tijuana sewage
Trash piles up near the Tijuana River that flows throughout the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

We finally have a winner just months after the Environmental Protection Agency revealed a narrowed-down list of projects to solve the Tijuana River sewage problem: All of them.  

The agency announced Monday it’s chasing what I called “the whole hog” solution to stopping raw Tijuana sewage from flowing into the United States and closing southern California beaches. It doesn’t have enough money to do all of it now, but the EPA is sort of fast-tracking the planning for its project wish list, so when more money becomes available — nudge, nudge Congressional delegates — EPA will have all the nitty-gritty environmental studies complete to begin construction.  

EPA released sequence of Tijuana River projects
The Environmental Protection Agency released a list of desired projects they’d like to tackle with money from Congress on Nov. 8, 2021. / The Environmental Protection Agency
The Environmental Protection Agency released a list of desired projects they’d like to tackle with money from Congress on Nov. 8, 2021. / The Environmental Protection Agency

First up on the wish list: Build a bigger, better South Bay International Wastewater Treatment plant, which is owned and operated by the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission. 

That plant was basically built undersized, meaning it hasn’t been able to treat all the water and sewage spilling from Tijuana into San Diego since the late 90s. EPA’s plan is to double its capacity so it can handle 60 million gallons of wastewater a day. Construction could begin as soon as mid-2022. 

The water the plant treats is sent into the Pacific Ocean via a miles-long pipe off the coast, so doubling the size of that plant will mean cleaner water flows back into the hydrologic cycle via the U.S. side of the border.  

The second project on the priority list would cut-down on some of the sewage spilling into the ocean from the tall canyons that run the length of the border which act like great sewage chutes to the U.S. side.  

Right now, polluted waters from two large canyons in Tijuana are pumped (when the pumps are working properly) back into Mexico toward an old, defunct wastewater treatment plant called Punta Bandera/San Antonio de los Buenos. (I wrote about a visit to that plant in a story earlier this year.)  

Once the expanded U.S.-side treatment plant is built, EPA would take out the canyon pumps and let that water flow to the expanded U.S. treatment plant. It’s a partial solution to sewage flowing into the ocean on both sides of the border.  

However, the EPA will probably blow-through the $300 million from Congress just on the first project alone (the expanded treatment plant). EPA officials estimate there’s another $330 million of work to be done (money that could come from both countries).  

That includes project three on the wish list, building something called river diversion and treatment, which amounts to running the whole Tijuana River on the U.S. side through a new treatment plant (called advanced primary treatment) near the existing one in South Bay. That means the U.S. wouldn’t have to worry as much about sewage spills into the river on the Mexico side from Tijuana’s unreliable wastewater system. 

EPA shows potential timeline of projects for Tijuana River
An EPA presentation shows potential timeline for Tijuana River sewage projects. / The Environmental Protection Agency

EPA listed a host of other projects the public have been anxious to see but don’t have dedicated funding. That includes building a new Punta Bandera in Mexico; placing a big net or boom across the Tijuana River to catch all the trash that can clog infrastructure and spill over the border; building capacity for Mexico to reuse some of the river water and other smaller infrastructure fixes.  

Mayor Serge Dedina of Imperial Beach — where the beaches have been closed from sewage spills since Oct. 26 — said he’s pleased with the news.  

“It’s clear EPA listened to local leaders and residents. And this is far more than we imagined we’d get done when we started the process with EPA,” Dedina told me after Monday’s announcement.  

The beaches and waters at Imperial Beach pier, which offers a particularly nice surf break, have been closed for 57 days so far this year. In 2020, it remained closed for 160 days.  

But it’s going to take more lobbying from Dedina and other San Diego elected leaders to ensure more money gets thrown at the problem to knock-out the rest of the projects needed to really put a plug on the pollution.  

In Other News

  • The price for Pure Water, San Diego’s huge wastewater-to-drinking water project that will already cost billions of dollars, is going to cost a bit more due to lawsuits and pandemic inflation. (Union-Tribune) 
  • A new study by San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance found California condors can reproduce without having sex, though, I don’t know why they would want to. (Union-Tribune) 
  • A deep sea mountain was named for Walter Munk, the darling of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the fascism-free Western World (read about it). 
  • Offshore wind and wave energy is on the table at San Diego County, which is studying alternative energy sources as part of its effort to decarbonize. (KPBS)  
  • A huge atmospheric river, a huge stream of moving water vapor, dropped 7.6 trillion gallons of rain across the state (least of which fell on San Diego) but didn’t bust the drought. (Union-Tribune) 

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