EPA announces plan to stop cross-border sewage flows
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Beach closures along the Southern coastline due to sewage are unfortunately nothing new for the San Diego Tijuana region. Cross border sewage spills have been a major problem here for decades resulting in not only closed beaches, but also health hazards for residents on both sides of the U S Mexico border, a new plan by the EPA aims to improve that by doubling the capacity of the international wastewater treatment plant along the border here to tell us more about the project and its potential impact on the region is KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson. Eric. Welcome
Speaker 2: (00:34)
Speaker 1: (00:36)
So, okay. What exactly did the EPA announced yesterday?
Speaker 2: (00:39)
Well, the EPA basically laid out its vision for how they're going to go about fixing this problem. And the vision that they laid out was a pretty big project. They're looking at spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $630 million. That'll include a variety of different projects. That's things like expanding the international wastewater treatment plant. They're also going to build another facility right next door. That'll treat river water coming down the Tijuana river valley. They're going to improve the collectors on the canyon collectors on the U S side of the border. And they're going to do some things in Mexico as well, uh, including possibly building a treatment facility, uh, uh, near [inaudible] that's south of Tijuana and maybe a recycling, some water that will end up in the, uh, Rodriguez jam.
Speaker 1: (01:32)
And can you sort of put this into context for us? I mean, how much water is treated now and how could this a proposed plan changes?
Speaker 2: (01:41)
Yeah, the existing international wastewater treatment plant, which was built back in the 1990s, the late 1990s was built and designed for a problem that existed. Then it's going to be able to treat 25 million gallons of water a day that was coming across the border at that time. But the problem is, is that Tijuana continued to grow since then. And the amount of sewage coming across the border continued to grow as well. And so this plant really didn't keep solving the problem it was designed to solve very long. They've expanded it a little bit. Capacity is about 30 million gallons a day. Now they're going to double the capacity. That's the first big project that they hope to do. Double the capacity to 60 million gallons a day. And then with this new plant, right next door, another 60 million gallons a day. So there'll be capable of treating 120 million gallons a day of tainted water that flows across the border. Is that enough? They say it is enough combined with the other projects that they're looking at to be able to take care of the situation and reduce the days of beach closures in the Imperial beach area. By about 95%, basically the dry weather flows that currently happen and foul the ocean waters, uh, reduced to just 5% of the existing contamination that they have. So it will have an impact if everything is built out the way that they hope.
Speaker 1: (03:06)
And so how will this plan be funded?
Speaker 2: (03:08)
That's one of the things that they'll be looking at in the future right now, they only have about $300 million, which was funding that came through the U S MCA, the United States, Mexico, Canada border trade agreement. They set aside $300 million for the EPA, which the EPA then dedicated for use in the Tijuana river. But that only accounts for about a little bit less than half of the money. They need to do everything that they want to do. And what they're going to do is look to the state for some funding, state of California, to help with that a little bit. They're going to look to the environmental protection agencies, wastewater border project, account funding. They're hoping to be able to lobby congressional lawmakers, uh, while the EPA is not going to blobbing them, but maybe the Congress can add some more money to this effort to help them meet its goal. And they're going to be looking to Mexico to help pay for some of the solutions that might happen in the Tijuana area.
Speaker 1: (04:07)
And, you know, obviously this issue of cross-border sewage is an issue that involves two countries, both Mexico and the U S so how is the us working with Mexico to, to fix this problem?
Speaker 2: (04:20)
Well, the EPA talks to Mexico every other week, uh, and they have for, for a long period of time. So the dialogue has been happening there. It's a question, I think, a commitment of, of how they're going to spend the money. Now, there, there are some interesting ways that Mexico has helped fund some of the projects that have been done there. Some of the sewage collection projects on their side of the border, you know, they've supported the, uh, north American development bank, which is an agency that basically is allowed to spend us dollars on the Mexican side of the border. So that might be one avenue that Mexico can take. And there may just be a convincing Mexico that they need to spend money on treatment facilities in Tijuana. And it needs to be part of that regional solution. If you could
Speaker 1: (05:08)
Talk a bit about how cross border sewage spills impact people who live near them,
Speaker 2: (05:14)
And what happens is because Tiwan sits up on a hill, the sewage flows downhill and it flows downhill into the United States, uh, left on a baited that sewage would flow through the Tijuana river valley into the Tijuana estuary. And through that estuary and out into the ocean. That's one of the problems. The other problem is, is that there is an existing sewage treatment plant south of Tijuana right now that is supposed to be capable of treating the sewage generated in Tijuana, but that plant simply doesn't work. And right now it's basically a conduit for untreated sewage that reaches the ocean south of Tijuana. And if the swell is moving in a northerly direction, it carries that sewage up into the, uh, San Diego ocean waters. Uh, so there are two big problems that happen and the impact, you know, it can be a health impact. People react poorly to the stench of sewage. Uh, they, they worry about airborne particles out of the sewage. They worry about swimming in an ocean. That's contaminated with sewage water because it can have a direct impact on the health of people who, who recreate there. All those impacts are very real and they've happened, uh, for years. Uh, and it's kind of been in the last couple of years. Uh, the impact of the sewage has really been growing and lot more sewage that's been untreated has crossed into the United States and then out into the ocean.
Speaker 1: (06:43)
So what comes next in this project? What's the timeline
Speaker 2: (06:46)
Here? Well, the immediate thing is, is that the environmental protection agency has said, it's going to start the environmental reviews, the national environmental policy act reviews required for projects like this. They think they can get the expansion of the international wastewater treatment plant done pretty quickly because it has a pretty small footprint. The air Lander has already been disturbed. They also want to build that additional sewage treatment plant, right next door it's in the same area, doesn't impact that much. And they think that'll move relatively quickly. Uh, what might take some time is their plan to create this diversionary system, to pull water out of the Tijuana river, because that could impact endangered species. It could impact a riparian habitat, and there are a few more hurdles to jump over, to get passage, uh, by the NEPA, the national environmental policy act. So that's going to take a little bit of time, but they're doing this in stages. And what they're hoping is is that, you know, they've got some money to start the international wastewater treatment plant expansion, that $300 million already in the bank ready to go. They can start with that project, do the environmental review quickly, and then kind of pick up on the other projects as they move toward that comprehensive solution.
Speaker 1: (07:59)
Um, I've been speaking with KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson, Eric. Thank you.
The Environmental Protection Agency is making a major move to stop cross-border sewage flows that foul ocean waters off the coast of San Diego.
The federal agency is proposing spending more than $630 million dollars to capture and clean dirty water on both sides of the U.S. Mexico border.
The region has long suffered from sewage tainted flows that come from Tijuana, where an overwhelmed sewage system has long been incapable of handling the city’s wastewater flows. Last month, more than 500-million gallons of sewage tainted water flowed across the border in a span of just four days.
The EPA decided to take a comprehensive approach to fixing the sewage problem with a solution designed to fix the problem until at least 2050.
“These are all such critical projects that really represent, in our view, a holistic and comprehensive solution to the challenge,” said EPA Administrator Radhika Fox.
That means doubling the capacity of the international wastewater treatment plant. That plant on the U.S. side of the border currently treats flows that cross the border in the region’s canyons. The federal government wants to build another U.S. treatment plant nearby which will capture and treat flows in the Tijuana River.
“The proposed 60 million gallons per day, advanced primary treatment plant would treat all dry weather river flows, along with some wet weather flows,” said Ami Cobb, an EPA official. “The implementation of a U.S. side river diversion would have the ability to act as a backup for Mexico’s diversion as well as divert larger flows.”
And federal officials hope to improve sewage infrastructure south of the border, including diverting Tijuana River water into the Rodriguez Dam reservoir and building treatment facilities south of the Mexican city.
U.S. officials say they are talking to Mexico about funding projects south of the border like the proposed San Antonio de Los Buenos sewage treatment facilities south of Tijuana.
“It’s still a little bit uncertain,” said Tomas Torres, of the EPA’s Region Nine office. “But we’re working with Mexico on a bi-weekly basis to confirm priorities and commitments as we go.”
EPA officials have less than half of the $630 million needed for all the projects. Part of the price, $300 million, was set aside as part of the Trump Administration’s United States, Canada, and Mexico trade deal. The EPA says that money will allow the agency to start work on expanding the existing international sewage plant.
The EPA says additional funding could come from the federal government, state government and even from Mexico.
Federal officials hope to begin environmental reviews, required by the National Environmental Policy Act, next year. They expect a speedy review on the expansion of the existing plant and the construction of a nearby facility.
The Tijuana River diversion project could take much longer because it will disturb more habitats.
“Diverting water out of a river, you usually have to go into very detailed analysis of how that’ll affect riparian habitat, and the estuary and endangered species,” said Doug Eberhardt, of the EPA.
Officials hope to begin design work as early as next near on parts of the project. The first shovel could be in the ground in 2024.