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Border Sewage Projects Secure Funding, But Progress Will Be Slow

A surfer rides a wave in Imperial Beach in San Diego, Calif., Friday, March 2...

Photo by Elliot Spagat / AP

Above: A surfer rides a wave in Imperial Beach in San Diego, Calif., Friday, March 2, 2018, behind a sign warning of the sewage-contaminated water from the Tijuana River Valley.

San Diego officials are optimistic that a long-term fix to stop persistent cross-border sewage flows is close. There is now money available and more than two dozen projects are already vetted, but it could still be years before the majority of the flows stop.

Most of the region’s congressional delegation, fronted by Rep. Mike Levin, D-Dana Point, delivered good news during a January press conference to a region increasingly frustrated by massive cross-border flows.

Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

“Along with my Congressional colleagues and our local elected officials,” Levin said, “I’m proud to announce once again that we have successfully secured $300 million under the border water infrastructure program.”

It was welcome news to a community enduring cross-border sewage flows ranging from 25 million gallons to more than 70 million gallons a day.

It got so bad this winter that frustrated residents picketed the Mexican Consulate. Amy Sutton lives in San Diego and she wants the flows to stop.

“It’s unbelievable that nobody thinks this is not a crisis,” Sutton said.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina has fought for years to stop the cross-border transgressions.

“The stench of sewage that our residents have put up with and it is impacting people’s health in south county, it’s just been horrendous,” Dedina said.

He’s hopeful the $300 million in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement can pay for projects that attack the problem north of the border

“We’re looking for those river flows to get down to almost zero, if not, we’re always at the mercy of Mexico whether or not someone’s on the job. Or it’s a weekend or holiday and the sewer system breaks down then its what we have to do now. A round robin of calls, emails or exchanges, etc., to get someone to turn on the sewer system and fix something,” Dedina said.

And San Diego County has options. The county has identified 27 separate projects that improve the ability to catch and treat those cross border flows.

Reported by Erik Anderson

Supervisor Greg Cox says consultants have painstakingly vetted projects that all together cost more than $440 million. Cox says together they improve the ability to catch and treat the tainted water.

“This is a priority that needs to be dealt with now not later,” Cox said.

The cornerstone project is a new sewage treatment plant with a $370 million price tag.

“That 163-million-gallon capacity sewage treatment facility would drop the number of days of trans-border sewage flows down to about 12 days a year. Over the last few years it’s been over half the year that we’ve had beaches closed in Imperial Beach and even encroaching into Coronado,” Cox said.

Other projects will improve sewage collectors in several key canyons, build new storm water drains and install trash collection systems.

“We have specific projects that I think could be ready to go once the federal government, the EPA in particular decides okay these are the projects we want to focus on now.,” Cox said. “And again, it’s probably going to be an incremental process.”

Those plans are all on the Environmental Protection Agency’s desk. John Busterud took over the EPA’s region 9 office in February.

“I was quite surprised at the scope and severity of the issue and problem,” Busterud said.

The EPA is already taking a hard look at the situation. Busterud said the EPA has launched a value engineering study of the county’s 27 projects, so federal officials can make informed decisions on how to spend its $300 million.

“What we want to do is not approach this in a piecemeal way,” Busterud said, “but really to look at the region and look at what suite of projects or mix of projects will work the best.”

Busterud said he share’s the county’s sense of urgency but he concedes it’ll take about 10 months to finish the review.

“We won’t be ready necessarily for shovels in the ground at that time. There will be additional NEP environmental review required at the end of the value engineering. We hope to front end load a lot of that during this immediate time, the next ten months. But there will be a need for additional environmental reviews there,” he said.

In the meantime, the EPA is spending a few million dollars to pay for some pipe repair projects in Tijuana. That’s expected to help a bit, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the solution local officials want.

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Photo of Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson
Environment Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI focus on the environment and all the implications that a changing or challenging environment has for life in Southern California. That includes climate change, endangered species, habitat, urbanization, pollution and many other topics.

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