Thursday, May 23, 2024

Port Declares Emergency Over Tijuana Sewage Crisis, IBWC Provides Update on Plant Repairs

The Port of San Diego declared a local emergency due to the ongoing Tijuana sewage crisis, joining other government agencies who have also made such declarations.

“This is the most significant environmental calamity going on in the United States of America, and it has been going on for years,” said Port Commissioner Michael Zucchet at an April 3 meeting.

The county of San Diego and the cities of Imperial Beach and San Diego have all issued such declarations.

While the federal government recently included an additional $156 million in funding in its budget to address the crisis, Commissioner Dan Malcolm, a vocal activist for the cause, said it is not time to become complacent.

“It is an absolute public health and environmental crisis that’s going on in the South Bay, with Imperial Beach being ground zero,” Malcolm said.

While more funding has been secured for rehabilitation and expansion of the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant (SBIWTP), Malcolm said leaders need to support a comprehensive solution that also funds an environmental impact review for the Tijuana River Diversion Rehabilitation Project, a proposed supplemental project that would reduce the strain on wastewater infrastructure.

Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre implored the Board of Port Commissioners to issue the proclamation of a local emergency to help expedite the environmental impact review phase for the diversion project, which the commission supported.

“Without (this project), we don’t have a solution, and we’re going to be sitting here a decade from now in the same situation that we’re in now,” Malcolm said.

Malcolm also questioned the International Boundary and Water Commission’s (IBWC) transparency regarding the crumbling infrastructure that causes millions of gallons of raw sewage to flow into the Pacific Ocean daily, and whether the federal agency is utilizing its funding for repairs or expansion.

For context, the IBWC needs funding both for deferred maintenance on its existing infrastructure and to expand the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant’s capacity from 50 million gallons per day to 75 million gallons per day.

Last year, the IBWC discovered $150 million in deferred maintenance costs at the SBIWTP, a blow to the $300 million in funding the federal government appropriated in 2023 to address border sewage. Leaders at the commission said the IBWC’s small budget rendered preventative maintenance on its existing infrastructure nearly impossible.

Now, with more funding allocated toward the IBWC in the 2024 budget, Malcolm said it is not clear enough how much funding is going to maintenance versus expansion.

“We need to know how much money is going to fix the deferred maintenance on the plant,” he said.

He referenced a recent Voice of San Diego public records request for a report detailing the current state of the treatment plant, which was heavily redacted. He held up the report to punctuate his point.

“Blacked out, blacked out, entire pages blacked out,” Malcolm said. “Now, I don’t think this is a top-secret document. I didn’t find this in a closet at Mar a Lago. I found this online.”

He suggested that the port make its own public records request for the document so leaders and the public can better understand what needs to be addressed.

“This is not transparent,” Malcom said. “We have an absolute right to know what the existing condition of that plant is.”

The IBWC on March 28 gave an update on repairs to the SBIWTP, the largest piece of the crumbling infrastructure puzzle, which is summarized below. Overall, the update outlines some current upgrades on infrastructure that are underway. It projects the plant’s needed expansion will be complete in 2029.

The IBWC said that, taking into account the $456 million funding it has already procured, it needs about $310 more in funding to fully address its infrastructure, with the expansion of the treatment plant costing about $600 million of that.

‘Headaches, sore throats, and watery eyes’

The matter is a complicated one, with pump stations and pipelines sprawling both sides of the border and multiple government agencies from both the U.S. and Mexico involved. But commissioners and advocates said it’s important to remember that beneath the bureaucratic tangle lies real human and environmental impact.

“My life came to a standstill,” said Imperial Beach resident Lesley McCollum in a voice message submitted as public comment. She was diagnosed with walking pneumonia on March 24.

“I have watched friends and longtime neighbors leave Imperial Beach because of the unsafe air and water and the continuous beach closures,” she continued. “Headaches, sore throats, and watery eyes have become daily occurrences for all of us who live near the ocean and the estuary. When the local urgent care facility becomes one of the most popular places in town, I think it is well past the time to act.”

Port Commissioners on Wednesday thanked local advocates for their efforts to raise funding for the sewage crisis. Their gratitude in particular fell to both Malcolm and Aguirre, who has led delegations to the capitol this year to lobby Congress for more funding.

“What we have seen happen so far is in large part due to you,” said Commissioner Danielle Moore, addressing Aguirre. “So I just want to encourage you and say don’t grow weary in what you’re doing. We are so grateful for your activism.”

Millions of gallons of sewage dump into the ocean daily

Representatives of the IBWC also attended Wednesday’s meeting. Malcolm said that, despite his criticism of the IBWC, he has been grateful to IBWC Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner for bringing more transparency to the agency since she assumed her role in August 2021.

Giner has said publicly that the SBIWTP is out of compliance with its permit under the Clean Water Act, and that the commission is working to bring the plant back into compliance.

Meanwhile, winter storms and continually strained infrastructure continue to exacerbate issues at the border.

“You’re not imagining this, things are getting worse,” said Chris Helmer, the environmental and natural resources director for Imperial Beach, at Wednesday’s port meeting.

In August 2022, a major pipeline in Mexico broke, prompting increased flow to the SBIWTP, which is on the US side of the border. Since then, the region has experienced heavy rain that prompted flooding, further exacerbating the problem.

“It’s not very transparent how much raw sewage is coming across (the border),” Helmer said, “but it’s somewhere between 15 and 30 million gallons a day of raw, untreated sewage going across the border. So to put that in perspective, it’s about 500 million to a billion gallons a month of untreated sewage that goes into the ocean.”

Commissioner Malcolm said the additional funding is a step in the right direction, but said funding for a comprehensive solution is critical and that leaders must act to secure money now.

“(The sewage flow) is a daily violation of the Clean Water Act, every single day,” he said. “That is a daily violation of the resources conservation Recovery Act, every single day. I don’t want to resort to litigation. I want to continue to work with our partners, I want to continue to work with IBWC, but this is critical and solutions need to happen right now.”

The Board of Port Commissioners will continue to revisit its emergency proclamation every 60 days until the matter is resolved.

Repairs are underway on the US border sewage plant

On March 28, the transboundary flow rate was at 80 million gallons per day. That same day, the IBWC gave an update on repairs to the SBIWTP, the largest piece of the infrastructure puzzle.

Three of the plant’s six influent pumps are currently in operation. Two new pumps have been received but not yet installed, and four more have been ordered.

Its grit chambers have an excessive accumulation of dirt, and are currently being cleaned. That is expected to be completed in April.

None of the treatment plant’s five sedimentation tanks are operational. The IBWC projects that one will become operational this month, with the other four’s rehabilitation scheduled from April to September 2024.

Two of its four primary, non-potable pumps are operational. Four new ones are on order. Three of its five secondary non-potable pumps are operational, with five new ones on order.

All seven of the treatment plant’s activated sludge tanks are operational, with one of two waste pumps operational. Five new waste pumps have been ordered.

The plant has two unstabilized sludge storage tanks, and one is currently working. Two of its six pumps are operational. The plant has one spare pump on hand, and has ordered six more.

Rehabilitation of the plant’s JB-1, which controls the flow of sewage into the treatment plant, began in Nov. 2023. Its projected completion is in Feb. 2025.

At the Hollister Pump Station, three of four pumps are operational. The IBWC has two new pumps on hand.

The South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant is currently in its design-build contractor procurement stage. The IBWC expects to award a contract in late summer of 2024, when design will begin.

This marks a slight delay from last fall’s projections, which scheduled solicitation for design for late 2023, with construction beginning in early 2024.

Megan Kitt
Megan Kitt
Megan has worked as a reporter for more than 15 years, and her work in both print and digital journalism has been published in more than 25 publications worldwide. She is also an award-winning photographer. She holds BA degrees in journalism, English literature and creative writing and an MA degree in creative writing and literature. She believes a quality news publication's purpose is to strengthen a community through informative and connective reporting.Megan is also a mother of three and a Navy spouse. After living around the world both as a journalist and as a military spouse, she immediately fell in love with San Diego and Coronado for her family's long-term home.Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]

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