Sixteen years. That’s about how long it took to build the first wastewater treatment plant at the U.S.-Mexico border to treat Tijuana sewage that would otherwise spill into the Tijuana River valley.
The South Bay International Treatment Plant operated by the International Boundary and Water Commission, which handles binational border water issues, was proposed in 1983. Al Gore visited the groundbreaking as vice president in 1994. The plant flushed its first treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean by 1999.
So, if 2021 counted as the proposal year for the much-awaited expansion of that treatment plant, and suppose the same timeline applies, IBWC wouldn’t be treating more sewage until 2037.
The Environmental Protection Agency isn’t planning on taking that long, but the project could already be facing delays.
In November EPA announced it would pursue a slew of projects starting with expanding the border treatment plant with a sewage treatment capacity of 25 million gallons per day to 60 million gallons per day. The agency said then the design of the plant could begin as soon as mid-2022 and construction as soon as 2023.
There are potential snags in that ambitious deadline, namely Congress needs to pass a law that will allow EPA to give money to IBWC to actually build the plant. And that law, which passed in the U.S. House but now needs to pass the Senate, has been held up by politics that reportedly have nothing to do with the Tijuana River issue itself.
“It’s very important to EPA that we do not delay the project,” said Doug Eberhardt, an environmental engineer for EPA’s Region 9 which includes San Diego.
In the meantime, Eberhardt said attorneys at the EPA and the IBWC agreed they could use some powers under the Clean Water Act to spend some of that USMCA money on planning and design. Section 104 of that 1977 law says EPA can help other federal agencies accelerate research and investigations that prevent, reduce or eliminate pollution.
“We realized that was something we could use on a limited basis to buy us some time for Congress to act on construction,” Eberhardt said.
Congress put EPA, not IBWC, in charge of the solution to the Tijuana River pollution crisis by way of the USMCA. It’s not clear why Congress didn’t give IBWC the money in the first place. But it became apparent to EPA that IBWC was the obvious choice to own and operate the treatment plant expansion once it was built, said Eberhardt.
“EPA doesn’t own and operate treatment facilities. That’s just not something we do,” Eberhardt said.
So, EPA holds the purse strings and funds the planning and design. IBWC will own and operate the plant once it’s finished. The question remains: Who will build it?
That’s TBD. IBWC, like most government agencies, will have to put that project out for a competitive bid.
And, before the region even thinks about building this plant expansion, the EPA said IBWC wants to do a comprehensive study of the state of its current treatment plant. A recent mysterious spill revealed the U.S. treatment plant is also in dire need of repairs.
IBWC spokeswoman Lori Kuczmanski said such a contract is out for bid.
Yet nearly all of EPA’s solutions to Tijuana sewages spilling across the border cost more than the $300 million from USMCA provides. And none of those cost studies factored-in the cost of fixing the current plant that’s celebrating its 23rd birthday.
So, the border region will probably need more financial help in the near future.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Doug Eberhardt’s EPA title. He is an environmental engineer for EPA Region 9.