Wednesday, May 16, 2007 | A long-awaited report released Tuesday about the cross-border sewage that originates in Tijuana and winds up on San Diego’s shores withholds judgment on the controversial Bajagua Project, while calling for a detente among the environmentalists divided over the issue.

The 42-page report, commissioned by the San Diego Foundation, a local philanthropy, was welcomed by both the Bajagua Project’s proponents and critics, each calling it a validation of their entrenched stances about how to best resolve border-sewage problems.

Beyond Bajagua

  • The Issue: A report issued Tuesday called for the region to move beyond its bickering over the Bajagua Project, a controversial plan to boost Tijuana’s sewage treatment capacity.
  • What It Means: The report makes it clear that the sewage that plagues the border is bigger than Bajagua. The region needs to move on beyond Bajagua, the report says, and begin addressing structural deficiencies in its ability to address trans-boundary pollution.
  • The Bigger Picture: In the long-term, the region’s nonprofits and political leaders must begin focusing on the larger issue, the report says, finding solutions that address the pollution’s root cause: The thousands of Tijuana homes with inadequate plumbing.

Beyond each side’s spin, the report called for the region’s environmentalists and policymakers to move past the debate over Bajagua, a private San Marcos-based company that aims to build an American taxpayer-funded sewage-treatment plant in Tijuana. The region should begin finding ways to address the problem’s root cause, the report says: the hundreds of thousands of Tijuana residents who lack proper plumbing and sewage treatment.

Each time it rains, millions of gallons of runoff bring soil and sewage streaming down Tijuana’s hillsides into the Tijuana River. The waterway directs the chocolaty mess across the border and into San Diego just south of Imperial Beach.

The Bajagua plant would increase sewage treatment capacity from 25 million gallons daily to 59 million, while increasing the levels of waste pulled out of sewage currently treated at a San Ysidro sewage plant. The company has missed a key deadline, though, and says it will not complete its plant by September 2008, as required by a federal court decree. While its fate rests in the hands of a federal judge who will decide whether to grant an extension, the report says Bajagua should not yet be jettisoned.

The Bajagua Project has divided San Diego’s environmental community, which often presents a united front. The “unprecedented vehemence” has helped stifle discussions about solutions beyond Bajagua, says the report, written by San Diego environmental attorney Cory Briggs and estimated to cost approximately $20,000.

Says the report: “The time has come for a detente.”

“At an intellectual level, everybody realizes we need to focus on the bigger picture,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, which has remained neutral on Bajagua. “But when you talk about the overall border sewage problem, the debate over Bajagua sucks up the oxygen in the room.”

The report heaps much of the blame for the region’s lingering border-sewage crisis on the International Boundary and Water Commission, the arm of the U.S. State Department that oversees border water issues, including Bajagua. Briggs says the IBWC failed to handle the border-sewage problem quickly, effectively or transparently.

“The commission has allowed the Bajagua Project … to become all-consuming,” the report says. “Largely because of the commission, the region appears no closer to a comprehensive border-sewage solution than it was several years ago.”

The report levels criticism against both Bajagua’s proponents and opponents. Bajagua wrongly claimed to be a comprehensive solution to border-sewage issues, the report says. “The Bajagua project has indeed been promoted as something much more than it is,” it says.

But the project’s opponents should acknowledge that it is part of a larger strategy to improve water quality and public health, Briggs writes. Opponents’ claims of corruption and ethical breaches by Bajagua officials and its attorneys are unfounded, the report states. While the report doesn’t endorse the company’s political donations and lobbying dollars, Briggs notes that such strategies are common.

“It is difficult to blame them for exploiting all lawful avenues to the fullest extent,” the report states.

Craig Benedetto, a Bajagua spokesman, said the report exonerated his company from allegations of manipulation.

“It’s clear that the opposition points have been refuted,” Benedetto said. “We were completely within our rights.”

The report offered both sides the opportunity to reconcile their differences, though neither side fully took it. The report called on Bajagua’s proponents to acknowledge their project’s imperfections and admit the plant is not a comprehensive solution to the border-sewage crisis.

Benedetto said the plant was not a comprehensive solution as once advertised, but maintained that the project would serve as a catalyst to put plumbing in Tijuana homes that lack it. He would not address its imperfections. “What is perfection?” he asked.

The report said Bajagua’s opponents should similarly acknowledge that the planned sewage-treatment expansion would be “one part of an overall strategy for fighting sewage.” Opponents, however, refused to make that admission.

“You can’t make those conclusions,” said Ben McCue, coastal conservation program manager for Wildcoast, an Imperial Beach-based environmental group that has fought Bajagua. McCue said the report validated his organization’s push to develop a broader border-sewage solution beyond Bajagua.

Wildcoast will continue to fight and advocate against Bajagua, McCue said, if the project “continues to be an obstacle for clean water.”

Bob Kelly, president and CEO of the San Diego Foundation, which commissioned the report last June, said Briggs’ findings would not be a guide for the philanthropy’s funding of local environmental groups that split over Bajagua. The organization gives funding to the Surfrider Foundation (a Bajagua supporter,) Wildcoast (an opponent,) and San Diego Coastkeeper (neutral).

“We don’t see a problem funding different groups on opposing sides,” Kelly said. “Hopefully, we work together to come up with a solution.”

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