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Friday, Sept. 14, 2007 | As a federal judge prepares to hear arguments Friday about a timeline to clean up Tijuana’s sewage, one thing remains clear: The decades-old pollution problem that originates in Tijuana and winds up on San Diego’s shores won’t be going away any time soon.

In fact, even a partial improvement will take at least a year longer to be implemented than had been expected. And that plan won’t put plumbing in the thousands of Tijuana homes that lack it. So the frequent winter beach closures in Imperial Beach — widely recognized as a sewage-pollution crisis — won’t be resolved any time soon.

The International Boundary and Water Commission, a State Department agency responsible for overseeing cross-border sewage, had been required to address Tijuana’s sewage by September 2008, according to the terms of a federal court order.

But the commission says it will not meet that deadline, and U.S. District Court Judge Barry T. Moskowitz will hear arguments tomorrow about whether to grant an extension.

The IBWC built a sewage treatment plant in San Ysidro to treat 25 million gallons of Tijuana’s waste each day. From the moment it opened in 1997, the plant violated the federal Clean Water Act, because it didn’t remove enough crud from the sewage before pumping it into the Pacific Ocean.

That brought a lawsuit from the State Water Resources Control Board, the state regulator that enforces the Clean Water Act. And the IBWC was ordered to improve the treatment by September 2008. It chose a controversial method to boost the crud removal: The Bajagua Project LLC. The private San Marcos company proposes to build a treatment plant in Mexico to handle 59 million gallons of sewage daily. That would boost Tijuana’s treatment capacity by 34 million gallons a day.

But as progress has slowed, the federal government has suspended its relationship with Bajagua and attempted to secure $66 million in funding to pay for improvements at the existing San Ysidro plant — jettisoning Bajagua, a project whose full cost to American taxpayers has still not been revealed. Congress has not decided that issue yet.

The federal commission wants to proceed — for now — with both Bajagua and the San Ysidro upgrade. In court filings, the commission says it will decide later which alternative is better and wants a deadline extension until March 2010.

While the federal government seeks the delay, state water regulators say they hold little hope that a delay will improve the chances of solving the border sewage problem. The state water board is asking the judge to keep the current timeline.

“How do you set a new schedule and keep a straight face? I don’t know how you can honestly say that some new date is a defensible date. On what basis?” said Bart Christensen, a senior engineer at the state board. “We’ve had defensible dates fall by the wayside for years now.”

Many are skeptical that the federal judge will be able to compel action from a federal agency insulated from the same type of financial penalties that could be levied against a private homeowner who was dumping partially sewage in the ocean. Short of jailing the boundary commission’s top official, the federal court has little recourse. No one involved expect the judge to take such a drastic step.

“The IBWC, their only incentive to do this is the extent they want to comply with the Clean Water Act. Which ain’t much,” said Cory Briggs, an attorney who authored a report about Bajagua earlier this year for the San Diego Foundation. “This situation has blame to go around every which way.”

Briggs blames the IBWC for its bureaucratic delays and says the state water board should have pushed the issue into court much sooner, when early deadlines were missed.

“If Bajagua is the solution, then everyone needs to get out of the way. If it’s not, the IBWC needs to be working on one,” Briggs said. “Nobody has been holding anybody’s feet to the fire, and yet that’s what the purpose of the litigation was.”

Craig Benedetto, a Bajagua spokesman, said he expects the commission to blame Bajagua for the missed timeline. Bajagua would welcome more involvement from the federal court, Benedetto said, to ensure that future dates are met.

“We have all the interests in the world in getting this done as soon as possible,” Benedetto said, noting that the private company will only reap profits once the plant is operating. “To accuse us of the delays is ridiculous.”

It appears that the federal commission, despite its extensive work with Bajagua, has never verified how long the project’s construction would actually take. Bajagua has estimated it could be operating by late 2009, the commission says in court documents.

“This estimate,” the commission says, “is still not accompanied by any analysis or support.”

In his report earlier this year, Briggs urged the region to move beyond its bickering about Bajagua and begin finding ways to address the sewage problem’s root cause, the hundreds of thousands of Tijuana residents who lack proper plumbing and sewage treatment.

But until Moskowitz acts, Briggs said, the suggestions in his report will remain unfulfilled.

“We’re not any closer,” he said. “We can’t move beyond it, because we can’t even get to it.”

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

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