Wednesday, June 11, 2008 | A month has passed since the federal government ditched the Bajagua Project, an eight-year-old plan to address some of the cross-border sewage pollution that routinely closes southern San Diego County beaches.

Instead of building Bajagua’s treatment plant in Tijuana, the government decided in May to improve an existing plant that sits in San Ysidro and collects Mexican sewage. The plant currently fails to meet Clean Water Act standards because it doesn’t remove enough waste from the sewage it treats and pumps offshore. The upgrade would clean the sewage more thoroughly.

While the federal plan would bring the plant into compliance with the Clean Water Act, it won’t address the bigger problem that has plagued the border region for decades: Tijuana’s feces-and-bacteria laden runoff that gushes through canyons that bisect the border and into the ocean during winter rains. Each year, the brown mess closes area beaches as far north as Coronado for months at a time.

In lieu of Bajagua, which is still trying to build a smaller version of its original project, no one agrees on a way to effectively deal with the wet-weather pollution. There are, however, a lot of ideas. Here’s a look at the informal proposals, their benefits and drawbacks:

  • John Robertus, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the local water pollution police, wants to build structures in the United States near the border fence to catch the trash — tires, milk jugs, soda bottles — that are left scattered around the border after each rainfall.

“We have a regulatory imperative,” Robertus said. “We must intercept the trash when it comes in the United States now, because things aren’t happening in Mexico.”

It would be an interim step in a bigger plan. Robertus said catching sediment as it crosses the border would be his next priority. And curbing Tijuana runoff — the major source of the problem — would be next, a step that is “probably decades away,” Robertus said.

Pros: This would keep tires, litter and eventually sediment out of the Pacific Ocean and the Tijuana Estuary.

Cons: No funding source has been identified. This would not stem the flow of bacteria that causes beach closures. And it wouldn’t address the trash and tires at their source.

  • San Diego City Councilman Ben Hueso, who represents the border area, favors raising $20 million to pave dirt streets in two Tijuana canyons that serve as conduits for sewage runoff into the United States. Using pervious stone pavers — small stones packed together, as opposed to impervious asphalt — this concept would allow rain to soak into the ground, creating less runoff.

“We’re not trying to pave the entire city of Tijuana,” Hueso said. “The solution is not easy, but it’s not overwhelmingly impossible.”

Pros: This could improve groundwater replenishment and reduce some of the sediment that flows into the Tijuana estuary. That influx of sediment from denuded Tijuana hillsides is slowly choking the 2,500-acre salt marsh, filling in wetlands with dirt and leaving areas where birds won’t nest.

Cons: No funding source has been identified. And it would address only a small part of Tijuana’s lacking infrastructure.

  • Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, proposes a one- to two-year-long study of the cross-border pollution problem. Reznik aims to raise $500,000 to conduct a peer-reviewed examination of the region’s best ways to address the pollution.

“The studies that have been done are incomplete, out of date or there’s a perception of politics or bias in them,” Reznik said. “The vast majority of folks I think really believe that we don’t know what the best course of action is. And taking the time to figure it out is going to be valuable.”

Pros: This could establish a non-biased blueprint for the region to follow to address a long-standing problem. It could serve as a way for politicians and activists with varied interests to coalesce around a unified path.

Cons: The Bajagua proposal deeply divided San Diego’s environmental community. Many of those politicians and activists despise each other. Reznik acknowledges that he doesn’t expect them to sing kumbaya together, but expects they would rally around his effort.

Cory Briggs, a San Diego environmental lawyer who has studied border pollution, puts the downside another way: “We have to shake the baggage of the last 15 years. It’s made it difficult for people to trust one another going forward. I don’t know how you can be highly optimistic that this (environmental) community is going to solve this problem any time soon unless something radical changes.”

  • Craig Benedetto, the spokesman for Bajagua, said the company still wants to build a slimmed-down treatment plant in Tijuana to expand the city’s sewage treatment capacity, ultimately serving as a catalyst for the city to provide plumbing to homes that lack it.

Benedetto says the private proposal offers what other ideas lack — money. By selling reclaimed water, the project would provide income to pay down the initial financing.

“If money is the solution, the only realistic solution to that is a private sector entrepreneur coming in and providing the reclaimed water that will provide the money for all of these other issues,” Benedetto said. “The only way you’re going to get that money is to sell the reclaimed water (recycled sewage) for reuse. And the only group out there talking about it is Bajagua. Still.”

Pros: If revived, this would provide a U.S.-funded method for expanding Tijuana’s sewage treatment capacity. The company would finance the cost up front and be reimbursed annually by the federal government. And it would provide a new source of water from the recycled sewage.

Cons: The federal government has already rejected Bajagua once, citing its costs and uncertainties. A revival would take another act of Congress. The proposal has been deeply divisive in San Diego and holds no guarantee of putting plumbing in the homes or neighborhoods that lack it.

  • Serge Dedina, executive director of Imperial Beach-based Wildcoast, urges the construction of sewage-collection infrastructure in Tijuana on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood scale. This must include a focus on improving infrastructure in western Tijuana, he said. Such an effort would include installing pervious pavers to reduce runoff and improving sewer pipes, as well as using “low-tech infrastructure” such as outhouses in neighborhoods that lack plumbing.

Pros: This could address the root cause of much of the cross-border pollution. Doing that would cut bacteria in the streets and ultimately in the Pacific Ocean, improving public health on both sides of the border.

Cons: The idea lacks cash, and the cost estimate, scope and extent of the proposal are undefined. Tijuana would also need more sewage-treatment capacity to come online for added plumbing to make a difference.

Dedina believes the financing — he said it would cost perhaps $300 million to $400 million — can be raised from both countries and from members of the private sector.

“I guarantee you, we get citizen advocates from both sides of the border going to Washington and Mexico City, and we’re going to get money,” he said. “Things are changing politically in this country, and I’m more optimistic than ever that we’re going to raise huge amounts of money to address the problem.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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