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Sewage Spills Highlight Continued Challenges Along U.S.-Mexico Border

Some 4.5 million gallons of raw sewage have flowed into the Tijuana River this month from two separate spills. Observers say wastewater treatment has improved along the border, but more work is needed.

This week’s sewage spill was the second this month into the Tijuana River that runs along the U.S.-Mexico border. A pipe burst in Tijuana on Tuesday, spilling 2.5 million gallons of raw sewage into the river, which dumps into the Pacific Ocean.

The first spill happened April 4 because of a software malfunction at the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant on the U.S. side. It dumped 2 million gallons of raw sewage into the river, and left the plant partially offline.

Sewage spills into the river don’t always make it to the Pacific, said Paloma Aguirre, the U.S.-Mexico border coastal manager for the nonprofit WiLDCOAST. But because the complicated cross-border pumping system wasn’t working normally, Tuesday’s spill did flow into the ocean, causing beach closures in the San Diego area.

The International Boundary & Water Commission, made up of the Mexican and U.S. federal governments, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve wastewater management.

But Aguirre said there’s an urgent need to improve basic infrastructure, like pipes, on both sides of the border.

“Although there’s been great progress in wastewater treatment in the border region, there’s still a lot more that needs to be done,” she said.

Still, Aguirre said, having some spills is likely inevitable. Oscar Romo, watershed coordinator for the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, agreed.

He said more than infrastructure upgrades, water and land management authorities on both sides of the border need to better understand the complexities of the highly manipulated Tijuana River watershed.

And, Romo said, "we need to understand how nature and habitat can mitigate spills."

"It's not a quick fix. It's a larger strategy we need to work on."


Wet weather flow of Tijuana River. Courtesy of WiLDCOAST.

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