A pungent smell hung in the air around Hollister St. in Imperial Beach this week after 20,000 gallons of sewage poured into the roadway after sump pumps failed Aug. 28 at a nearby sewage station.
Wastewater flow from the Tijuana River Valley – specifically, from Goat Canyon and Smuggler’s Gulch – feeds into the Hollister Pump Station. The sewage spilled into the street for about 25 minutes before vacuum trucks recovered and transported it to the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant.
By then, some had seeped into the ground, and an odor hung in the air Tuesday and Wednesday, residents said on social media.
The sump pumps failed after “excessive sediment in the flows” built up over time and clogged them, according to the United States section of the International Boundary and Water Commission. On Tuesday, the commission confirmed that replacement pumps were being ordered but did not yet have a timeline for repairs.
“For years, we have sounded the alarm alongside the local community that this is an emergency and action is needed immediately.”
~ Representative Scott Peters (CA-50)
Meanwhile, the Goat Canyon and Smuggler’s Gulch canyon collectors were taken out of service to prevent any further strain on the Hollister Pump Station. Consequently, the normal flows in both canyons overwhelmed their respective collectors and were pushed out as transboundary flows.
On Tuesday, the estimated flow rate at Smuggler’s Gulch was 67,000 gallons per day, while at Goat Canyon, the flow was estimated at 13 million gallons per day.
“The International Wastewater Treatment Plant is completely failing because the federal government has refused to address this crisis with the urgency it requires for far too long,” said Representative Scott Peters (CA-50) in a statement responding to the spill. “For years, we have sounded the alarm alongside the local community that this is an emergency and action is needed immediately.”
Leaking sewage from Tijuana has impacted the area for decades, but a recent push by politicians and grassroots residents aims to finally solve the problem.
The U.S. has pledged $300 million to solving the problem, with Mexico promising another $144 million, but the funds are not enough, especially after a discovery in June that an additional $150 million in deferred maintenance is needed at the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant.
On Aug. 29, the San Diego County Division of the League of California Cities wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom requesting he declare a state of emergency over the matter. Part of doing so would include pressing the Biden administration for funding, according to a letter written by Priya Bhat-Patel, the division’s president and mayor pro tem of Carlsbad.
“Since December 2018, over 100 billion gallons of untreated toxic wastewater has crossed our border, with 35 billion coming just this year again,” Bhat-Patel’s letter reads.
The move echoes a state of emergency the San Diego County Board of Supervisors declared in June.
Peters has also pushed for additional funding, and this week led two letters to the federal Office of Management and Budget and the State Department on the matter. In one letter, Peters and 11 other members of Congress criticized the OMB for not finding additional funding for the sewage infrastructure at the border.
“Failure to find the funding needed to take immediate action will only perpetuate a status quo that threatens the local and state economy, degrades the environment, facilitates environmental injustice, and complicates our national security posture,” the letter reads.
Outside of politics, locals have been rallying for change. Stop the Sewage, an organization founded by Coronado residents Laura Wilkinson and Marely Ramirez, held its first public protest in May. Its next protest is on Sept. 1 in Coronado, at 4 pm on Central Beach.
“This is a slow-moving disaster that has been going on for much longer for communities farther south,” Wilkinson said ahead of Stop the Sewage’s initial protest.