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Ponds of sewage from Tijuana sit untreated at the Punta Bandera wastewater treatment plant, which has been out of operation for years. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

At the start of 2021, it looked like the federal government might get serious about combatting the Tijuana River crisis by spending real money in Mexico, at the source of the problem.

The excitement spilled over the border.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had some $300 million at its disposal, after the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement dedicated funds to the cross-border pollution saga. Margarita Diaz, an environmental activist with Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambienta in Tijuana, was hopeful a big chunk of that money could go to fix long-broken pipes, pumps and treatment plants in Mexico.

“When I heard the money was earmarked for the Tijuana River watershed, I thought, ‘Finally, this is happening! Something good is coming,’” said Diaz. “But then what happened? Nothing.”

The EPA announced in November it would spend most of the money building a second treatment plant in San Diego’s South Bay, next to another plant that’s been cleaning 25 million gallons of Tijuana River water daily since the late 1990s.

The river actually begins on the U.S. side then snakes through the city of Tijuana where it picks up sewage spilling from the city’s broken infrastructure and homes that don’t have wastewater connection. The river then flows over a series of canyons back to the U.S. side of the border in the Tijuana River basin and finally the Pacific Ocean. The International Wastewater Treatment Plant in South Bay can clean some of the water, but it doesn’t have the capacity to clean all of it.

“I just wish people would understand it could be better for us to help Mexico more,” said Alexander Yakutis, a member of a citizens panel that informs the International Boundary Water Commission, a federal agency that runs the U.S.-side treatment plant. “If we can solve the entire problem by not spending a nickel in the U.S. and for half the amount in Mexico, why wouldn’t we do it?”

Yakutis is saying not only do U.S. dollars go farther in Mexico, where project materials, labor and permitting are typically cheaper, but that’s also where the root cause of the cross-border sewage problem

“They’re addressing the problem at the end of the pipeline,” Diaz, the Mexican activist said.

Meanwhile, another serious source of pollution for both Tijuana and California beach towns remains unresolved: a treatment plant six miles south of the border called San Antonio de los Buenos. The plant broke down over a dozen years ago and is spilling about 1.8 million gallons of raw Tijuana sewage per day into the Pacific Ocean. Northerly ocean currents in the summer carry that sewage straight past Imperial Beach.

The state of Baja California has been working on plans to rebuild that plant since at least 2018, but the money isn’t there.

The problem, U.S. officials say, is mostly political.

“By no means have we given up tackling this problem at the source,” David Smith, who manages permits and storm water at EPA’s Region 9 branch, told Voice of San Diego. “But things do remain uncertain about the Mexican government’s ability and willingness to invest in these large-scale projects.”

An EPA report published in November shows the agency assumed about 93 percent of its $300 million would be spent on the U.S. side. The remainder could go to Mexico as long as the government provided some kind of dollar-for-dollar match.

That’s how projects typically get done at the U.S.-Mexico border. The United States invests a portion of funding but negotiates a cost-sharing agreement with the Mexican government.

There’s a history of corruption in Mexico to work around, namely politicians and contractors exchanging money or favors, which is especially common in the water industry. Both countries must navigate that to make sure taxpayer investments are spent legally.

Put another way, Doug Liden, EPA Region 9’s border water expert, said during the November citizens forum that it’s important the Mexican government puts money down on these border infrastructure projects because it “ensures they have some skin in the game.”

There is money available to spend in Tijuana, about $46 million combined from what’s left over from the $300 million and another U.S. fund called the Border Water Infrastructure Program. That’s probably enough for major damage control at San Antonio de los Buenos and to fix some of the other faulty pipes and pumps scattered around the city.

The Tijuana River which flows throughout the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The North American Development Bank, created by treaty and financed equally by the United States and Mexico, is extremely interested in providing a loan to the Mexican state of Baja California to rebuild San Antonio de lo Buenos, said bank spokesman Jesse Hereford. But Baja’s state legislature (called the state Congress in Mexico) must approve some money towards the project before the bank can offer financing.

Yet just over a month ago, Baja’s new governor replaced top-ranking officials who were working on San Antonio de los Buenos under the previous governor, Jaime Bonilla. That’s a customary move in Mexico, but it can disrupt progress the bank made with whoever was in charge.

“That’s (delayed) this quite a bit,” said Fernando Barrera, associate director of financial services at the bank, adding such changes have a big impact on the loan-making process. “It’s politically driven and outside of our control.”

Francisco Bernal, the new secretary overseeing Baja’s wastewater agencies, didn’t have any specifics Thursday about what water projects the agency would tackle first. He said the agency is “reviewing several options.”

The previous Baja administration made some significant investments to stop sewage from flowing into the United States. Bonilla’s wastewater agency fixed an old pumping system that’s been a major source of cross-border spillage, and cleaned Tijuana’s concrete canal system that guides water toward the International Wastewater Treatment plant. That pump was nonetheless shut down for repairs as recently as Monday, causing over 5 million gallons of sewage to spill into the U.S., according to the International Boundary Water Commission.

Still, activists point out those fixes are mostly to infrastructure right at the border.

“That was good but it is at the end of the pipeline,” Diaz said. “Mexico is reacting so they don’t get mad on the other side.”

Even with the improvements, that sewage Mexico prevented from spilling over the land border is diverted toward San Antonio de los Buenos, which continues to pollute the ocean for both countries.

Gov. Marina Avila, Baja’s new governor, has promised to solve binational coastal pollution. She stood outside the river of sewage coming from San Antonio de los Buenos as a backdrop for one of her campaign events earlier in the year.

Still, for now, major fixes to Tijuana infrastructure are on hold. Liden from the EPA said allowing polluted Tijuana River water to flow and treating it on the U.S. side isn’t a bad use of money. That’s the northerly-flowing river’s natural route, meaning the water gets to the U.S. treatment plant by gravity, instead of rerouting the river and pumping the water up higher elevations to the San Antonio de los Buenos plant, for instance.   Still some in the Mexican public feel left behind.

“There’s a lack of responsibility about the situation that we’re going through on the Mexican side of the border,” said Diaz. “It’s affecting the most vulnerable populations here because there’s no public space other than the beaches they enjoy for free.”

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