A Tijuana River tributary near the U.S.-Mexico border / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

My newsletter has become a dumping ground of late for all things Tijuana River sewage crisis, metaphor intended.  

This week, an update on the issue I wrote about last week – a stalled, seemingly simple piece of legislation that would allow San Diego to spend $300 million from the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and stop more polluted water from reaching the Pacific Ocean. Chris Helmer, director of environment and natural resources for Imperial Beach, a coastal border town, wanted to know: who in Congress is holding it up? 

The answer, at least according to the U.S. Democratic senators representing California: the other party.  

A quick review of the problem: Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency $300 million and said, go figure out how to stop sewage in Tijuana from spilling into San Diego. EPA officials eventually decided to spend it on a bigger border water treatment plant, owned and operated by the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission. Therefore, the EPA has to give that money to the IBWC, so it can start contracting out the work. (The project is still in a paperwork stage called environmental review.) But the federal government basically needs a law saying the EPA can give money to the IBWC, because it is a kind of quasi-governmental body with one foot in the U.S. and the other in Mexico. 

San Diego’s representatives in the U.S. House drafted up the language to make that transfer possible. That’s easier for Democrats to do in the House because they have a majority. The Senate is a different animal. It has what amounts to a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans. (Technically there are two independent party members, but they caucus with the Dems.) That means its committees, where bills are born, are stacked at a 50-50 party split, too. Passing legislation requires a lot more compromise that way.  

Sen. Diane Feinstein introduced a bill to solve the money transfer problem in March of 2021, but it’s stalled. 

Republicans are holding-up this bill and others related to the EPA, Democrats suspect, as leverage to move Republican-authored bills forward, said Tess Whittlesey, a spokeswoman for Sen. Alex Padilla. The top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Shelley Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, did not respond to questions. 

Adam Russell, a spokesman for Sen. Feinstein, said there’s nothing substantive Republicans object to about the needed Tijuana River language, but there’s an obvious deadlock so delegates are looking for alternative routes to get this money moving,  

Lo and behold, that EPA-to-IBWC money transfer language appeared in President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2023 budget proposal Monday. But that 1,400 page document is in for a lot of slicing and dicing throughout the budget making process. It’s unclear whether the language San Diego needs will ultimately stick.  

The political snarl-fest that is getting one, seemingly uncontroversial law passed made me wonder: Why wasn’t the $300 million given to IBWC in the first place?  

One reason is that there’s been indecision on who should take the lead on this project from the beginning. The goal is to treat more polluted water spilling over the border than we currently can. IBWC leaders have said they couldn’t do that unless Congress specifically told them to, as pointed out by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a 2020 report.   

Then there was a lot of finger pointing over which agency – the IBWC or the EPA – was responsible for dealing with any pollution beyond the 25 million gallons of sewage pumped from Tijuana directly to the border water treatment plant under a treaty between the two countries.  

While the USMCA allocated that $300 million to EPA specifically, Feinstein and Rep. Juan Vargas stepped in last March and dubbed EPA the lead on deciding how the money should be spent in the watershed under the same bill that’s been stalled in senate committee.  

“This bill will put an end to the confusion by putting the EPA in charge of coordinating efforts and fixing the problem,” Feinstein wrote in a March 2021 statement.  

If money is power, then the remaining obstacle is transferring that power back to the agency that needs it: the IBWC.  

Reporting on the Tijuana River sewage crisis is produced by Voice of San Diego in partnership with the Tijuanapress.com and with support from The Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder and The Pulitzer Center. Our binational, bilingual reporting and photojournalism series illuminates longstanding environmental issues that severely impact quality of life along the border.  

In Other News  

  • Of the six levels of emergency drought response, Gov. Gavin Newsom moved California to Level 2 Monday. That means preparing for a water shortage levels of up to 20 percent. Generally that typically affects residents and business outdoor water use on landscaping, etc. (The Hill)
  • Voice of San Diego rebuked the great expense of living in this region in a Cost of Living series last week, which featured a break down of every charge and fee on a San Diego Gas and Electric bill by yours truly.  

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. The Sewage issue along the US-Mexican border has been going on for MORE THAN 50 YEARS !
    Is this something new to you ?
    I have lost count on how much $$$ has been spent, projects that been started and promises to “FIX” the problem and sewage has drifted into the ocean near Imperial Beach have been made.
    Is this EVER going to be fixed ?
    Maybe VOSD should apply some real pressure on the EPA to stop talking and actually do something.

    “Action is eloquence” [Shakespeare]

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.