Thursday, May 10, 2007 | As a private company’s high-profile plans to expand Tijuana’s sewage treatment have faltered, other improvements to the border city’s infrastructure have quietly advanced.

Though they have received little attention and avoided controversy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded projects have steadily helped improve sewage infrastructure in a city where potentially hundreds of thousands of residents lack proper indoor plumbing.

Piping TJ

  • The Issue: The controversial plan to expand and improve Tijuana’s sewage treatment is now in a judge’s hands. But the U.S. EPA has steadily made progress improving infrastructure in Tijuana regardless.
  • What It Means: The EPA has given $36 million in funding to Tijuana projects, hoping to better the cross-border region’s public health.
  • The Bigger Picture: Tijuana has more residents than it does sewage capacity, and more sewage infrastructure will be needed to bridge the gap. The EPA estimates the city has $1.2 billion in needs to meet the demands of its projected population in 2023.

With the future of the Bajagua Project LLC resting in a judge’s hands, the projects appear all the more important to the San Diego region, which frequently bears the brunt of sewage-laden runoff that washes down from Tijuana’s hillsides, coursing into the Pacific Ocean during rainfalls.

Bajagua, a private San Marcos company, won’t meet a court-ordered September 2008 deadline to expand and improve treatment at a San Ysidro plant that handles 25 million gallons of Mexican sewage daily. But other projects have steadily come online and made fundamental improvements in Tijuana.

TV cameras have probed miles of old pipes, looking for corrosion. Manhole covers have been replaced. Some 28 miles of wastewater collection piping has been rehabbed. So has a major sewage conduit.

“While Bajagua seems to be the political hot button that it is, behind the scenes the modernization of Mexico — their capacity to address their problems — improves,” said Rick Van Schoik, managing director of the Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy, based at San Diego State University. “Many of us get blinded to the big story. It’s not all about Bajagua. It’s 1,000 little steps that have their own lives that reach fruition without fanfare.”

The EPA has funded $36 million in infrastructure improvements, with the cooperation of the Mexican government. The EPA contributed $18 million to rehabilitate some of the most spill-prone areas of Tijuana’s sewage-collection system. The project, which will be finished this year, aims to prevent raw sewage from leaking into the Tijuana River, said Su Cox, an EPA environmental engineer.

The agency contributed $16 million to improve Tijuana’s largest sewage pipe, which connects neighborhoods to the San Antonio de los Buenos treatment plant at Punta Bandera. That project was completed in 2000.

The EPA also spent $2 million drafting an in-depth master plan for Tijuana’s water and wastewater infrastructure. The report, which was completed in 2003, estimated that the burgeoning city needed to spend $1.2 billion to make necessary infrastructure improvements to meet its growing population’s demand for water and wastewater services by 2023.

Another project in the planning phases would provide infrastructure to collect sewage from 53,000 people in seven Tijuana colonias currently lacking it. Three neighborhoods with about 9,000 residents would also receive drinking water service. The price tag: $10.3 million. The EPA, which requires matching funding from Mexican government authorities, does not yet know how much cost the U.S. government will shoulder, Cox said.

But before those neighborhoods can be connected, Cox said Tijuana’s wastewater utility needs treatment plants that can properly handle the new sewage. The city has more residents than its wastewater system can currently handle.

Comision Estatal de Servicios Publicos de Tijuana, the city’s local water and wastewater utility, has been building three decentralized sewage treatment plants that could be completed within the next year. They would provide about 21 million gallons of daily sewage treatment capacity — handling about 84,000 plastic kiddie pools worth of raw waste each day.

The plants have seen delays. The EPA master plan originally called for them to come online two years ago.

The three plants aim to treat sewage so it would be clean enough to be reused by manufacturers or agriculture — a process called “water reclamation.” The State Water Resources Board has raised concerns about the plants, saying that they could cause more harm than good if a third-party user of the reclaimed water didn’t need its allocation. That could cause serious problems, the state agency says, because the plants don’t have the infrastructure to properly dispose of unwanted water.

Once treated, water could simply be dumped, find its way into the Tijuana River and pick up pollutants again 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 offshore.

When it rains, downpours overwhelm Tijuana’s limited sewage infrastructure. The diverters can’t handle it, so they’re closed. The raging water — full of bacteria, human feces and garbage — courses toward the Tijuana River and goes straight into the Pacific.

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

Cox, the EPA environmental engineer, said Tijuana’s wastewater utility has been working with federal and state water agencies to find ways to reuse the water, to prevent it from crossing the border.

“The utilities and water agency in Mexico have been working very hard to find a solution to those discharges that would keep them from entering the Tijuana River,” Cox said.

The three plants would help reduce demand on the San Antonio de los Buenos plant, Cox said. When it gets overwhelmed, the 25-million-gallon-a-day plant simply releases raw sewage on to the beach. They would also provide sewer service to some communities that currently lack it, Cox said.

Bajagua’s critics laud the three plants, saying Tijuana’s rolling hills make it difficult to pump water to large sewage plants like the one Bajagua proposes. Building smaller treatment plants is more feasible, they say.

“This is a much better approach,” said Oscar Romo, coastal training program coordinator at the Tijuana Estuary, where much of Tijuana’s sewage winds up before being flushed into the Pacific Ocean. “They might not be controversial, and that may be why they’re not talking about them. But they’re having progress every day. We’ll see those plants online very soon.”

But a Bajagua spokesman said the smaller treatment plants are less viable than the larger 59-million-gallon-a-day plant the private company is pursuing. A larger plant means water can be produced more cheaply — spreading the cost of operations and maintenance over a larger scale.

“You have to have enough water for resale and delivery to provide a beneficial use to the end user,” Bajagua spokesman Craig Benedetto said. “It costs more for a smaller plant to provide the same product than a larger plant with greater capacity. You have to create a product that meets the price point the market is willing to bear.”

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