A worker with CESPE filles up a large container with water on Friday, July 1, 2022. / Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for Voice of San Diego

There’s a problem with Tijuana’s lifeline to its single water source – the Colorado River– which forced it make more, costly emergency water purchases from California.

The San Diego County Water Authority recently learned that problems emerged with Tijuana’s aqueduct in December, according to a press release this week. Tijuana requested emergency water from San Diego on Jan. 2, which the Water Authority expedited through a typical months-long approval process involving water agencies that also have to sign-off on emergency orders from Mexico. 

“The Colorado River aqueduct failed on December 30 and we stopped receiving water for over a day and a half,” Víctor Daniel Amador Barragán, Tijuana’s public utilities director told Tijuanapress.com, Voice of San Diego’s collaborator. “We estimated it would take three days to reestablish supply.”

A water truck delivers water to a home on Friday, July 1, 2022. / Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for Voice of San Diego

Emergency water delivery to Tijuana began last week, according to the Water Authority. Tijuana’s public utilities department, known as CESPT, confirmed it will pay $2.2 million for that extra water through February. 

“We’re extremely proud of how quickly Water Authority staff worked to meet the emergency water needs of our neighbors to the south,” said Mel Katz, chair of the Water Authority board, in a statement. 

Last year, amid a crippling drought, CESPT bought more water through emergency water transfer agreements than it had in the previous five, spending $4.3 million from August through December. Different Mexican officials provided different explanations. Some said Tijuana’s aqueduct wasn’t big enough to carry all the water the city currently needs, and others said the city just doesn’t receive enough Colorado River water to meet peak demand during summertime. 

Emergency water is sent through a cross-border pipeline connection between Tijuana and Otay Water District. But Otay gets much of its water supply from the Water Authority, which gets all of its Colorado River supply through aqueducts connected to the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles. It’s Metropolitan that maintains the key connection to the river itself, which is why it typically takes months for these emergency deliveries to be approved up the chain. 

All of those water suppliers plus the International Boundary and Water Commission have to sign-off on the order before it can be delivered to Mexico. 

Mexico’s emergency water purchases aren’t new. Tijuana first bought emergency water from California in 1972 during a serious drought, before the city had an aqueduct to carry Colorado River water through the Mexicali Valley. International agreements, passed that year and again in 2008, warned that drought and continued growth in northern Baja would push the region’s demand beyond what it gets from the Colorado River.  

Mexico is entitled by treaty to 1.5-million-acre feet of Colorado River water per year. And the country is already slated to absorb a 7 percent cut to its Colorado River allocation this year under other international agreements made to ease stress on the river during serious drought. 

Barragán didn’t address the problems with the Colorado River aqueduct or the emergency water purchase during a press conference Thursday. Instead, he announced that over 600 Tijuana and Rosarito neighborhoods would experience water shut offs while repairs are made to a different pipeline, the Florido-Aguaje aqueduct, which distributes drinking water to 60 percent of the city, according to a press release.

Carla Cruz, 36, stores water in a blue covered tub due to frequent water shutoffs in her Tijuana neighborhood of Villas de Santa Fe, April 20, 2022. / MacKenzie Elmer

Water shutoffs are not new in Tijuana but residents have noticed recently they’ve become more frequent and last longer. In Ensenada, at the end of the Colorado River aqueduct, residents went months without water last year amid the worsening drought. 

Water would be restored to those neighborhoods by Jan. 25, according to a CESPT press release. The pipes are 45 years old, and had not received routine maintenance for over a decade, according to CESPT. 

Barragán later said the problems with the two aqueducts were unrelated.

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