As negotiations for this year’s federal budget slog forward, local politicians and activists continue to push for more funding to address the Tijuana sewage crisis.
“The sense of urgency that we feel here needs to be felt in Washington,” said Laura Wilkinson Sinton, a founder of Stop the Sewage. “That’s why everyone in Coronado and Imperial Beach who loves their beach needs to call Congress. We cannot let this become the new normal.”
A push is underway to convince Congress to include in this year’s budget an additional $310 million in funding to fix the crumbling infrastructure causes 35 million gallons of sewage from Tijuana to spill into the Pacific Ocean daily.
Politicians and activists have been traveling to the capital to make their case to Congress. The latest trip was organized by Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre.
“We’re still hopeful that we’ll be able to get this into a supplemental budget,” said Coronado City Council Member John Duncan, who joined the latest trip, his second to the capital this year. “Not carving out funding for this environmental disaster would be egregious.”
Duncan said everyone he has spoken to in Washington, D.C. supports the cause, but as the latest federal stopgap spending bill illustrates, finding money in the federal budget is not an easy feat. Although $310 million is a relatively small amount in the US’s $6.3 trillion budget, much of Congress’ attention is on spending for Ukraine and Israel, he said.
“There’s a turning point for the reputation of San Diego and Coronado we’ll eventually reach,” Duncan said. “If we become known as a polluted city, it’ll take years and years to get over.”
The latest trip to the capital was attended by Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre, Chula Vista Mayor John McCann, Coronado City Council Member John Duncan, Imperial Beach City Manager Tyler Foltz, Imperial Beach Director of Environmental Services Chris Helmer, and activists Laura Wilkinson Sinton and Marvel Harrison.
Earlier this year, Duncan and Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, who sit on the city’s ad hoc subcommittee on the cross-border sewage issue, traveled to the capital to push for more funding. The Coronado City Council on Feb. 6 voted to continue its subcommittee for another year.
Congress in January passed a stopgap bill to extend government spending into March as legislators struggle to agree on a federal budget.
In the meantime, activists and politicians continue to highlight the myriad ways the sewage problem impacts the area.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Wilkinson Sinton said. “We are really fighting to get it in this year’s allocation because if we push it off a year the treatment plant could suffer damages from these storms that would be catastrophic.”
Navy SEALS training
Congress members have asked the U.S. Navy to substantiate how much the sewage crisis impacts its training operations.
Most notably, the Navy runs its training program for SEAL candidates in Coronado. The Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training course is a notoriously grueling program for the elite force.
In 2022, the Navy canceled 20 in-water training events, a jump from the prior year, in which there were no cancellations.
Last week, five members of Congress, representing California, including Coronado’s representative, Scott Peters, sent a letter to U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro requesting information about the effects cross-border pollution has had on Navy operations.
“If the pollution in the [Tijuana River Valley] is not addressed, we are concerned that further training cancellations due to water quality concerns could harm the Navy and our military readiness,” the letter says.
Read the full letter here.
A push to change funding sources
One reason the sewage crisis has persisted for so long is that the infrastructure on the United State’s side of the border is managed by the International Boundary and Water Commission.
By law, the IBWC is restricted in its funding sources. An example: Under President Trump, the federal government allocated money for cross-border pollution to the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the EPA cannot build infrastructure; that is the IBWC’s role. It took Congressional approval to transfer the money to the IBWC. By law, the agency cannot accept funding from outside sources. A new House bill could change that.
Under HR 5903, the IBWC would be permitted to accept funds from both federal and non-federal entities to study and maintain wastewater and floodwater infrastructure.
Similarly, the Inflation Reduction Act included $2 billion in money for environmental and climate justice community change grants – which the IBWC is ineligible for.
“One of the most frustrating things is that, unfortunately, the way the Inflation Reduction Act is written, they can only give grants to community groups, not government agencies,” Duncan said.
Wilkinson Sinton said she is currently working to form a community group that could accept some funding. While those dollars could not go toward infrastructure – that is the IBWC’s job – but it could fund mitigation projects, such as distribution of filters, to assist communities living along the Tijuana River Valley.
It’s a bandage, not a solution, Wilkinson said, but communities in the South Bay are struggling.
“If you look at the bacterial counts in Imperial Beach, that water isn’t just dangerous – it’s poison,” she said.
The federal government has already allocated $300 million to address failing border sewage infrastructure, while Mexico has pledged $144 million under Treaty Minute 328. Although it is not enough money to solve the problem, the government is taking a phased approach to spending it, addressing the issues it can with the money it has.
Mexico broke ground on its new wastewater treatment plant in Punta Bandera in January after the country’s military took over the project.
“The US has not been upholding its end of the treaty,” Wilkinson Sinton said. “Meanwhile, Mexico has shovels in the ground.”
The IBWC scheduled installation of a new, fourth effluent pipe this week as a part of its capital improvements project. Although storms in late January and early February overwhelmed parts of the infrastructure, leading to heavier flows into the Tijuana River Valley than usual, nothing broke.
Some other projects are out to bid or in the design phase. Even with funding, building infrastructure is a lengthy process. The IBWC has outlined its timeline for repairs using its available funding here.