California Sen. Alex Padilla talks with South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant Area Operations Manager Morgan Rogers on June 5, 2023. The two overlook the overloaded primary treatment system.
California Sen. Alex Padilla talks with South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant Area Operations Manager Morgan Rogers on June 5, 2023. The two overlook the overloaded primary treatment system. / Photo by MacKenzie Elmer

San Diego’s Congressional delegates had no idea a U.S. treatment plant at the Mexican border needed such pricey repairs. 

News dropped last week that the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment plant was so run down that fixing it would eat up almost half the money Congress dedicated toward building a bigger and better plant. 

“We always knew that hundreds of millions more would be needed to build out the full suite of projects to tackle the problem in the long term, but this new price tag for the plant expansion alone was a very unwelcome shock,” wrote MaryAnne Pintar, Congressman Scott Peters’ chief of staff, in an email Monday. “Congress may have the power of the purse, but Congress can’t fix it if we don’t know how broken it is.”  

It’s unclear how or why past leaders of the International Boundary and Water Commission – or the IBWC, which owns and operates the South Bay Plant – allowed it to fall so far behind on maintenance.  

In a recent interview, IBWC’s current leader Maria-Elena Giner didn’t point fingers at anyone but herself.  

“The person responsible for advocating for this agency is the commissioner, and that’s me,” Giner said.  

But it’s clear the state of the plant is a problem she inherited, not created, when President Joe Biden appointed her to take over the helm at IBWC in 2021

The aging plant has been working overtime for many months as it takes on more sewage than it was built to treat from Tijuana due to numerous breaks of pipes or pumps on the Mexican side of the border. Some of the plant’s critical hardware is original to when it was completed in 1997. 

And the South Bay plant isn’t something that’s particularly easy to fix. In the absence of a functioning wastewater treatment plant in the bustling city of Tijuana, South Bay basically lives to handle the city’s sewage, even though it can’t handle or control how much Mexico sends it.  

You can’t just turn the plant off to do the necessary repairs. David Gibson, executive officer of San Diego’s Regional Water Quality Control Board, compared it to re-construction of Terminal 1 at the San Diego International Airport: Planes and passengers are still bustling in and out of the old, cramped terminal while the airport builds an expansion next door.  

“Except, the airport can do construction during evening hours when air traffic is slow. The treatment plant runs 24 hours a day,” Gibson said.  

San Diego’s Congressional delegates are now on extra-high alert over the state of the South Bay plant. They’ll have to come up with more money so the U.S. can hold up its end of a treaty signed with Mexico that commits funds from both countries to stop Tijuana sewage pollution

Right now, the IBWC can only use money appropriated to them by Congress via the U.S. State Department, which oversees the IBWC’s budget. Importantly, this year’s State Department budget request includes some language that would let the IBWC accept money from non-federal sources. 

Another thing that might help mobilize more dollars: the San Diego County Board of Supervisors vote Tuesday on whether to declare a local state of emergency on the Tijuana River sewage crisis. Paloma Aguirre, mayor of Imperial Beach, which suffers continuous beach closures from sewage contamination, was the first to declare the emergency in her town.  

If they can get Gov. Gavin Newsom on board, California can ask the Biden Administration to declare a federal emergency, thereby fast-tracking money toward fixing the plant. 

In Other News 

  • Watch me try to breathe feet away from a vat of raw Tijuana sewage at the broken treatment plant in a new Tik Tok video.  
  • We now know the terrible fate of those aboard the Titan submersible that imploded on its way to the Titanic shipwreck site. San Diego-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists shared some harrowing experiences using submersibles in the name of deep ocean research with the Washington Post.  
  • San Diego Community Power, the region’s publicly owned power company, green-lighted two solar plus battery storage projects in Imperial valley and Clark County, Nevada, which should be online in 2025. (Union-Tribune) 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled MaryAnne Pintar’s name.

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