On December 11, Rep. Scott Peters (CA-52) and the San Diego congressional delegation learned that implementing legislation for the approval of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) will provide a new authorization of $300 million, in equal installments of $75 million over four years, to fund Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants under the Border Water Infrastructure Program (BWIP) to address sewage pollution on the U.S.-Mexico border. This announcement is a huge victory for the San Diego region and is the result of consistent and coordinated advocacy by our congressional delegation and local elected and community leaders.
Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey commented, “This represents a big down payment towards a permanent solution and is confirmation that our strategy and hard work are paying off. There is still a long ways to go but our bipartisan and regional coalition are committed to seeing it through.”
Coronado Councilmember Whitney Benzian added, “This announcement illustrates well that grassroots advocacy from residents and local government officials can affect change 3,000 miles away. In part, this started from the postcards collected and sent by local activists and young students standing in front of Emerald City urging action. I love that. From those original actions the Coronado City Council and our regional partners came together in a coordinated fashion to raise the urgency of this issue from the halls of Congress to the White House. Specifically, I want to thank Congressman Scott Peters for jumping on this from the start. I don’t think we would be here without his behind-the-scenes work. I am hopeful our community will continue to support our strategy of diplomacy. The fight isn’t over but this is a big win for Coronado and the region. ”
Since at least 1944, the federal government has tried, and failed, to stop flows of treated and untreated sewage in the U.S. from the Tijuana River in Mexico. This problem has been especially prominent recently. In 2017, a broken pipe flooded the river with upwards of 143 – 230 million gallons of raw sewage in one spill alone. The rupture of the Collector Poniente, in southeast Tijuana on December 10, 2018, is a more recent example. At the time of the break, it was leaking roughly seven million gallons per day.
Members of the San Diego delegation, individually and as a group, have all visited the spill impact area. And the delegation has sent letters demanding attention and action to the EPA, International Boundary Water Commission, Mexican government officials and congressional leadership. In October, Rep. Henry Cuellar invited Rep. Peters to attend the 54th annual meeting of the U.S.-Mexico Inter-Parliamentary Group, attended by Mexican lawmakers and members of Congress representing Texas and California, where Rep. Peters focused on the need to pass the USMCA and address cross-border sewage.
On July 22, 2019, the San Diego congressional delegation announced three pieces of legislation designed to address the problem:
- The North American Development (NAD) Bank Pollution Solution Act reduces the existing financial burden stalling pollution mitigation efforts in the Tijuana River Valley through changes to NAD Bank, including increasing NAD Bank’s capital by $1.5 billion and establishing a U.S.-Mexico Border Public Health Trust Fund where federal agencies can deposit unallocated funding to design, implement, and finance environmental infrastructure projects relating to water and sewage.
- The Tijuana River Navy Impact resolution encourages the Department of the Navy to take a leading role in cross-border sewage mitigation and its consequences for national security.
- The Border Water Infrastructure Improvement Act increases the authorization for BWIP funding to $150 million a year for the next five years.
BWIP at its peak was funded in 1997 at $100 million, however it had been reduced over the last 20 years and was funded at $4.7 million in its lowest congressionally appropriated stretch when Rep. Peters was sworn into Congress. In Fiscal Year 2018, the San Diego congressional delegation, with the support of Senator Dianne Feinstein, was able to secure $10 million in funding, and in Fiscal Year 2019, the amount was increased to $15 million.
In June of this year, the House approved an appropriation of BWIP funding of $30 million. This represented a large increase but was still not enough to address the major investments solving the sewage crisis will require. The effort to achieve further, more dramatic increases—as were announced today—was bolstered by the advocacy of elected leaders from Imperial Beach, Coronado and the City of San Diego, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, the Port of San Diego, Supervisor Greg Cox and the National Association of Counties, local environmental groups, and others. Representative Earl Blumenauer, Chair of the Trade Subcommittee at Ways and Means, visited the border and also supported funding to address the problem. Finally, a critical advocate was Speaker Pelosi, herself a Californian concerned about cross-border pollution. As Speaker, she was also able to ensure that the issue received the attention it warranted on the House floor and in the conference committees between the House and Senate.
As approval of the USMCA approached, the San Diego congressional delegation made it clear that in exchange for approval of the agreement, which was important to Mexico, Canada, and to the entire United States, San Diego should expect that this catastrophic pollution would no longer be ignored. Today’s announcement assures that adequate funds will be made available to fix the problem.
The priority project for this funding is the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is currently operated by the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC). Increased treatment capacity is needed to stem the flow of stormwater/wastewater, and it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The funding from the USMCA will be used for treatment facility expansion and upgrades.
“The USMCA delivers a massive funding investment that can fix the Tijuana River’s sewage spills once and for all. This funding can stop the environmental crisis that has plagued our community for decades and will improve public health. I am grateful for the longstanding advocacy of so many leaders who have demanded that these sewage spills are resolved with the urgency they deserve, and I thank my fellow members of the San Diego congressional delegation, and Senator Feinstein and Speaker Pelosi, for their continued pressure to get this cleanup done. This is a significant victory for the San Diego community and our environment, and a product of trademark San Diego teamwork,” said Rep. Scott Peters.
“I am grateful for the bipartisan support in Congress to include funding to address the pollution in the Tijuana River and stronger environmental protections as part of the USMCA. Cross border pollution is a nightmare for our community and for the individuals that work and recreate near the border. This funding is a critical step towards cleaning up the contamination in the Tijuana River Valley and making our beach safe for surfers and others who enjoy our coast,” said Serge Dedina, Mayor of Imperial Beach.
“We’ve been pushing for this modernized trade agreement and now it’s here, in a way that sets up San Diego to win big. More free trade and less pollution at the border – it’s what San Diego needs and it looks like it’s what San Diego is going to get,” Mayor of San Diego Kevin Faulconer said. “I’d like to recognize our bipartisan partners, including the Administration and local leaders, and I’ll be working closely with our congressional delegation to get this deal across the finish line.”
“The deal reached on USMCA is a big win for our region. It brings certainty to trade and commerce and ensures economic prosperity for decades to come. A monumental achievement in this deal is the inclusion of support and funding to address environmental issues such as the Tijuana River valley pollution, which has plagued our region for more than 30 years. I’d like to thank Congressmember Peters and our entire San Diego congressional delegation for their support in making this happen,” said Jerry Sanders, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO.
“We know that collaboration is key to resolving any challenge we face from trade to the environment. This agreement, above all else, is an agreement of collaboration and friendship,” said Paola Avila, Vice President of International Business Affairs for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Congress has a responsibility to protect the environment, and the Tijuana River pollution requires immediate attention. As Vice Chair of the Appropriations Committee, I fought for funding increases at the request of the San Diego delegation to address the Tijuana River sewage spills. Today’s announcement means more funds to address this problem, and is a big step forward to protect the environment and public health in Southern California. I thank the San Diego congressional delegation for their dedicated work to get this funding across the finish line,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to the office of Rep. Scott Peters for sharing press release content.