Rep. Juan Vargas speaks at Minute 328 signing with IBWC Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner and CILA Commissioner Adriana Reséndez Maldonado and Sally Spener, foreign affairs officer for IBWC on August 18, 2022. / MacKenzie Elmer
Rep. Juan Vargas speaks at Minute 328 signing with IBWC Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner and CILA Commissioner Adriana Reséndez Maldonado and Sally Spener, foreign affairs officer for IBWC on August 18, 2022. / MacKenzie Elmer

The U.S. and Mexico agreed Thursday on how to spend $470 million in hopes of stopping Tijuana sewage from spilling into San Diego and closing beaches. 

With the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement in 2020, Congress designated $300 million for border projects like those needed in the Tijuana River watershed. Though that money could be spent on both sides of the border, it became clear over time the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would spend it in San Diego. 

“We first wanted to identify all the projects on both sides of the border that were the highest priorities, and that each country would fund their respective sides where possible,” said Tomás Torres, director of EPA’s southwestern water division, who’s worked on this cross-border pollution problem for over two decades.

Now the public knows what Mexico is willing to contribute: roughly $140 million dollars –  or $2.8 billion Mexican pesos – through 2027 repairing a laundry list of pipes, pumps and wastewater treatment facilities.

“I asked before we sat down to talk … that we have a clear idea which projects we wanted to execute and how are we going to fund it,” said Roberto Velasco, Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs for North America, at a ceremonial agreement signing Thursday in the Tijuana River estuary. “I didn’t want this to be another table where we sit and talk conceptually about a problem we’ve been diagnosing for many years.”

The U.S. and Mexico signed a new kind of promise called a “statement of intent” listing 15 projects to complete in the “short term,” or before 2027, and eight long-term projects that still need dedicated money and a plan. It’s not a legally binding document, unlike an agreement tied to a treaty. It’s more like a promise that either country can point to in the future as political administrations and their appointees change – a kind of turnover that’s more frequent in Mexico and can be the reason big infrastructure projects aren’t completed.

The U.S. and Mexico worked on a 50-50 cost share on a handful of projects, like rebuilding a pipe that carries raw sewage through the streets of Tijuana to a wastewater treatment plant in San Diego. The U.S. would also help pay for a water recycling system so Tijuana could store already-treated wastewater in the Rodriguez Reservoir.

Tijuana badly needs more sources of water, as it currently relies significantly on the drought-stricken Colorado River. Mexico recently took a 7 percent cut in its legal share of that water because the river’s stored water levels are so low there isn’t enough to go around. Reusing that already-treated water from the La Morita and Arturo Herrera wastewater treatment plants could bank about 15 million gallons of extra recycled water per day. Right now, that treated water is thrown back into the Tijuana River where it becomes polluted by sewage and other contaminants in the waterway. 

Importantly, the signed promise lists which pots of money Mexico plans to use on its share of the projects. Much of it would come from something called MECAPLAN. It’s a mechanism by which the federal government prioritizes municipal projects for federal funding, said José Dolores Gutierrez Ramirez, from CONAGUA, Mexico’s federal water commission. 

Other ways Mexico pays for its share of projects could come from CONAGUA itself, through a border water grant program from the EPA.

The two countries enshrined these projects and who is responsible for financing them under another agreement, one that holds a bit more teeth than the signed promise, that’s Minute 328. These are sort of like addendums to treaties, which are legally binding agreements that settle international disputes as menacing as war. 

For the first time in U.S.-Mexican border history, two women are at the helm of their respective boundary and water commissions and served as the lead negotiators over this Minute. 

“We’re comadres,” said Maria-Elena Giner, President Joe Biden’s pick for the U.S. IBWC, of her Mexican counterpart Adriana Reséndez Maldonado – like saying sisters, girlfriends, the feminine form of “compadre.”

Importantly, that agreement says that though the U.S. is covering the cost of expanding a treatment plant at the border to handle more of Tijuana’s sewage, Mexico will be on the hook for more of the ongoing maintenance costs of that plant. 

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1 Comment

  1. I think we need to believe it when we see it. Meanwhile the Morning Report synopsis on this states, “For context, the entire federal budget of Mexico this year was $380 million dollars.” In that case, this expenditure would theoretically represent 37% of Mexico’s annual budget; but of course that isn’t the case.

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