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Tijuana River Estuary Endures In Face Of Many Ecological Challenges

Erik Anderson
Birds gather to feed in the Tijuana River Estuary on Sept. 5, 2017.

Brian Collins stands on a sandy beach near the mouth of the Tijuana River.

"This is the Pacific Ocean," he said as he spread his arms toward the open water.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist turns and focuses on a narrow channel that connects the ocean to the sprawling Tijuana River Estuary. Collins watched the salty ocean water flow inland. Two white birds are perched on the sand, staring intently at the moving water.

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"Yeah," Collins said, "we have a couple of snowy egrets waiting for fish to come and go."

This is where San Diego's infamous raw sewage flows find the ocean. This past winter, hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage spilled through the Tijuana River Valley and out to sea. The brown water was so smelly at times that Imperial Beach residents felt like they could not leave their homes.

But while sewage flowed freely out of this river mouth, it is also a key part of the complex system that supports life in the estuary.

RELATED: Federal Officials Discuss Cross-Border Sewage Spills At Public Hearing

"This little river mouth feeds this entire wetland and this is the largest estuarine wetland left in Southern California," Collins said.

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Water was flowing into the estuary through the narrow opening in the beach. The tidal-driven flow brings salt water to the marsh and mudflats that cover the valley floor.

"So this is a pinch point," Collins said. "It's kind of like your aorta. You know, you need that to stay open to stay alive. This estuary needs this river mouth to stay open."

The ocean flows keep oxygen levels up and that helps sustain the delicate ecosystem that supports endangered species like the Ridgeway rail. That is a rare bird that only thrives in muddy salt marshes. The bird's habitat is exceptionally green this summer because the estuary was flooded with nutrient rich sewage.

"We learned the hard way how fast this system can go into that sort of condition given the types of inflows that we have," Collins said.

Biologists do not specifically measure sewage or contamination in this habitat, but they do track the estuary's vital signs.

Researcher Jeff Crooks stood on the edge of the estuary and pointed to a post. The pole sits in the channel where open water flows. It is one of several permanent monitoring stations.

Erik Anderson
The research station that monitors water conditions in the Tijuana River Estuary every 15 minutes, sending information to a satellite on Sept. 5, 2017

"And you can look and see, there's the little top hat thing that's a satellite uplink so this is being uploaded and we can look at the data in real time," said Crooks, research coordinator at the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Just out of sigh is a two-foot long tube which contains instruments that dip into the open water. The instruments essentially measure the estuary's vital signs.

RELATED: Imperial Beach Poised To Sue Over Sewage Spills

"So that unit is sitting in there," Crooks said and points as he talks. "And every 15 minutes it's measuring how warm the water is, how salty it is, how cloudy it is, it's measuring water level. Really importantly, it's measuring how much oxygen is in the water."

Plunging oxygen levels recently alerted biologists there was a problem in the estuary. Sand had clogged the opening of the Tijuana River, stopping the intertidal exchange of water. Clearing that blockage gave the estuary a chance to recover. And biologist Brian Collins said recovery is an ongoing battle.

"I know that if we're smart and work with natural systems in ways that are science-based and intelligent, I know we can restore them. It's just a matter of us collectively choosing to invest in that," Collins said.

The estuary ecosystem has proven to be resilient even as it deals with extraordinary challenges. Efforts to control pollution during summer have largely worked allowing the renegade flows to be captured and treated. Even so, there are ongoing battles against invasive species, trash, sediment and those massive rain-driven sewage flows.

"Just in the last three years, there were 300 sewage spills just in the canyons alone. That's one sewage spill every three days," said Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina.

Dedina got so frustrated this past winter that he is now preparing to take the federal government to court. The city announced last month it intends to sue the International Boundary and Wastewater Commission, or IBWC. That is the agency responsible for cross-border sewage issues.

The intention to sue gave the federal agency a chance to respond. Federal officials argued that they are active in the effort to control cross-border sewage flows, but they lack the resources to be more effective.

"The problem is that the IBWC doesn't have money so we need to get this in front of a federal judge and the U.S. attorney's office," Dedina said. "So they can actually sit down and force the IBWC to fix these egregious discharges of toxic waste and toxic sewage in the Tijuana River and canyons, that are impacting our beach and the beach in Coronado."

Imperial Beach has to wait 60 days after announcing the intent to sue before it can file a lawsuit. That deadline is in about a month.

Dedina is urging other cities to join their legal effort.

Coronado has discussed the possibility in at least two closed-door meetings. The Coronado mayor is directing the city council to consider, among other things, drafting a participation agreement with Imperial Beach.

KPBS reached out to San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott. Her office indicated they have been contacted about the Imperial Beach litigation, however, the city attorney is not ready to make a recommendation to the mayor or city council.

Tijuana River Estuary Endures In Face Of Many Ecological Challenges
Tijuana River Estuary Endures In Face Of Many Ecological Challenges GUEST:Lori Kuczmanski, spokeswoman, International Boundary and Water Commission United States Section

The Tijuana River estuary is showing resilience for the ability to cope with law -- raw sewage flow. Eric Anderson says it is not happening without help. Biologists are managing the constant threat to the complex ecosystem.Brian Collins stands in front of the beach north of the U.S.-Mexico border.The salt water comes in and they are hanging out waiting for the fish to come and go.The raw sewage flows. He says this is a lifeline for the complex web of life in the estuary.This fees this entire wetland. This is the largest wetland left in California.This narrow opening allows for and inland flow bringing saltwater to the floor.This is the pinch point. It is like your aorta. You need that to stay open to stay alive. They need this river mouth to stay open.This keeps the oxygen levels up and that has sustained that echo system for endangered species. This is a rare bird that thrives in coastal salt marshes.The habitat is green this summer because the estuary was flooded with nutrient rich sewage.We learned the hard way how fast the system can go into that condition, given the types of inflow that we have.Biologists do not measure sewage or contamination but they do track the estuary's vital signs. Jeff Crookes points to a post that sits on the edge of a channel where open water flows. This is one of several.If you see the top thing, that is a satellite uplink. This is uploaded and we can look at the data in real-time.Just out of sight, a tube contains instruments that dip into the ocean -- open water. Those take the pulse of the estuary.That unit is sitting in there and every 15 minutes, it is measuring how warm the water it is and how salty it is and how crowded it is and the water levels. Is measuring how much oxygen is in the water.Plunging oxygen levels alerted biologists that there was a problem in the estuary. Stand clog the opening of the Tijuana River. Clearing the blockage gave the estuary a chance to recover. Brian: says recovery is an ongoing battle.If we are smart and we work with natural systems in ways that are science-based and intelligent, I know we can repair them. It is a matter of investing energy in that.The echo system has proven to be resilient as it deals with extraordinary challenges. There are ongoing battles against invasive species, sediment, and the massive rain, driven flows.There were 300 sewage spills in the canyon.The mayor got so frustrated this past winter that he is preparing to take the federal government to court. They announced they intend to sue the international boundary and wastewater commission. They are responsible for cross border sewage issues.They do not have money. We need to get this in front of a federal judge so they can sit down and fix these egregious issues.They are urging other cities to join the legal effort. They have discussed the meeting in two meetings.The mayor is considering drafting a participation agreement with the Imperial Beach. KPBS reached out to Mara Elliott. They indicated they have been contacted by the litigation. The city attorney is not ready to make a recommendation to the mayor or the city Council. Erik Anderson, KPBS news.20 me is Lori, the public affairs officer for the international boundary and water commission for the United States section. Welcome to the program.Thank you for having me expect the water commission is holding a public meeting tonight to talk about the progress it made to address sewage spills into the Tijuana watershed. What can the public expect to learn at that meeting ?We are going to go over the investigative report for the sewage spill. There is a list of recommendations that both countries agreed upon from the water quality workgroup. Some of those recommendations include installation of a new [ Indiscernible ] to measure water flow in a watershed. We asked the developer for a diagnostic for a pumping system. We have asked Mexico to acquire pumps so in the event they have an emergency situation, they can pump water out versus diverting it to the Tijuana River. They are going over the recommendations that both countries have worked on from February and give an update on where we are at tonight.Are these recommendations? Have the proposals been put into place?Yes. Many things have been put into place. The installation to measure flow in the Tijuana has been emblematic.Our goal is to have that done by the end of August. We reached that agreement to install the meters. Additionally, we asked Mexico to acquire bypass pumps, which they acquired one of three. That is a work in progress but we are making headway and we are pleased with the progress that we made thus far.Have you been able to see benefits from the measures that are in place?The dry season has approached. There is not as much flow. We do see benefits from Mexico. One other benefit was communication. We have asked them to notify us in a timely manner. They have done that in the past.The state of Baja, they promised to spend 148 million pesos to repair the Tijuana sewage treatment station. How is that progressing?It is going well. We are using that money for infrastructure and some of it was lighting and the hydraulic hammer. That project is projected to be completed by November.Is the U.S. government considering infrastructure up grades on this sort of the border to treat's image -- sewage? That we are looking at options and we have a couple of sites and we can see what we can do to improve sewage on the U.S. side.As we said, the mayor has said the city is preparing to sue the IB WC because they believe the agency has dropped the ball on protecting the South Bay from message sewage spills. What is your response to that ?We have not seen official documentations. If we do, we will respond appropriately.Do you think your agency has responded appropriately to the recurring sewage spill on the side of the border?We have done actions over the years and we start when they built this South treatment plan in San Diego. That is going back 20 plus year they have been proactive on controlling the sewage issue. The city of Tijuana is growing and infrastructure is changing. It is an ongoing issue that both countries need to keep up with.I am wondering if your agency has received complaints from the border patrol. What we are hearing is that agents is -- they are experiencing health issues from the sewage they are experiencing. That we have not received any inquiries from border patrol directly.Do you monitor those and the fact that the sewage is not just spilling into the Tijuana River? It is contaminating a wide area of canyons and rabies in the South Bay?Some of those canyons, it is a collector. It does not power back into the South Bay international treatment plant.Why are these border patrol agents having health issues from rural sewage ?I cannot answer that. I do not know.We heard the mayor saying that I BWC does not have money. Has your agency been having any problems ?We get funding and we have projects that have been allocated. It is not necessarily a funding issue. It could be summer allocated for projects and some are planned out, you know, sometimes it is years in advance. We have allocated money when it is needed. We have to see how that goes.Considering the wide scope of the sewage problem in the South Bay, you have enough funding to really address these issues?We have funding for projects. Some things, funding has been allocated and the projects are in progress. If something new were to come up, the money has not been allocated. We have to move money around. Priorities take place and, you know, we do cover frame San Diego down to Brownville. There is a very good reason. We have transboundary projects that we are aware of and they are costly. We are allocated so much money every year. We prioritize everything and get everything to take care of everything along the border.What are you hoping people come away with at this meeting tonight?We want the stakeholders to know that we are working with Mexico to resolve the issue. It does take time and money. We are working on it. We have been working on it. We have been working on this for years.It is a work in progress.I have been speaking with Lori, the public affairs officer for the international water commission. Thank you.Thank you for having me.