In an area of Imperial Beach, trash is piled up where cross-border sewage flows through. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For more than two decades, cleaning up the Tijuana River has been one of my top priorities. The wastewater, trash and sediment that continues to flow into San Diego County are a danger to public health and our economy and it must be addressed.

Over the past year we’ve made real strides to fix the problem of cross-border pollution. And last week’s introduction of the Border Water Quality Restoration and Protection Act is another step toward achieving that goal.

The problem is simple: The Tijuana River flows north and brings pollution from Mexico into the United States causing unsanitary water conditions and beach closures.

Three-quarters of the 1,700-square-mile Tijuana River watershed lies in Mexico. However, the watershed, along with all its pollutants, drains into the Tijuana River Valley in San Diego County.

The harmful effects of that pollution touch every aspect of life in San Diego.

The pollution closes beaches that are vital to San Diego’s tourism economy. For instance in Imperial Beach, the beach along the commercial area is currently closed and has already suffered more than 130 days of beach closures this year due to ocean pollution. And the south end of the beach has been closed entirely since last November.

The pollution from Mexico threatens sensitive wildlife habitat, including the Tijuana River’s National Estuarine Research Reserve, River Mouth State Marine Conservation Area and River Valley Regional Park Preserve. These three areas provide habitat for more than 300 species of birds as well as marine animals like leopard sharks and bottlenose dolphins.

And local Border Patrol union officials have reported more than 100 officers have suffered from contamination, rashes, infections, chemical burns and lung irritation due to toxic cross-border flows.

This is unacceptable.

For more than a decade, I’ve worked with the San Diego congressional delegation and local leaders to address this problem.

In 2008, we secured $66 million to upgrade the South Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant. More recently we’ve worked to increase funding for the EPA’s Border Water Infrastructure Program, which provides funds to fix aging wastewater infrastructure on both sides of the border. Last year, Congress provided $25 million for the program despite the Trump administration’s attempt to eliminate it entirely.

Given that most of the watershed is in Mexico, this is a binational issue. To ensure that Mexico is an active partner, I’ve met with two Mexican ambassadors to the United States on this issue and encouraged Mexico to invest in solutions to address wastewater infrastructure.

This year’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement also signaled a big victory for our battle against cross-border pollution. We were able to include $300 million for the EPA to make concrete improvements to the local infrastructure to clean up these rivers. The EPA is currently analyzing various projects along the border and collecting stakeholder input to determine how to effectively use this funding.

As important as these actions are, they’re not enough. We need to consider a new, comprehensive approach to deal with this complicated problem.

That is why I introduced the Border Water Quality Restoration and Protection Act. Drafted in consultation with the Government Accountability Office, the bill includes real reforms to clean up the Tijuana River, along with the New River in Imperial County.

One of the biggest issues is that no one agency is in charge of the problem. A whole range of agencies – the EPA, International Boundary and Water Commission, State Department, Department of Homeland Security and Defense Department, not to mention state and local agencies – all have jurisdiction or interest in this international issue.

What we need is one agency in charge, taking input from the others so decisions can be made. This approach is similar to other large, regional environmental challenges like the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Everglades and Chesapeake Bay. Here in California, we have also had great success with this model of interagency coordination at Lake Tahoe.

Here’s how the bill would work:

  • It would put the EPA in charge of the entire effort.
  • The EPA would then work with federal, state and local partners to identify a list of priority projects to stop the pollution. It would also be authorized to accept and distribute funds to build, operate and maintain those projects.
  • The International Boundary and Water Commission would be required to construct, operate and maintain projects on the list and would be specifically authorized to mitigate storm water from Mexico and the pollution that comes with it.

This bill would get everyone on the same page by creating a formal process to consider effective, long-term solutions for additional wastewater infrastructure to mitigate cross-border pollution.

I want to thank San Diego and Imperial counties; the cities of San Diego, Imperial Beach and Coronado; Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas; the California Environmental Protection Agency; the California Natural Resources Agency and the Port of San Diego for endorsing the bill. With their support, I hope the Senate will move quickly to pass this bill and bring relief to San Diego County.

It’s past time that we finally solve this problem and safeguard our border communities.

Dianne Feinstein is California’s senior U.S. senator.

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