A damaged county sewer line spilled 900,000 gallons of sewage into Los Coches Creek. / Photo courtesy of San Diego County

In 2017, San Diego stopped worrying so much about whether it would have enough water and started worrying about what was in the water.

Just as record snows fell across the West, ending a drought that had once seemed to spell tough times ahead for arid cities like San Diego, the region began dealing with sewage-filled rivers and lead in school drinking water.

In late January, the San Ysidro School District notified parents it had found lead in water coming from several faucets at one of its elementary schools.

When more lead was found at a school in the San Diego Unified School District, suddenly there was a full-blown public health scare. The problem was never the water supply itself – the water coming into the schools was clean – but the plumbing at the schools was decaying, and trace amounts of toxic metal were ending up in the water.

At San Diego Unified in particular, the plumbing problems seemed to highlight how school districts and interest groups head-fake voters during campaigns for school construction bonds. Voters had been repeatedly persuaded to raise their own taxes to pay for school improvements. Then officials spent that money on things other than essential infrastructure.

One former San Diego Unified trustee, Scott Barnett, told us in 2015 that when it comes to prioritizing projects funded by school bond money, “it’s about what the parents want and what the politicians want. Look, you can’t do a ribbon-cutting on new plumbing, right? But you can do it on a new stadium.

At one San Diego Unified school, officials found water containing vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, and lead, which can damage children’s brains. That school had a new synthetic turf field but unsafe drinking water.

The worry prompted the district and the city of San Diego to test all local schools for leaded water. When it all was said and done, 57 of the 967 water samples they took had lead.

To make sure the rest of the state follows suite, San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher passed a new law that mandates lead testing in older schools and requires schools to notify parents if they find lead at levels higher than 15 parts per billion.

San Diego Unified plans to go even further and said it would test every tap in the district that provides water for human consumption and repair any fixture or piece of plumbing if officials found more than five parts of lead per billion parts water.

As that was happening in the world of drinking water, a decades-old problem literally spilled into view: In February, millions of gallons of sewage flooded into the Tijuana River and came across the border from Mexico.

Sewage spills are not a new problem for the region. Because of Tijuana River sewage spills, the San Diego City Council has had a state of emergency in effect since 1993 – a real misuse of the word “emergency.”

But the new spill focused attention on other spills, including several more than happened in the Tijuana River and within the United States. The fear that sewage-filled water contributed to the hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego prompted more attention on sewage spills, though public health officials declined to test the water for hepatitis A, citing federal advice that suggested polluted rivers likely weren’t a factor.

Fallout from the Tijuana spills is far from over, though. Local governments, including Imperial Beach, are suing the United States section of the International Boundary Water Commission, a binational agency, to make it do more to clean up the Tijuana River Valley.

The American head of the agency, Commissioner Edward Drusina, went out of his way at a recent conference in Las Vegas on the Colorado River to talk about the sewage issues in San Diego.

The comments left several people at the conference baffled, since its focus is water supply in the Colorado. But the remarks show how Drusina, who helped broker a deal between Mexico and the United States over how to share the Colorado River, is now increasingly dealing with the problems in the Tijuana River.

In the early days of the North American Free Trade Agreement, he said officials had paid attention to cross-border sewage issues, but they have since moved on to other things.

“Today refocus is needed on border sanitation systems and in the associated operations and maintenance that are ever so necessary,” Drusina said. “We need to regain that focus and invest accordingly. This need is today and both countries need to address it.”

The problem will be hard to solve without Mexico’s help. The main issue is the rapid growth of Tijuana, which has an aging sewer system in some places and no sewer system in others.

Now, even new water supply projects are imperiled by the sewage crisis. For years, the Otay Water District had been talking about pitching in to fund a desalination plant in Mexico to help supply water to the United States. But this spring, David Gibson, executive director of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, said he worried a new desalination plant could siphon money from the already strained Tijuana sewer system.

The attention on water quality could quickly go away if the state returns to drought conditions, but for now, the drought emergency is over in San Diego but worries about water quality continue.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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