SAN DIEGO – Work has begun to stop a decades-old problem of millions of gallons of sewage from Tijuana, Mexico, flowing into the United States and polluting San Diego County beaches, the Trump administration's top environmental protection official said Wednesday.
For more than 40 years, wastewater from Tijuana's dilapidated system has spilled across the border and polluted the waters off Imperial Beach, a city of about 30,000 south of San Diego. The pollution has posed health risks to surfers, Border Patrol agents and even Navy SEALs who train near there, officials said.
Last week, a $10.6 million project was completed and will keep 4.5 million gallons of sewage per day from entering the Tijuana River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean in front of Imperial Beach, said Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler at a news conference in San Diego. His agency contributed $3.9 million to that project.
A second, $6 million project will pay for improvements to Tijuana's pumping and collection system to prevent further spills from entering the United States. Mexico is also doing work on the system, and pollution flows are already being reduced, Wheeler said.
The agency is also funding work in coming months that will replace a mile of old, leaking pipes that should further stop the sewage from overflowing, Wheeler said. In addition, two other short-term projects funded by $25 million in federal grants will help by diverting 10 million gallons a day of Tijuana wastewater to an international treatment facility, and by capturing trash and sediment with a new system on the border.
The projects are short-term solutions being put in place while the federal government designs a more permanent fix that it will fund with $300 million allocated for environmental border projects from Congress under President Donald Trump’s revised NAFTA agreement, now called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, an avid surfer, told reporters Wednesday he already is seeing a difference: His city has been able to open its beaches, which had been closed since November, ahead of the the Labor Day weekend.
He said his city had faced a “sewage apocalypse" and noted that 160 days this year the beaches there had to be closed because of the pollution.
He said a permanent fix is vital and Mexico must continue to make improvements and ensure that there is “zero flow from Tijuana going anywhere near the ocean.”
The actions come after Imperial Beach and other local governments sued the agency in 2018 to demand the EPA do something about the problem. They agreed earlier this year to put the legal action on hold for a year after the EPA indicated it would help.