EPA's plan to fix cross-border sewage cheered by locals
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) vision to stop most transboundary sewage flows is being praised by San Diego's clean water advocates.
With less than half of the plan paid for, however, there are real questions about funding.
U.S. officials announced Monday that they hope to spend $630 million for a massive upgrade of sewage capture and treatment facilities in San Diego and Tijuana. The EPA plan calls for the existing international wastewater treatment plant on the U.S. side of the border to be expanded.
A new treatment plant would be built close by to treat Tijuana River water. That project includes a diversion system and a trash boom.
Several canyon collection systems would be improved and there is a provision to send some of the treated water from the U.S. plant back to Mexico instead of to the ocean outfall, which empties into the ocean three miles offshore.
The blueprint also includes a plan to build a new sewage plant south of Tijuana, and pipes to funnel treated water into the Rodriguez Dam reservoir.
“Under the Biden Administration, the EPA released a comprehensive project that has the potential for addressing this pollution at its root, by diverting flows away from the Pacific Ocean and into expanded treatment facilities in San Diego," said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Imperial Beach). "I stand ready to support future budget requests to make this project a reality.”
The EPA chose the most extensive alternative because it could capture and treat 95% of the flows that currently reach the ocean.
“My biggest fear was that they would choose an economical path that would only solve the problem of the day,” said David Gibson, the executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.
If all the projects are built, Gibson is confident the region will have a sewage control solution that can last decades. But he is also cautious.
The EPA plan carries a price tag of $630 million and the U.S. government only has $300 million set aside for the project.
The international border has long complicated efforts to fix the cross-border flows.
“International solutions require much more negotiation,” Gibson said. “Much more care to ensure that we can account for the investments in both countries.”
The EPA’s approach is to use the money from the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal to start the sewage plant upgrades on the U.S. side of the border. Environmental review could start soon and the expansion of the existing international sewage plant could start in 2024.
Other projects would be added as environmental reviews are completed and funding becomes available.
“We’ve been besieged with a tsunami of sewage for the last two years,” Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina said. “Things got way worse than we could’ve imagined. The south end of our beach has been closed 200 days this year, just non-stop closures this summer.”
Imperial Beach suffers first and worst when sewage crosses the border and hits U.S. waters. That is one reason why the South County community sued the federal government two years ago to get federal officials to act. That lawsuit is currently on hold.
Dedina is energized to help find the additional state, federal, or Mexican funding that will be needed to pay for the project, and he is encouraged that work will proceed before all the money is found.
“I think we can, we can push for these investments,” he said. “And that’s why we have a backup plan on the United States side of the border. Trust but verify, so we get to have some backup in case things don’t work.”