Wednesday, June 11, 2008 | Re: potential options for the San Diego region to acquire significant funding needed for water quality improvement projects along the border: I encourage readers to visit the website of the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC).

Here they can view dozens of projects, representing billions of dollars, being invested in border infrastructure in cities all along the U.S.-Mexico border—except in San Diego.

This is because San Diego is excluded from these funds, thanks to a poorly crafted deal negotiated by Reps. Bob Filner and Brian Bilbray in 1997. That year, they asked for a $20 million Border Environmental Infrastructure Fund (BEIF) grant for the city of San Diego’s southern water reclamation plant, now operating near the International Wastewater Treatment Plant (IWTP) at the border. The total cost for the project was $99.59 million.

However, the USEPA objected to the grant and attached punitive conditions to it. The agency asserted San Diego could fund the project without the BECC assistance, given the relatively high per capita income and other resources the city had available at that time (pre-pension underfunding). Compared to most other border cities, San Diego was relatively wealthy while most were, and continue to be, extremely impoverished.

Despite this, Filner and Bilbray insisted on San Diego receiving the funding—and San Diego wound up losing all future access to these grants. The final agreement crafted by the USEPA gave San Diego the $20 million and permanently excluded the city from receiving any future funds from the BECC’s BEIF.

The good news: the reclamation plant is now providing a few million gallons/day of reclaimed water to the Otay Water District for landscaping and other uses in Chula Vista, Otay Mesa and other southern neighborhoods. It also provides water to the IWTP for operational use and could be expanded.

The bad news: the city of San Diego cannot receive BEIF grants for any of the border sewage clean up projects so desperately needed in the region. In exchange for receiving a $20 million grant in 1997, millions of additional funds are now permanently unavailable to meet the needs of our city.

Fortunately, this exclusion does not apply to other cities in this region. They can still apply for BEIF grants to assist with their projects. Tijuana has done several wastewater improvement projects using BEIF grants. Imperial Beach could potentially develop a local plan and apply for some funding.

One final note: in 2000, the USEPA offered $45 million in BEIF grant dollars to upgrade the IWTP to secondary level treatment. (This grant was allowed since the IWTP is a federal project, not under the city of San Diego exclusion) But Filner and Bilbray refused to accept their offer. And when Bilbray lost his re-election to Susan Davis in November 2000, he went to work as a lobbyist the following year…for Bajagua.

Lori Saldaña is a state legislator for California’s 76th Assembly District.

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