarify that when it rains, it is difficult to stop the renegade sewage flowing from Tijuana.

Yet this is the main problem. As SDSU’s Gersberg notes, the beach closures and bacterial exceedances that plague Imperial Beach’s coastline come almost exclusively after rainfall.

You can’t say that Bajagua will fix most of the problem, except when it rains, if most of the problem arises when it rains.

A Win-Win-Win?

The South Bay plant opened in 1998. Although plans were in place to upgrade it to the kind of treatment plant that would discharge acceptable levels of sewage, budgetary constraints and political moves stopped them. The Surfrider Foundation and the state of California sued.

John Robertus, the executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Board, said most dischargers of deficiently treated sewage like the South Bay plant would face fines and other penalties for not complying with the law for so long. But as the proponents of Bajagua have worked to get their ambitious project the unprecedented binational approval it needs, Robertus has had to extend crucial compliance deadlines three times.

Just last week, the IBWC informed him that Bajagua may need several more months to pull everything together. Robertus said that if he gives the project yet another extension on the discharge deadline, it will make the whole effort to force the South Bay plant to comply with clean water laws moot.

Even the federal government is starting to show signs of lost patience. President Bush proposed that Congress allocate more than $70 million to go forward with old plans to upgrade the South Bay plant — and, ostensibly, abandon Bajagua — unless Bajagua can meet a crucial May 2 deadline. By that date, Bajagua will be expected to have a contract settled with the IBWC. The president also, however, proposed that Congress set aside $3 million to support Bajagua if its partners get the necessary approvals by next month.

Sally Spener, the spokeswoman of the IBWC, told me that, although she’s no expert in congressional allocations, she would “presume that Congress will choose one of the two options.” The government, in its final budget, wouldn’t leave it as ambiguous as the president has.

The ultimate budget authority, of course, lies with Congress. And the San Diego area Reps. Bob Filner and Brian Bilbray have been unrelenting supporters of Bajagua for many years.

They have tied, as Filner said, their legacies to Bajagua.

Filner explained that his support for Bajagua did not come from the campaign contributions. He has received $56,000 from Bajagua principals over the years and he said over that same period he raised $8 million for campaigns — the Bajagua share would hardly be enough for him to risk his legacy.

He said local opposition to expansion of the South Bay plant into one that would treat the sewage properly was fierce. Budget cuts were looming.

“Along came Bajagua and they said they’d put these filtering pools in Mexico and then they’d recycle the water, giving Tijuana more water to use. Then they said they’d put up the capital and take the financial risk to get it started. It solved all my problems,” Filner said.

But to sell it, he didn’t use that reasoning. Somehow the Bajagua project became a comprehensive solution not to the specific problems Filner was facing but to the decades-old problem of sewage and waste flowing from Tijuana into San Diego.

Bajagua won’t immediately bring a modern sewage infrastructure to Tijuana. Yet, nothing less would be able to contain the rivers of waste that pour north across the border every time it rains.

Bajagua will do something. It will improve the quality of the discharges that we already pipe out to the ocean. It may successfully spur more infrastructure developments in Mexico, eventually leading to a profound improvement to our own public health situation on this side of the border.

And all of that provides a reasonable basis to argue in favor of the project.

But it’s no comprehensive solution to a problem you can only appreciate when you see that house after house in those muddy colonias in Tijuana have nothing more substantial connected to them then a tube pointed toward the street.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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