An empty plastic bottle bounces across several feet of water that flooded Monument Road in the Tijuana River Valley in 2013. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Tijuana sewage spills have been a problem in the San Diego-Tijuana region for generations, and the issue is flaring up again.

Tijuana is built into hillsides, where rainwater — or sewage when the wastewater system breaks or fails — naturally drains toward the U.S.-Mexico border and into the Pacific Ocean. The city has grown rapidly for decades and its water infrastructure hasn’t kept up, exacerbating the problem.

Last year, beaches along the border were closed for as many as 167 days due to Tijuana River contamination, according to the Union-Tribune. Border Patrol agents working in our region reported that incidents of sewage-related headaches, rashes, infections and breathing problems had tripled in 2017.

Recently there have been a few small steps forward, said Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina.

First, the Mexican government announced last week it would invest $4.35 million in upgrades to Tijuana’s wastewater system in attempt to reduce sewage flows into the Tijuana River.

These investments don’t include, however, some key infrastructure projects, the Union-Tribune noted, and the $4.3 million is far less than the roughly $330 million in upgrades and new infrastructure that the Baja California government has outlined as needed.

“It’s what I would call a down payment on the larger investments that need to be made,” said Dedina.

Last week, five of San Diego’s congressional representatives — Democrats and Republicans — asked the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General to investigate the International Boundary and Water Commission — a binational agency made up of American and Mexican officials who deal with water issues along the border — and the ongoing transnational sewage spill issues in the Tijuana River Valley.

The new federal budget includes $10 million for money to spend on water system projects along the border. The program, run by the Environmental Protection Agency, has been around for years but has exhausted much of its money in recent years.

“It’s not enough, but it’s a start,” Dedina said.

It is unclear how much of that money will end up in the San Diego-Tijuana region. Other border communities, including some in Texas, face similar issues. Dedina said there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes work to get the funding. He said he’s been working with Marcela Celorio, Mexico’s consul general in San Diego, officials in the North American Development Bank and a congressional delegation that includes legislators from the San Diego region and Texas who are concerned about the issue. He said he was planning on meeting with high-level EPA officials this week.

One problem is that the boundary commission, even though it might seem like the agency most likely to help solve these problems, sometimes throws up its hands.

The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board requested that the commission commit funds to stop the Tijuana sewage flows. On March 1, the Department of Justice responded on the agency’s behalf with a letter stating that the commission isn’t responsible for those infrastructure commitments.

California disagrees.

That letter prompted Imperial Beach, Chula Vista and the Port of San Diego to file a long-planned lawsuit against the commission last month over its failure to deal with the sewage control issues. The plaintiffs had first indicated they would sue back in September.

State Sen. Ben Hueso wants the state to join the lawsuit, too.

The San Diego Regional Quality Control Board also said it intends to sue the commission.

For a deeper dive into the cross-border water contamination issues, check out these recent articles by the Union-Tribune’s Sandra Dibble, which hones in on the San Diego-Tijuana area problems, and the Revelator, which looks at how the U.S. and Mexico sections of the commission have failed to fix wastewater treatment systems in communities along the border.

In other water news along the border, the Rosarito desalination plant recently celebrated its groundbreaking. At full capacity, the plant is expected to convert up to 100 million gallons of seawater a day. (Union-Tribune)

The Otay Water District spent $4.1 million on a pipeline project to bring some of that water across the border, before taking the project off the table indefinitely in December. (NBC7)

The Drug War Continues

The United States and Mexico are facing a new maritime front in the drug war, reports the Associated Press.

As the push for more land-border security has taken over the public debate, drug smugglers are increasingly turning to the Pacific Ocean. Annually, the Coast Guard seizes three times the amount of cocaine than is confiscated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Meanwhile, law enforcement and prosecutors continue in their long-running efforts to dismantle the Sinaloa Cartel. The son of one of the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel was recently sentenced by a federal judge in San Diego to five and a half years in prison. The Union-Tribune delves into some court documents and describes his upbringing in the turbulent narco wars.

Al Jazeera dug into how America’s guns and cash are flowing into Mexico, propping up its criminal organizations. Case in point: $10 million in U.S. currency was seized at the Tijuana airport last week, reports the Union-Tribune. Large cash seizures like these are often the proceeds of illicit drug sales in the U.S.

San Diego Is No Sanctuary

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors will decide in closed session later this month whether it wants to get involved in the Trump administration’s lawsuit against California’s so-called sanctuary laws.

The announcement came on the heels of the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ announcement it too would support the federal government’s lawsuit against California.

One member of the San Diego board, Supervisor Dianne Jacob, stated her thoughts clearly to me in a statement: “I’ve always supported the great working relationship between the Sheriff’s Department and federal law enforcement agencies, and it needs to continue. I support the County joining the [sanctuary] lawsuit and look forward to this being on the next closed session agenda.”

I also dug into some human smuggling accusations that had been made in two high-profile arrests of undocumented immigrants in National City.

More Border News

A new “borderless” radio station will be broadcast in San Diego and Tijuana and plans to focus on artists and DJs who sing and speak in both English and Spanish. (San Diego Reader)

Tijuana’s homeless population is linked to the United States, and is made up of people who’ve come to Tijuana to cross the border north and those deported from the United States. (KPBS)

San Diego received an additional $251 million in border fence funding, which will replace and fill in some gaps of about 14 miles of fencing from Border Field State Park to the border wall prototypes in Otay Mesa. (Union-Tribune)

Human Rights Watch has received some heavily redacted records indicating that border officials aren’t following U.S. law for asylum seekers. The organization is suing to get more records.

This video of deported veteran Hector Barajas finding out he will become a U.S. citizen and can return home to his family gives me all the feels. Barajas became a leader in the movement to help U.S. veterans who had already been deported or were at risk of deportation. He founded the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana.

If you haven’t watched it yet, check out this mini-doc by VOSD’s Adriana Heldiz. Heldiz follows Gaston Cazares, who was deported from San Diego six months ago, as he and his family – still in San Diego – try to adjust to his new life in Tijuana.

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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