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Environmental Group Working To Fix San Diego's Cross-Border Pollution

January 17, 2019 2:47 p.m.

GUEST: David Gibson, executive officer, San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board

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Related Story: Environmental Group Working To Fix San Diego's Cross-Border Pollution


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm JD Hindman I'm Maureen Cavanaugh another rainy week in San Diego means that pollution warning signs are once again posted along San Diego s County beaches clean water advocates have fought for years to keep cross-border pollution from fouling U.S. waters keep PBS environment reporter Eric Anderson says some think a solution may be within reach once the coasts.

Paloma Aguirre stands just a few hundred yards north of the U.S. Mexico border. She's in goat Kenya. It's one of five places where sewage tainted water from Mexico flows freely into the United States.

It's catastrophic for anybody who doesn't know this area or about this issue. It's very simple it's one of the big environmental disasters that our country suffers every single year.

Go Kenyan is actually a success story of sorts. Gary is standing beside two large catch basins that keep sediment from swamping wetlands in a nearby state park.

Whenever it rains it's it's a canyon. It drains the lows large airless creeks flows across the border.

There's a pollution collector nearby that routes tainted water flow to the international waste for sewage treatment plant. That facility was built to help treat cross-border flows during dry weather. Meanwhile these catch basins keep sediment out of sensitive habitat. Just a few hundred yards away one key feature is the small fence that reaches across space.

These are the only types of trash booms in the entire Tijuana Reveille for highly effective especially for a very high floating holes as you can see there's a lot of plastic bottles.

There's a lot of foam. What happens if this barrier is not here.

We had a case where there was a construction project and unknown. So they just cut the hillside there. There was no plan for sediment control and all of that excess sediment destroyed about I think it was between 30 and 40 acres of wetland and salt marsh and obviously plastic input into the ocean marine debris is one of the biggest challenges we will face in the next decade or two. We have studies that overwhelmingly come to consensus that. We'll have more plastics in the ocean than fish by 2050.

The catch basins and trash booms were put in place by state officials to protect sensitive habits. There are lessons here for other locations in the two Hunter River Valley. Just a short distance to the east. Bridge over dairy Mart road separates a wide sweeping Valley and more rugged river habitat. This sturdy concrete structure was built after flooding washed out the old bridge in the 1990s.

And this is a point where the river forests or the riparian habitat begin. So a lot of the trash and tires that are carried by the storm flows become trapped in the vegetation on this side of the bridge.

The river valley is open but this bucolic stretch of land changes dramatically when rain drenched the region. The small trickle of a river during dry times can become a raging torrent of swirling pollution.

When there is a strong storm event. This could be completely covered in water and the river can be flying at a rate of a billion gallons of water per day.

Gary would like to see some of the lessons from goat Canyon applied here she says catch basins could capture wet weather as sewage flows sediment and trash. She says the international wastewater plant on this side of the border and to want a sewage system frequently falls short.

So there's a pump station right at the border that is capturing all of that flow and sending it south from us preventing that flow from coming across the border. The problem is that pump station breaks down all the time.

Gary says the tainted water that currently fouls the ocean and forces health officials to close South County beaches could be held until it's treated. Federal officials say a lack of funding keeps them from building that infrastructure. But local critics say there is a lack of will. That's why Imperial Beach Chula Vista the Port of San Diego California and Surfrider San Diego are suing the federal government. They hope the courts compel the International Boundary and Water Commission to stop the cross-border sewage flows that pollute U.S. waters. Eric Anderson Cooper PBS news.

Joining me is David Gibson executive officer with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. David welcome to the program. Good morning Marine on a rainy day like this when the pump station and collectors will be overwhelmed.

Give us an idea if you could of where the overflow of sewage flows through the South Bay the T1 or river has substantial flows from several points the main channel itself which crumbs which comes right through the city of Tijuana but then there's also lost LA Alice Canyon and there's also a smuggler's gulch. Each of those contribute hundreds if not more millions of gallons of stormwater runoff but we also have right now at least one sewer line that's known to be broken in Tijuana and there are hundreds if not thousands of homes and businesses that are not connected to sewer they're connected to streets storm drains the ground and on a rainy day like this.

All of those ways get mobilized and carried downstream through the river channels into the U.S. across the border. Besides sewage which is an obvious health issue we also have tires we have vast amounts of sediment which exacerbates flooding in the on our river valley itself and causes significant property damage public and private. On a day like this.

And what are the health hazards associated with these repeated flows.

Well the sewage is a particular concern. If we've learned anything in the last 200 years it's that there are serious health effects from the exposure to raw sewage an average liter of sewage would contain easily 500000 viral units that would make you sick and there's about two dozen species of viruses that can do that enterovirus is hep to viruses Toro viruses. You don't want to be exposed to sewage and that's why we've invested so much in the United States over the last 40 years building collection systems and wastewater treatment plants to adequately treat it.

And that's not even talking about the bacteria and the solids which are also bad. So there are significant health risks associated with sewage flows in the Tijuana River which affects communities of Sanya syndrome and Imperial Beach in Coronado but also playa to Tijuana and Rosarito the San Diego Water Board is concerned for all of those communities and for the last 10 years we have tried to lead an effort by nationally to get our arms around these types of issues and address these types of flows in a critical component to that we'll be having multiple layers of defense effective source control in Mexico.

Yes but also interception systems like the Selah pump station in Mexico. But we also need to have that kind of ability to intercept and divert these wastes in the U.S. as well.

I want to talk about that because you know we tend to call all of these flows spills. Sewage spills have one kind of another. But as Eric's report just pointed out this is a problem that's part of a flawed system. This is not an accident.

No it's not an accident but it's also a watershed. And so on a rainy day like this there's always going to be high flows in the river and those flows and mobilize sediments they can mobilize trash and they can mobilize sanitary wastes that were deposited on the ground weeks and months ago. And so it becomes a problem for the entire volume of water. There is a portion of that though which is specifically wastewater origins private laterals that are not connected to sewer and sewer main break that's taking place in Tijuana so you get a punch that's spiked and it's a very serious concern.

The you want a river is not the same situation that we see in the San Diego River or the San Luis Rey river or the Santa Margarita river. Their storm flows also contain a lot of bacteria and viruses but it's not. It's an order of magnitude less than what we see in the Tijuana River.

Well you heard the proposal by wild coast that catch basins and trash booms could do a lot to lessen the sewage problem at the border. Do you agree with that.

Well actually it's our proposal for the last 10 years the Tier 1 or river valley recovery team has been led and organized by the San Diego Water Board and it's included over 30 agencies and organizations including wild coast and Surf Rider but also the International Boundary and Water Commission the Department of Homeland Security and the cities of San Diego Imperial Beach and then the county of San Diego. And we've been working together for over 10 years on a vision the Tijuana River Valley recovery team and recovery strategy. And in that vision is a system of interception and diversion like basins and trash nets and for an example of this you can look to go Canyon where there was a canyon collector installed by IWC and operated now by them in a pair of basins operated by the state parks which catch sediment and trash something like that needs to be installed in the Tier 1 River itself the main channel and something like that needs to be installed in Smuggler's Gulch.

The agencies have worked together collaboratively for 10 years but it's really quite clear that the local agencies cannot and should not bear the burden of that themselves. The Federal Government needs to step up and own the federal zone which they and they alone control. We cannot go into the main channel that you want a River upstream of Dairy Mart road and just do whatever we want to do. It has to be a federal project within the federal zone of control and that being the case they should be the leads and the owners and operators but they will have many partners and allies if they now craft a vision from the recovery strategy.

If they finish the job of minute 320 which they started with us through that process.

And speaking of the federal government what's the status of the lawsuit by your agency in San Diego cities against the federal government over this issue those those lawsuits are pending right now and so we're still in the process of discovery and waiting to see what the courts will will rule on some key motions if the government agreed to a system of catch basins and expanded collectors in the South Bay. Do you think the parties might be able to agree to that.

I think the one thing that all of the parties in and not in the litigation have agreed on is the outcome we need to achieve in the river valley which is effective source control in Mexico that's maintained and engaged in kept up but also a system of diversion and interception in the U.S. to capture those tires to capture the solid waste as well as the occasional flows of sewage. I think all of the parties for the last 10 years have been focused on that and that is where I think success lies. But again it has to be a federally led project with local partners not local partners trying to do the job with the federal government.

So that dilemma I think can be resolved and I hope that in the very near term it will be resolved. I made a promise when I took this job and begin leading the recovery team 10 years ago that I would not stand by for 20 years and watched the status quo continue unabated. So we've reached a point where we need to turn to other tools so the waterboard is developing Total Maximum Daily Loads. We've started that work already which will apply to the federal government. We're also preparing an investigative order to require monitoring of the flows on days like today year round.

And we're also working on the recovery team. But on a structured local projects approach where there's many things we've accomplished so far like the brown property restoration which is beginning to just now begin to look like we'll do it and the recovery of the sediment and use of it in the Nelson stone quarry as well as new monitoring that we've done collectively. So there's many local projects we can continue to advance but we're taking the approach we are now with the federal government to get real results in real time.

I've been speaking with David Gibson executive officer with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. David thank you. Thank you.