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This report about the cross-border sewage crisis came out last week. It’s an easy, valuable read for those interested in the issue. Cory Briggs, the author, and the San Diego Foundation, its commissioner, did a good job.

The paper helps solidify the growing consensus that the proposal for the Bajagua treatment plant will do something to clean sewage coming across the border from Mexico — but it won’t do anything close to comprehensively solving the problem by itself.

The problem, of course, is the massive plume of sewage that flows out from the Tijuana River, particularly after rain falls in the region. The dangerous bacteria from the untreated sewage flows north forcing beaches in San Diego to close.

The Bajagua project would treat sewage that Tijuana manages to collect but it would do little to clean the waste from several hundred thousand poor Mexicans who live without basic plumbing.

As I wrote in my piece several weeks ago, the Bajagua project may have some merit but its supporters have engendered skepticism with their unsubstantiated claims that it will completely clean up the beaches in San Diego county that regularly close because of the pollution. And yes, supporters have claimed that often and regularly.

The message now punctuated by the recent report is simple: Support Bajagua if you want a project that will clean some sewage, but stop saying it will take care of the problem for good. Doing that only justifies worry among those who fret that once this project is completed, all the will to clean up the sewage disaster will evaporate.

This latest report says Bajagua might achieve “a small part of the goal” of making the coastal waters off Imperial Beach cleaner.

In my piece, I noted that the Bajagua boosters have gradually whittled down their rhetoric on the project. Bajagua used to be a “comprehensive” solution to the problem. Now it’s not. U.S. Rep. Bob Filner told Congress years ago, when he was seeking approval for the plan, that after Bajagua is built “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.”

Now he says “85 percent” of it would be cleaned.

And, finally, the Union-Tribune‘s editorial page is starting to adapt as well.

On Jan. 22, 2002, the U-T editorial page wrote a piece asking the San Diego City Council to endorse the Bajagua project:

Although you don’t hear about it very often, raw sewage flowing from Tijuana into the United States continues to be a serious problem. Today, the San Diego City Council has an opportunity to affirm the best solution to stop, once and for all, Tijuana sewage from plaguing our side of the border.

Once and for all, Bajagua would fix everything.

Now, five years later, what does the editorial board think?

I was surprised in February to read this in a U-T editorial about Bajagua:

The plan wouldn’t nearly solve all of Tijuana’s pollution problem, but it represented important progress.

So what happened to “once and for all”?

I thought maybe they just momentarily came back to Earth. But it happened again — this time in Sunday’s editorial (emphasis added):

Continued opposition to the Bajagua project on this side of the border is surprising. This initiative is the first crucial step in ending the flow of raw sewage from Tijuana into San Diego waters. It is a crucial first step in meeting Mexico’s dire need for usable, reclaimed water …

We are witnessing the great Bajagua retreat. The construction, if it ever gets off the ground, may do something, yes, but it won’t solve the border sewage crisis. Soon, the project formerly known as the greatest thing that could ever happen to the local environment will simply be known for what it is: a plan to build a sewage treatment plant in Mexico subsidized by U.S. taxpayers.

Supporters of Bajagua — especially Marco Gonzalez from the Surfrider Foundation — promise that after Bajagua’s built, they’ll fight just as hard to implement the “next steps” needed to solve the crisis.

But the U-T and San Diego’s congressional delegation have been fawning over Bajagua for years, exaggerating its potential benefits. We’ll have to consistently remind them that the rhetoric has been officially dialed down. And they’ll have to be prepared to make good on the contention that Bajagua is indeed the “first crucial step in ending the flow of raw sewage from Tijuana into San Diego waters.”

After all, we wouldn’t want readers and constituents to be surprised, several years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, wondering why the “once-and-for-all” solution was only just the start.

SCOTT LEWIS

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