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California Wants Feds To Address Cross-Border Sewage

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Persistent cross-border sewage flows are prompting state water quality regulators to demand action from the U.S. federal government.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Last month was one of the driest months we've had on record and yet millions of gallons of raw sewage flowed to our beaches from Mexico and the latest effort to stop cross border sewage flows. The regional water quality control board has requested increased monitoring and making those results. Public KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson joins us with details on how this could help clean up our coast. Eric, welcome. Thank you. So the request has been made from more monitoring of the sewage flows. Who does the board want to see do this monitoring?

Speaker 2: 00:31 What they're doing is they're asking the international boundary and water commission, which is a federal agency that runs the international wastewater treatment plan along the border and some of those sewage collectors, they're asking them to actually do the monitoring and then make that monitoring public. They've done monitoring in the past, but they've not been compelled to share what they've found and what they're saying is, look, we've picked 13 separate locations along the border. There are locations that are in the Tijuana river. There are locations in some of the Canyon collectors where they know that there are sewage flows and during the wet months, uh, they want the federal government through that agency to test those areas at least once a week in the summer months when the conditions are dryer and the flows presumably are are less intense than they only have to do the testing once a month. But the key component, I think the thing that's really different about this testing effort is that they want this information to be accessible to the public so that the public will be able to see exactly how contaminated these flows are over a period of time.

Speaker 1: 01:36 And so how does the public having access to that information impact what gets done to fix this problem?

Speaker 2: 01:43 Well then you can't run away from the problem I think is what their line of logic is. You can't ignore it. You can't say it's lesser severe or that you don't know how severe the problem is. You'll be able to look at actual water quality testing information that will tell you just how bad or are not, how bad that situation would be.

Speaker 1: 02:02 So since the request for this increased public monitoring has been made, does that mean the international boundary and water commission will

Speaker 2: 02:09 truly move forward with the testing? I think we kind of have to wait to see, it's complicated because the international boundary water commission was created as the result of a treaty negotiation with Mexico. They're the agency that deals with the border pollution issues all along the us Mexico border. And so they're this federally created agency that was created by treaty and, uh, the state regulators do have the authority to, uh, monitor and issue punishments for quaint, clean water violations that were set up in the federal clean water act. But whether or not they can compel, uh, the IB WC to do this, uh, kind of remains up in the air. If the IB WC just says, you know, we're not going to do it or doesn't respond to the investigative order. Uh, the next step would be for the regional board to seek a legal remedy in a federal courtroom.

Speaker 1: 03:03 And so is this why this particular agency is the agency they're asking to monitor this problem? Because, um, regionally their enforcement is limited.

Speaker 2: 03:13 It's not that their enforcement is limited, it's just that there's not a clear delineation as to who has authority over these issues. The regional water quality board officials say, look, the federal government has recognized that it has some role to play here because it's built these collectors, it's build a sewage treatment plant, uh, and they seek a permit from the state of California that meets clean water guidelines every year. So they do have some authority, but it's not clear whether a state agency can Pell the federal government into action. And so if there's not willing compliance with this testing order, this investigative order, then, then again, the remedy will likely come out of the courts.

Speaker 1: 03:55 And this all comes as we're seeing an increase in sewage from Mexico. Talk to me about that.

Speaker 2: 04:01 Yeah. This is a kind of been a, a deteriorating situation in some ways over the last couple of months. Uh, since about the middle of December, there have been repeated failures of sewage infrastructure on the Mexican side of the border. Pump stations. Collector pipes have broken, and that's limited. The Tijuana government's ability to move, uh, their sewage that's generated in that city, uh, to a sewage treatment facility. And it has ended up running across the border. Uh, and it's come across in rather large amounts. It's between 10 and 50 million gallons of sewage. Tainted water is crossing the border every day. And that's happening even during periods of time when the flows would normally be non-existent because there wasn't any rain. So it hasn't been particularly wet. Uh, and these flows are still happening and it's really been a, a failure of the system South of the border to capture and contain and then to treat that sewage.

Speaker 1: 05:03 And the federal government has a wastewater plant in the South Bay that they will have to renew their permit for. How might that give the regional board leverage in their effort?

Speaker 2: 05:12 That's another thing that regional board is looking at. What they want to do is sort of tighten the permit, the discharge permit, uh, regulations, uh, that, that plant has to get every a few years or so. Uh, when that permit gets renewed, they want to have these, uh, stricter pollution limits in place so that if there is a spill that contacts it, the agency would be in violation of its permit if they're in violation of their permit. That gives the regional board some enforcement, uh, capabilities. Um, so that's, uh, one other thing that is, that is being done. They want to get this extra testing. They want to kind of tighten up those permits. And, uh, the bottom line I think for the regional board is as they want to see the federal government be active in making sure that if there are cross border sewage flows, that those flows are captured and treated and, and don't reach the open ocean. I've been speaking with KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson. Eric, thank you for joining us. My pleasure.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.