It’s no secret that for the past 70 years, Tijuana has grown exponentially and that the sewage facilities cannot keep up with demand, and contamination is occurring regularly on the beaches of Imperial Beach and sometimes Coronado. In late September, Mayor Richard Bailey, Councilmember Whitney Benzian and City Manager Blair King represented Coronado in Washington, DC for two days of meetings regarding solutions for the Tijuana sewage spills.
They met initially with Congressman Scott Peters and Congressman Juan Vargas’ offices. “We met with them so they know what we are doing in DC and vice versa,” said Councilmember Benzian. “Both officials are working passionately on the issue in the House and we are thankful for their attention to the issue.”
Beginning with their initial trip in February, Benzian, Bailey and King discovered from their meetings that other border states, like Arizona and Texas, are experiencing similar sewage-related issue with Mexico. Consequently, the city’s team in DC has been working to organize other congressional offices so they can all speak out in a unified voice on this issue so their congressional colleagues will take the issue more seriously. Toward that end, they met with offices of the Arizona delegation and the Western States Caucus to solidify a collaboration beyond San Diego and discuss strategies to improve the chances of a solution. “This partnership makes our voice much bigger. We are driving the message home that this is affecting our new $1.4 billion Navy SEAL Base, located between Imperial Beach and Coronado, when they can’t go in the ocean for one-third of the year. It also affects the Border Patrol, Navy families and city residents,” says Benzian.
On the DC trip, they also meet with the United States Trade Representatives negotiating NAFTA, the Pentagon and the White House. They were encouraged at the meeting with the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which serves as a liaison between the White House and local governments.
The staff person from the White House suggested they come back in a month or two for a meeting with department heads from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Homeland Security among others to ensure all the departments of importance to this issue are on the same page and ideally assign responsibility to work on the problem. “While we are thankful for the assistance of our congressmen, if the Executive Branch is willing to take the lead on this we are much more likely to see a quicker outcome because quite simply they have more authority to make fast impactful decisions due to the nature of that branch,” Benzian noted. “Mayor Bailey and I left the trip encouraged but not naïve. This is an old and difficult issue. We don’t think we just solved this with a couple meetings but we now feel even stronger about our strategy and that we are on the right path and meeting with the White House could just be the answer we have been looking for.”
The latest efforts to solve this problem stem back to February 2017, when a historic 150-200 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the ocean near Imperial Beach. While Imperial Beach and other entities are pursuing litigation against the IBWC, the City of Coronado decided to pursue a diplomatic approach and retained Best, Best and Krieger, with law offices based in San Diego and DC. Benzian reports that in previous trips they met with Ken Wagner, Senior Advisor for EPA local government and other key personnel. Wagner then came to San Diego and met with the Mayor, Supervisor Greg Cox and Benzian after touring the Tijuana River Valley. He promised to come back with more key players and make a plan for delivering results. On October 18, this meeting will take place at the Imperial Beach Lifeguard Station Headquarters with key officials from the Office of Water, International and Tribal Affairs, EPA, and other regulatory and state agencies. They hope to examine the technical and financial obstacles to the problem and find a solution.
“There are many layers of government involved now and we are encouraged that this is the next step to turn into real action,” comments Benzian.