The San Diego Union-Tribune: San Diego representatives want $2 billion to help stop cross-border sewage flows

July 23, 2019
In The News

Four San Diego congressional representatives want to allocate as much as $2 billion for infrastructure projects aimed at stopping the region’s decades-old cross-border sewage problem.

Reps. Juan Vargas, Susan Davis, Scott Peters and Mike Levin — all of them Democrats — unveiled the Tijuana Valley Pollution Solution bill package during a press conference in the South Bay Monday morning.

Apart from potentially allocating billions of dollars for infrastructure projects on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, the proposed legislation would also force the federal government to prioritize projects that specifically address wastewater treatment and water pollution.

San Diego is at the receiving end of a large watershed that starts in the mountains around Tijuana. When it rains, water rushes across the city picking up trash and other pollution as it flows north along the Tijuana River Valley and into the Pacific Ocean. Additionally, urban sprawl south of the border overburdens the wastewater treatment infrastructure, sending flows of raw sewage into the Pacific Ocean and prompting beach closures in Imperial Beach and Coronado.

Lack of funding for border water infrastructure projects has been one of the biggest hurdles in mitigating cross-border pollution flows, which is why the San Diego lawmakers introduced this legislative package.

“San Diego cannot really call itself America’s Finest City when our beaches are constantly closed,” said Davis. “That is just totally not acceptable.”

The legislative package introduced Monday does not identify specific projects to solve the cross-border sewage problem. Those projects will likely be determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is currently studying the viability of multiple border infrastructure projects.

The lawmakers’ aim is to overcome the funding hurdle by creating various revenue streams for whatever projects are ultimately selected.

The bills aim to increase capital available to two different funding sources; the North America Development Bank, or NAD Bank, and the Border Water Infrastructure Project, or BWIP.

NAD Bank is a binational financial institution overseen by both the United States and Mexican governments that can finance environmental projects on both sides of the border.

Vargas and Peters’ bill — the North American Development Bank Pollution Solution Act — authorizes the federal government to purchase 150,000 shares of NAD Bank’s capital stock; thus increasing the bank’s capital by $1.5 billion.

The bill also directs the bank to prioritize projects related to wastewater treatment, water conservation and water pollution.

Additionally, the bill establishes a trust fund within NAD Bank to generate additional money. This trust fund would be a place where various federal agencies could deposit up to $400 million of unallocated funds.

“Let’s be frank here,” said Vargas. “It’s about money. We’re going to have projects ready to go and they are not going to have funding. We need the money.

BWIP is a program within the Environmental Protection Agency that funds the planning, design and construction of water and wastewater infrastructure along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Levin’s proposed legislation, the Border Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, would increase the amount of money in the program to $150 million every year for the next five years.

That piece of legislation also attempts to streamline the process by waiving Mexico’s obligation to match BWIP funds if cross-border pollution impacts the health and safety of Border Patrol agents or Navy personnel.

The bills included in this package have only been introduced and are not guaranteed to become law. After bills are introduced in Congress, they are referred to specific committees. Bills that make it out of committee are debated and voted on by Congress. If the bills get through that vote, they move to the Senate, which is currently controlled by Republicans. Finally, if they pass the Senate, the bills will have to be signed into law by the president.

The entire process could take one or two years.

Because of increased emphasis on security along the border — and the fact that Border Patrol agents have reported health impacts from coming into contact with raw sewage — there could be broad congressional support for the bill package, according to Paul Ganster, a professor at San Diego State University who has studied the Tijuana River for years.

However, Ganster noted that it is very difficult to predict how Congress is going to act.

“In the highly polarized political climate of Congress, I’m not sure I can predict anything,” he said.

In terms of getting matching funds from Mexico, Ganster said that considering that Mexico is a developing country with lot of pressing needs, it has done a good job of securing matching funds for projects along the border in the past.

He suspects that won’t change going forward. Additionally, the U.S. and Mexico are in the middle of negotiating a new trade deal, which could give the U.S. some leverage to secure more Mexican support for border infrastructure projects.

“It wouldn’t be easy, but I feel fairly confident that Mexican authorities would figure out how to come up with some matching funds to move these projects along,” he said.

The lawmakers also want the U.S. Navy to become a more vocal leader in their fight to address cross-border sewage.

The Navy is currently building a billion-dollar facility to train the Navy SEALs just three miles north of where the Tijuana River empties out into the Pacific Ocean. In the past, the Navy hasn’t been an advocate for addressing cross-border pollution.

“I’ll be quite honest,” Davis said. “They actually have not picked up on our request to take a serious look at this in the past.”

Davis included an amendment to a 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that directs the Secretary of the Navy to provide a briefing about the impacts of the Tijuana River sewage runoff to the Armed Services Committee.

The sewage spills have led to beach closures for decades, but Imperial Beach residents have noticed more closures in the last couple of years.

Imperial Beach’s southern shoreline was closed from November through most of June due to water pollution spilling over the border from Mexico. Apart from beach closures, the pollution impacts Border Patrol agents who routinely get sick from patrolling the canyons and valleys along the Tijuana River Valley.

Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, the Port of San Diego and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board have sued the federal government for allowing the situation to persist. The plaintiffs would like to see a beefed-up diversion system and funding for sewage infrastructure in Tijuana. The state of California filed their own lawsuit last year.

The federal government has a collection system to divert flows in the river valley’s major canyons, such as Goat Canyon and Smuggler’s Gulch. Much of the polluted flows are sent to the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment plant. However, the system is routinely overwhelmed in wet weather.

Lawyers for the defense argue the government isn’t legally responsible for the renegade flows that escape their collection systems, pointing out that the situation would be significantly worse without its network of pumps and capture basins.