Signs at Dog Beach in Ocean Beach warn of water contamination. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Though the flow of millions of gallons of sewage from Tijuana into San Diego has been happening for decades, local officials have been mounting pressure to address the issue over the last year.

Some of the candidates vying to represent District 1 on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, which encompasses the areas most acutely impacted by the sewage flows – including Imperial Beach, parts of San Ysidro and near the Tijuana River Valley – think the county should play a larger role in responding to the crisis. Others told VOSD they’d mostly continue the county’s current approach.

In January, President Donald Trump signed legislation implementing the new agreement known as the USMCA, which included a provision authorizing $300 million to try to stop the cross-border sewage flows.

The state of California, the Port of San Diego, and the cities of Imperial Beach, Chula Vista and San Diego have also filed Clean Water Act lawsuits against the Trump administration to force action on the issue. Those legal proceedings are currently on hold, pending ongoing negotiations.

Tijuana is built into hillsides, where rainwater — or sewage when the wastewater system 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. The sewage and contamination flows from Tijuana have closed public beaches in San Diego for more than 500 days over the past three years.

Four Democrats are vying for the seat being vacated by Republican Supervisor Greg Cox: Rafael Castellanos, an attorney and Port of San Diego commissioner; Nora Vargas, a Southwestern Community College trustee and former Planned Parenthood executive; state Sen. Ben Hueso and Sophia Rodriguez, an employee at the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.

Castellanos and Hueso have been working on the issue recently. Castellano, as a port commissioner, has been involved with the port’s litigation and discussions among stakeholders, like the Environmental Protection agency, the city of Imperial Beach and other agencies and jurisdictions. As a state senator, Hueso pursued a $15 million budget allocation and legislation that would direct the State Coastal Conservancy to use those funds to address the toxic pathogens, beach closures and water quality issues from the sewage flows. He also wrote a bill to provide state funds for a county study of potential solutions to the problem.

Both have indicated that the county could do much more to address the sewage flows. Castellanos has argued that the county step up its involvement.

“I am offended by the lack of leadership we’ve had over decades that have allowed the situation to exist, where residents in the South Bay continue to get dumped on and they feel so helpless that they have become resigned to their perceived interpretation of the reality here that it’s just never going to get fixed,” Castellanos said. “You have a river of liquified river flowing through that river valley and people have just become resigned to it. Right now in [Imperial Beach] and parts of San Ysidro, it stinks for weeks and weeks. It’s outrageous.”

Cox defended his advocacy and the county’s diplomatic approach, which has been successful in obtaining much-needed federal funds.

Since the trade agreement was signed, Castellanos said the flows have gotten worse, because nine pumps aren’t working in Mexico. There’s been anywhere from 50 to 75 million gallons of sewage a day as a result.

Vargas and Rodriguez said that, for the most part, they support and would continue Cox’s approach, which involves nurturing relationships with federal and Mexican government officials and continuing to identify federal funding, though they both have ideas for additional steps they would support if elected.

Vargas and Rodriguez said that the county’s role in the complex binational issue would innately be limited, even if the Board of Supervisors gets more involved. The county can only play a limited role, for instance, in some of the solutions that would address the problem on the Mexican side, like building a new sewage plant and repairing pipes.

Vargas also pointed out that while the sewage crisis is a major issue for certain communities in the district, there are many more constituents who have other priorities.

“I think it’s a shame that people are prioritizing the Tijuana River Valley when there are children going to bed hungry,” Vargas said. “We’re talking about 600,000 residents, and if you’re knocking on doors, people are concerned about the rent being too high, children going to bed without food, transportation issues.”

Emergencies, Lawsuits and Plans

Both Castellanos and Hueso said one of the most crucial things the county could do is declare a state of emergency over the sewage flows.

Hueso said the county’s unwillingness to declare an emergency was part of what led him to propose state legislation to use the $15 million in state funds allocated for the river valley.

“California can’t declare an emergency unless the county does so first,” Hueso said. “The county has been refusing to declare an environmental emergency.”

The county has a major role in developing the strategy to spend funds coming from the state, he said.

Castellanos said an emergency declaration would “streamline and cut red tape and expand government powers to take action.”

Castellanos also said the county should start its own investigation into the issue and launch its own clean-up efforts, even without any additional state or federal funding.

“We should just proceed to do that investigation and clean-up work, and we can get reimbursed by the federal government in court if necessary,” he said.

Vargas and Castellanos said they would support the county joining in on or filing a lawsuit over the sewage.

“We have a responsibility to do more in continued pressure on the federal government,” Vargas said. “I would’ve joined the lawsuit, just like the one against the Trump administration about the asylum-seekers. This is a health crisis in our communities.”

Rodriguez said she wouldn’t support a lawsuit or an emergency declaration.

“It’s diplomacy that needs to be taken care of, especially with this federal administration,” Rodriguez said. “Maybe if we had a different federal administration right now, I would say, ‘Yes, join the lawsuit.’ But right now, retaliation is something I’d be worried about.”

Hueso also said he’s currently working on a Senate bill that would create a binational watershed management plan for the Tijuana River Valley, which would provide a formal role for the county.

What Everyone Agrees on: Outreach, Signage and Testing

One thing that everyone in the race agrees there could be more of is signage alerting people to the pollution.

Castellanos said he’s too often seen bikers at intersections in the region after rains pushing their bikes through what they probably think are mud puddles but are actually far more toxic.

“People have to know if they go into the ocean, they’re not safe,” Hueso said.

Rodriguez suggested that outreach go even further. She said the county could explore text notifications to let people know when the sewage flows reach certain levels.

Continuing county water quality testing is of utmost importance, she said.

Hueso said that the county should even increase the frequency of its water testing.

“I think it’s an outrage that we have to give swimmers and surfers hepatitis shots because they are going into the water and getting infections,” he said. “That’s got to end.”

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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