Trash is piled near the U.S.-Mexico border, where sewage from Tijuana flows through. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Californians are pushing pause on federal lawsuits against the International Boundary and Water Commission, the agency that’s supposed to deal with sewage-filled stormwater rolling into the U.S. from the Tijuana cliffs under a treaty between the two countries.

The city of Imperial Beach, environmental advocacy group Surfrider Foundation and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board agreed to put down their proverbial legal swords for a period of 12 months while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts a stack of cash to work on the decades-long sewage issue plaguing the Tijuana River watershed.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller OK’d the joint motion to stay on Tuesday and said the agreement would “ensure the fastest and most efficient means of addressing future discharges from (IBWC’s) infrastructure in the Tijuana River Valley.” All the parties will check in with the court on a monthly basis, though.

“We’re going to hold everyone accountable and continue to push to turn off the sewage tsunami that’s been killing us since November,” Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina told Voice of San Diego on Wednesday.

The beach at San Diego’s Border Field State Park has been closed since Nov. 19 due to poor water quality. Imperial Beach Pier has also been closed for over 100 days this year.

All the lawsuits allege the Water Commission is violating the federal Clean Water Act by permitting millions of gallons of raw sewage, heavy metals and other contaminants to spill into San Diego. The effect is shuttered beaches along the Southern California coast and questionable water quality in watershed and surf zone.

But it seems the EPA’s recent promise of $300 million for environmental border projects from Congress under President Donald Trump’s revised NAFTA agreement – now called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement – is temporarily cooling tempers and providing a pathway toward resolving a problem that’s existed essentially since the drawing of the current border.

This doesn’t mean the legal battle is over, though.

“We’re just momentarily pausing our litigation,” said Dave Gibson, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. “If we’re not satisfied where EPA is going … we can resume litigation at any time during the coming year.”

Where’s the Money?

That $300 million can technically go toward any environmental project along the U.S.-Mexico border, but EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler (who has the final say) said he’s taken “a personal interest” in the Tijuana River Valley.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been briefed (about this) by my staff,” Wheeler said during a July 1 press conference.

But it may be years before hammers actually touch nails on a project in the basin.

The EPA first wants to analyze all the solutions that have already been studied and proposed – some that cost California more than half a million dollars to reach.

Wheeler said he’s directed his staff to “take a step back” and find projects that have the most “bang for the buck.”

“Focus on those projects that solve the problem instead of just doing (something) because it’s a pet project of the local official,” Wheeler said.

The mayor of Imperial Beach, a border city blighted by frequent beach closures due to Tijuana River sewage runoff, says he needs short-term solutions for the floods his residents face while the federal government makes its decision.

“We understand the need to make long-term investments and a big-picture solution but we still will have three years of nonstop sewage flows,” Dedina said.

Black Water in Goat Canyon
Black water flowing in Goat Canyon Collector / Photo by Serge Dedina

People have been warned against entering the ocean off Imperial Beach since November due to failed water quality tests by the county, effectively closing the beach.

San Diego County already spent a few years and $500,000 in state funds on a study to identify which projects should come first. And county officials have suggestions ready to go.

“We’ve been able to get everyone together to … agree on which of the projects, if we had the money, we could we do right away and recommend that to the EPA,” said Marvin Mayorga, a staffer from Supervisor Greg Cox’ office, earlier this spring.

Mayorga said their study targets keeping beach closures in Imperial Beach to a minimum. It proposes building a new plant to treat sewage-filled stormwater rolling from the canyons on the Mexican side and sediment basins that can catch the polluted dirt and sand that comes with it.

That solution would cost over $400 million, more than USMCA’s funding can cover.

So far though, nobody is really talking about who would take responsibility for the ongoing operation and maintenance costs of whatever they build, let alone the aging wastewater system that already straddles the two countries.

Broken pipes and pumps are fixed in patches when money comes through from both federal governments or via the North American Development Bank.

But if it rains even just half an inch in Tijuana, enough water containing raw sewage tumbles from the Mexican cliffs that it would take 600 treatment plants the size of the Water Commission’s to treat, said Daniel Avila, the Water Commission’s principal engineer, at a March 5 public meeting.

“If there’s some liquid coming down the river, we can capture and treat that. But if there’s rain, there’s no way we can capture all that water,” Avila said.

It’s also the underfunded pipes and pumps on the Mexican side – constructed in 1965 at a shared cost between the two countries – that haven’t been upgraded in a big way since President Lyndon B. Johnson put them there.

Commission staff said during the March 5 meeting it would take $4 million in plumbing materials plus an estimated $2.2 million per year for an annual maintenance team to support the infrastructure.

“Absolutely no one wants to step up and do operations and maintenance,” said Commissioner Jayne Harkins at that meeting.

Red Water in Goat Canyon Collector
Red water in Goat Canyon Collector / Photo by Customs and Border Protection Agent Amber Craig

Congress has left the agency that oversees the almost 2,000 miles span of the U.S-Mexico border with a flat budget of about $75 million per year since 2010. The agency’s costs increase with inflation at a rate of 3 percent per year, but its funding increased about 1.1 percent per year since then, according to a February report by the Government Accountability Office.

That argument doesn’t satisfy Dedina.

“It doesn’t cost a lot of money to push a bulldozer in a water channel,” Dedina said, referencing the fact that sand and other sediment flowing from the canyons contribute to pipe back-ups and flooding.

Under the agreement staying federal litigation, it appears the Water Commission is going to do just that. The agency said it would spend $2 million to purchase trucks, pumps, meters and generators to help stop flows during the in between as EPA’s project selection process plays out.

Though the agency got about $10 million more for deferred maintenance projects this last budget cycle, it’s taking that $2 million from money that otherwise supports staff salaries and expenses, Sally Spener, an agency spokesperson, confirmed on Wednesday.

Concurrent with that work, the Water Commission is supposed to update the San Diego Water Quality Control Board on its efforts to comply with its Clean Water Act pollution discharge permit.

The board issued an investigative order in February against the Water Commission, alleging it was out of compliance with how it tests and reports on the quality of the water coming from Mexico’s canyons.

“We’re coming to call it the canyon of many colors. It’d be bright pink and another day, black as midnight,” Gibson said. “Those industrial releases seem to be more frequent than not in Tijuana but we simply don’t have a good handle on how large of an issue there is.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this post misstated the amount San Diego County spent in state funds to identify which Tijuana River projects to prioritize. It was $500,000.

An earlier version of this post also misidentified Daniel Avila.

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