In an area of Imperial Beach, trash is piled up where cross-border sewage flows through. / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

Laura Wilkinson Sinton is a community activist and co-founder of She holds an Executive Master in Sustainability Leadership from Arizona State University as an AAUW grantee. She lives in Coronado.

Almost 20 miles of our shared beaches have been declared off-limits by the San Diego County Department of Health and COEPRISBC, the Baja California Health Authority, due to poisoned waters. These toxic beaches, without immediate intervention, may last another decade while the promises of underfunded construction projects continue. We want emergency measures to help us, but “these solutions” as officials said last Tuesday at the International Water Boundary Commission (IBWC) public meeting in Coronado, “take time.” Infrastructure takes years. Many years.

So imagine our outrage living with toxic sewage from Mexico – for decades – on our closed beaches while reading CalTrans chief deputy district director in this Voice of San Diego article praising the Mexican Government for “moving at lightning speed” to construct roads and bridges – infrastructure – for the new Otay Mesa ll border crossing set to open next year.

For 50 years we have been told “these things take time.” But that isn’t true.

They take political will and money. Now there is a solution for both right under our nose.

First: The history of betrayal and waffling political leadership in both countries is almost a century long and time-lined in this 1988 article from the San Diego Reader that could have been written yesterday. Raw sewage from across the Mexican side of the international border for continues apace from multiple sources in Baja. An outdated sewage treatment plant operated by the IBWC on the United States side catching the plastic and sewage waste flowing northbound from Mexico on the Tijuana River, and from Punta Bandera, a second broken waste treatment plant located just five miles south of the border. It’s estimated that billions of gallons of untreated raw sewage and toxic industrial and hospital waste is and has been dumped into our immediate coastal waters from Ensenada to Coronado. In what universe is that OK?

A reminder: Imperial Beach beaches have been closed due to sewage poisons for years and Coronado intermittently for months on end. It’s getting worse. Our Navy SEALS, families, millions of tourists, and surfers play in this water. Our courageous lifeguards and first responders save people in this water. Border Patrol agents receive hazard pay for working here and have been on the front lines of these toxic areas, ignored by their bosses in Washington for decades. It has been, and continues to cause chronic illnesses from parasites, bacteria, viruses, and industrial chemicals. Adding to the calamity, we now know that airborne pathogens from sea spray are exposing those who don’t even go to the beach or in the water. Illnesses have been documented and costs upwards of 2 billion dollars in medical costs affecting 34,000 people in 2017 alone.

Otay Mesa ll’s crossing is in place. Let’s solve these major bi-national problems at once. Not just faster border crossings and cleaner air, but drinking water and sewage.

As climate change takes its toll, both Baja and San Diego will be starving for water by 2026 with the Colorado River pact expiring. Engineering innovations must address these new realities. Instead of rehabilitating the current dated International Wastewater Treatment Plant (IWTP), let’s build for the future with Groundwater Replenishment Systems (GWRS) in Tijuana and at the ITWP location. This newly deployed technology in Orange County supplies fresh drinking water for millions (watch this PBS’ Nova episode timestamp 15 minutes) and pays for itself. This forward-looking engineering solution would bring a substantial ROI with fresh water to sell back or inject into dwindling aquifers in Baja in addition to sludge for energy projects and provide for sustainable bi-national growth. This new technology is actually cheaper than building a second sewage outfall pipe which would continue to pollute and damage our oceans.

Baja California has prospered greatly from NAFTA/USMCA trade, expanding maquiladoras along the border. Onshoring of factories from Asia as a matter of national security and just-in-time supply chain resiliency for manufacturers is accelerating. Our bi-national regions’ future health and prosperity is intrinsically linked.

The answer: The toll crossings are already being put in place. Otay Mesa ll tolls will be collected by the United States and split with Mexico to fund ongoing infrastructure. The San Diego Association of Government’s model is in everyone’s interest. The United States collects it. We share the revenues with Mexico for infrastructure required to build a truly binational economy. Funding from a permanent recurring revenue model. Not just cleaner air – but precious clean water to drink and clean, safe beaches with innovative new engineering and truly incentivized partners who will be willing to build it – not in years, but at lightning speed.

We’ll fight feverishly for our children and grandchildren – on both sides of our border – to swim in our beach without fear of toxic sewage. Now is the time. We have the power to end this genuine tragedy of the commons forever. Let’s use it.

Laura Wilkinson Sinton is a community activist and co-founder of She holds an Executive Master in Sustainability Leadership from...

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  1. Thank you Laura for not just another seemingly unheard alarm, but actual solutions to the coastal contamination issue. I agree the Orange County GWRS is highly successful and should be applied here in San Diego, as well as other coastal urban areas. And the funding idea from tolls seems like it would work. After several decades of inept leadership, big decisions are way overdue.

    1. Very kind of you. We need leadership here. Who will step up? Nora- the future is calling!

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