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Sewage flows exasperate local leaders who want federal help

Imperial Beach officials are bracing for a disappointing summer as the city’s main tourist beach remains off limits to swimming. KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson has details.

Imperial Beach officials are bracing for a disappointing summer as the city’s main tourist attraction remains off limits to swimming.

A plea for more federal action came this week from two San Diego County Supervisors, Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer, and Imperial Beach mayor Paloma Aguirre.

The leaders told reporters enough is enough.


Imperial Beach has long suffered a polluted ocean, but it has never been this bad before.

The city’s main tourist attraction has not been open for swimming once this year.

“We’ve had a record setting 179 consecutive days of this stretch of beach, our premier stretch of beach, closed this year. So that’s very unusual,” said Aguirre, the beach community’s top elected official.

She worries that visitors coming to town to vacation this year may not return because they cannot go in the water.

That could cut deep into the city’s biggest economic engine.


Aguirre said the source of the problem is no secret: Tijuana’s failed sewage treatment plant fouls ocean waters everyday. Ocean currents carry that contamination north.

“It’s discharging 40 million gallons of sewage per day and that’s a very significant amount of sewage,” Aguirre said. “So, add that to the unusually high river flow. We’re getting a double whammy on the impact to our beach.”

Federal officials say nearly 34 billion gallons of sewage-tainted flows have crossed into the United States through the Tijuana River valley since the first of the year.

Massive flows were blamed on a wet winter earlier this year, but there have not been any significant rain events in the last month. And the flows continue.

“We’re still seeing flow down the Tijuana River,” said Morgan Rogers, the area operations manager for the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC). “Which is unusual because in past years at this time, there wouldn’t be any flow. The Tijuana River would be dry.”

The IBWC is the federal agency that manages cross-border pollution issues, and they estimate more than 240 million gallons flowed across the border this month alone.

Rogers said federal officials on this side of the border are trying to understand what’s happening in Mexico.

“That’s what we need to figure out. That’s what we’re investigating right now,” Rogers said.

The cross-border flows are putting stress on the Internal Wastewater Treatment Plant located just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The facility is designed to capture and treat 25 million gallons of water a day. It is currently treating 30 million gallons a day. IBWC officials worry the plant could break down before any upgrades happen.

Local officials hope a federal emergency declaration will open access to more resources which can pay for projects that could stem the flow of sewage-tainted water into the ocean.

Meanwhile, the $640 million plan drawn up by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control cross-border flows took a step forward this month.

The EPA finished environmental reviews allowing the IBWC to begin designing a major expansion of the International Wastewater Treatment plant on the U.S. side of the border.

That project is still years away from completion.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.