On Tuesday, Californians settled three lawsuits against the International Boundary and Water Commission or the IBWC, the binational agency that treats a portion of the sewage-laden water rolling into the U.S. from Tijuana under a treaty between the two countries.
At the crux of the many complaints by the city of Imperial Beach, Surfrider Foundation, and San Diego’s Regional Water Quality Control Board and others was general frustration that the IBWC, which runs an international wastewater treatment plant at the border, wasn’t doing enough to prevent and monitor Tijuana wastewater entering the Tijuana River and the valley on the U.S. side.
The lawsuits alleged IBWC violated the federal Clean Water Act by allowing millions of gallons of raw sewage, heavy metals and other contamination to spill into San Diego, shuttering beaches along the Southern California coast and bringing questionable water quality to the watershed and surf zone.
A settlement is not an admission of guilt. But the IBWC agreed to a laundry-list of new tasks like assisting Mexico in building a more permanent earthen barrier built across the riverbed to redirect polluted water back into Tijuana’s wastewater system instead of flowing into the river valley, as well as provide more opportunities for the public to interface with the agency. There are also a bunch of new reporting requirements, like tracking and attempting to prevent trash from reaching metal grates that strain any water flowing down from Tijuana’s canyons.
“It’s very hard for our residents to be patient but I think what’s important is that the IBWC under new leadership … have focused on a lot of small things that do help us,” said Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina in an interview.
A weeks-long sewage spill earlier this year that IBWC believed to be due to a rupture in a pipe on the Mexican side also revealed the border wastewater treatment plant was in need of some serious upgrades. David Gibson, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Board, said IBWC is already investing in purchasing equipment to make those fixes
“This settlement preserves our ability to take enforcement action as necessary if they fail to do that,” Gibson said.
Local officials credited the new leader at IBWC, Maria-Elena Giner and the new plant operations manager Morgan Rogers, for improved communication and transparency about cross-border sewage spills and a willingness to consider doing more than Congress specifically authorizes the agency to do under law.
“Giner’s aware of the long deferred maintenance issues in the treatment plant. She wants to get them resolved,” Gibson said. “It may very well be that her administration of the IBWC is what has helped bring this over the line.”
The promise of $300 million from the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement also helped cool tempers over the four years since the initial lawsuit was filed. That money will likely be dedicated to building a bigger and better border water treatment plant to catch more of those polluted flows helped the parties reach agreements that brought these lawsuits to an end — for now.
The settlement agreement has a lifespan of seven years, Gibson said. By that time the Regional Water Quality Board expects the expanded treatment plant to be built.
But there’s another $300 million or more worth of work the border would need to really make a dent in the cross-border pollution, according to assessments by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“USIBWC is pleased that a settlement agreed was reached in a cooperative manner,” said Lori Kuczmanski, a spokeswoman for the agency. “The USIBWC looks forward to … working cooperatively with stakeholders in the region to address these issues.”