In the News
September 13, 2017
By Joshua Emerson Smith
Hundreds of thousands of gallons of polluted water often carrying sewage and other contaminants have flowed over the Mexico border into the San Diego region every month this year — including a nearly four million gallon spill on Sunday, according to federal records.
The continued flows come in the wake of a massive spill in Tijuana that polluted beaches as far north as Coronado in February. The contamination came as sewer pipes cracked and manhole covers bubble over amid winter storms, which caused 256 million gallons of wastewater to go unaccounted for south of the border.
There were 11 spills from April through June totaling more than 7.4 million gallons of water often polluted with sewage and other contaminants, according to a report from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board released Wednesday.
Records from the U.S. side of the International Boundary and Water Commission — which oversees water treaties between Mexico and the United States and tracks trans-boundary spills — show another five spills since July, accounting for an additional more than 6.5 million gallons.
At the same time, elected officials from San Diego have raised concerns that the federal government could nix funding for the agencies and programs intended to address the issue.
A spending package passed in by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday would eliminate the U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Grant Program, which has helped facilitate infrastructure upgrades to prevent sewage spills in Tijuana.
Ending the grant program is part of a roughly 7 percent cut to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would drastically limit resources to protect clean air and water, said Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego.
“Eliminating this program would take away one of our tools to improve sewage infrastructure along the border and prevent these constant spills that threaten public health and damage our quality of life,” Peters said in a statement. “It also threatens the cross-border cooperation and leadership that is necessary to keep sewage out of American waterways.”
The IBWC would see a more than $5 million cut to its annual budget, down to $72 million, under the House spending blueprint.
The package now goes to Senate hearings and is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.
In April, an IBWC investigation into February’s spill found more than half a billion dollars of need repairs in Tijuana, including dozens of sewage pipes and collectors on the brink of collapse.
Efforts to improve infrastructure along the border have greatly reduce the amount of sewage that flows across the board since the 1990s, when when millions of gallons of raw sewage flowed daily down the river and across the border into the ocean.
Despite efforts, South Bay beaches have continued to suffer more than 80 percent of all the beach-closure days in the county since 2006, according to data from the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health. Imperial Beach, which stretches past the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge to the Mexican border, has had sections of its shoreline off-limits to swimmers for more than a third of each year on average in the last decade, according to county records.
The city of Imperial Beach has taken steps to sue the IBWC in an effort to force action on the part of the federal government.
Border Patrol agents, who have reported that spills from south of the border into the canyons in the Tijuana River Valley where they work have been increasingly polluted with noxious liquids, have said they are considering a similar strategy.