Gov. Gavin Newsom has the authority to declare the sewage crisis at the Tijuana River an emergency and ask for federal aid but has so far declined.
Eighteen local mayors, the County Board of Supervisors and San Diego’s Democratic Congressional delegates all say it is one. But that doesn’t mean much unless Newsom or the president of the United States agree.
Emerging research and many local leaders say governors have a lot of flexibility in interpreting what qualifies as an emergency under the federal Stafford Act.
So, I asked his staff earlier this month: What fits the definition of an “emergency” under Newsom’s administration? And why doesn’t the Tijuana River sewage issue fit that definition?
Alex Stack, his deputy communications officer, sent me links to definitions of “emergency” under state and federal law. I asked whether, by sending those definitions, the governor is saying the Tijuana River issue doesn’t qualify under them.
“No, we’re not saying that,” Stack said. “The main priority was working with the federal government to secure an agreement we announced last week – a commitment for work to start and raising additional funds for the project.”
They never responded to my follow-up questions.
A few days before our email exchange, Newsom dropped a press release on the sewage crisis just as hundreds of protestors took to Coronado’s closed beaches polluted by sewage. The release mostly summarized what was already happening at the Tijuana River: Congress already promised $300 million back in 2020, and the Environmental Protection Agency, $50 million more, to build something new at the border to curb sewage spills.
But it fooled some news outlets into thinking Newsom had somehow secured $350 million more in federal funding to throw at the problem. Not so.
Either way – we now know $350 million isn’t nearly enough money to improve conditions at the border.
Voice of San Diego uncovered this summer that the existing border treatment plant needed significant repairs worth hundreds of millions of dollars more. In fact, the celebrated $350 million Congress committed in 2020 won’t be enough to cover repairs. The plant’s fragile state was made worse by flooding from Hurricane Hilary’s tropical storm in August – which flooded the plant resulting in a 10-hour shutdown and water quality violations. Even the branch of the federal government that cares for the plant called for emergency repairs.
Maria Elena-Giner, commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission or IBWC, the federal agency that manages the defective International Treatment Plant, told the regional Water Resources Control Board that Hilary caused $8 million worth of damages. The storm filled the plant’s headworks with water causing electrical issues.
“If we don’t have a functioning headworks. The only place the sewage can go is the Tijuana River,” Giner said.
When sewage contaminates the cross-border river, it flows to the ocean directly below Imperial Beach.
“Let’s just hope we do not have another tropical storm like Hilary,” said Giner.
The County Office of Emergency Services is compiling a damage assessment to submit to the federal government on how the sewage impacted South Bay communities financially over the years. It’s how local governments make their case that the sewage warrants a state of emergency. But meeting the criteria of the Stafford Act is more of an art than a science.
“The president and governor have pretty wide discretion on what could be considered a major disaster or emergency,” said Jeff Toney, director of San Diego County Office of Emergency Services. “The problem here is this is not a traditional fire, flood or something that’s happened all the time in the past,” he said.
But recent research by Brookings and the Environmental Defense Fund found the federal government’s system for declaring disasters is “inconsistent, opaque and difficult to navigate for survivors.” It fails to account for social vulnerabilities, like whether a community in need is lower-income, or address more long-term or ongoing problems like climate change, the researchers wrote.
“Pick a point in time…you can start counting the emergency from this second onward,” said Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre. “Does it make a difference if it’s ongoing or sudden? No. Because we’re still being impacted every day by the sewage.”