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Port of San Diego joins calls for help to deal with cross-border sewage

The San Diego Unified Port District is adding its voice to the call for a state of emergency over cross-border sewage flows in the South Bay.

The port sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom asking him to take the issue seriously.

“We call on the governor to declare a state of emergency because our future is in his hands,” said Sandy Naranjo, who is vice chair of the board of port commissioners at the San Diego Unified Port District.


The letter implores the state to take a leadership position as South Bay communities grapple with “an unprecedented crisis that extends beyond the realm of local control.”

“This dire situation demands a coordinated state and federal emergency declaration,” the letter stated.

The port’s letter urges the state to use every resource and enforcement authority to address the issue which has led to chronic beach closures of the county’s southern beaches.

“We are standing next to the biggest environmental emergency in the United States right now,” said Vivian Moreno, a San Diego City Council Member. “But the state of California and the federal government are not acting like it.”

Moreno lives less than a mile from the international wastewater treatment plant and she said the sewage smell from the valley forces her to keep her windows closed.


South Bay residents should not have to live like that, she said.

There is a federal plan to make improvements on both sides of the international border, but relief remains elusive. That is why local officials are pushing so hard for an emergency declaration.

All 18 of the region's mayors are asking for help and they see the governor as a key part of the solution.

“The president will take it a lot more seriously if you have the governor of a state saying, ‘This is a crisis. This is an emergency. My constituents are hurting,’” said Paloma Aguirre, the mayor of Imperial Beach.

Aguirre said the cross-border contamination has never been this bad and parts of her community’s beaches have been off limits to swimmers for more than 600 consecutive days.

“You (the governor) need to speed up this process and not wait five, seven years which is the approximate timeline we’re being given if everything goes according to plan and the funding is secured. Which are big ifs,” Aguirre said.

The International Boundary and Water Commission is close to seeking bids to double the treatment capacity of the existing sewage treatment plant just north of the border.

But the existing plant needs $150 million in repairs before any expansion work can begin.

Environmental reviews are underway for plans to divert flows crossing the border in the Tijuana River channel into the expanded sewage treatment facility, but it is unclear when that project will be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mexico is also working on sewage system repairs and officials promised to replace the broken San Antonio de los Buenos sewage plant next year.

And the cost for the EPA’s comprehensive fix has ballooned from $630 million to more than $900 million.

Rep. Scott Peters, (D-San Diego), with the support of the San Diego congressional delegation, has offered legislation to put $310 million into a federal emergency funding bill. He said this is a federal problem that needs a federal solution.

Corrected: September 26, 2023 at 3:27 PM PDT
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the IBWC was already seeking bids for the treatment plant north of the border. The Request For Proposals is not out yet.