The San Diego County Board of Supervisors have declared a state of emergency regarding the ongoing Tijuana sewage crisis that has polluted the Pacific Ocean and closed beaches in Coronado and Imperial Beach.

This resolution on June 27 seeks to ensure clean water for all families, businesses, and visitors by asking federal and state governments to provide necessary funding to fix a problem that has occurred since the Great Depression.

The issue has never been fixed because of decades of broken promises from U.S and Mexican officials, a Coronado News investigation has found.

“The actions today are going to direct the (county) Chief Administrative Officer to assess the economic impacts resulting from the U.S.-Mexico border transboundary pollution environmental crisis and provide a report to the board within 120 days to outline the extent of the economic consequences,” said Chairwoman Nora Vargas.

The county also allocated additional funds to improve the situation.

Pressure on Biden administration

The City of San Diego and Imperial Beach also have declared local emergencies related to the economic and public health conditions posed by the ongoing Tijuana River pollution.

Members of San Diego’s congressional delegation and children in Imperial Beach through a letter campaign also have urged President Biden to allocate more money to stop a public health crisis that has sickened residents, U.S. Border Patrol agents and Navy SEALS in addition to shutting down beaches and hurting the economies of Coronado and Imperial Beach.

The momentum for change comes after The Coronado News earlier this year published a five-part investigative series that examined the historical failures since 1934 of numerous politicians to stop the daily flow of tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage from Tijuana into the ocean.

Battle continues

The county’s declaration, while largely symbolic, is hoped to expedite more funding to infrastructure projects that correspond to what’s called Minute 328, a binational agreement with the purpose of reducing the transboundary pollution stemming from the Tijuana River Valley.

The Coronado News found one of the biggest problems is Tijuana’s major sewage plant in Punta Bandera constantly fails and the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, which hugs the U.S.-Mexico border, cannot handle the overflow of waste coming from a city where large pockets of homes have no sewage pipes.

Vice Chair Terra Lawson-Remer, whose district includes Coronado, said that the county has garnered more than 2,300 petition signers calling for a federal state of emergency.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Staff photo by Julieta Soto.

Today marks a key moment in a long battle to protect our beaches and coastline…A federal emergency lets Mexico know that Punta Bandera must be fixed.”

San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer.

“Today marks a key moment in a long battle to protect our beaches and coastline,” said Lawson-Remer. “A federal emergency lets Mexico know that Punta Bandera must be fixed, and it’s not just a San Diego issue, it’s a major national priority of the United States of America.”

She added that the resolution should streamline the allocation and expenditure of secured critical funds to get shovels in the ground immediately and put pressure on the Mexican government.

With much ballyhoo, the United States and Mexico last summer announced they had agreed to spend $474 million to collectively address the “Tijuana sewage problem,” with the U.S picking up nearly 70% of the tab. Yet, officials told The Coronado News that close to $1 billion is needed.

Proposal hearing

At a hearing on June 27, community members voiced their support and opposition about the proposal pushed forward by Vargas and Lawson-Remer that would mitigate cross-border sewage flow that spans along a 70-mile coastline

Among those in support were City of Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre and Council Member Jack Fisher.

Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre addresses the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in support of the state of emergency proposal during a meeting on June 27. Staff photo by Julieta Soto.

Others in favor included San Diego and Imperial Beach residents as well as representatives from YMCA Camp Surf, WILDCOAST, Outdoor Outreach, Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Coastkeeper, Port of San Diego, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, state Sen. Catherine Blakespear’s district office in San Diego, and Emerald Keepers of Coronado.

Leon Benham, an Imperial Beach resident, agreed that more money is needed.

However, he said his opposition for the declaration was the most recent U.S.-Mexico agreement may bring more offshore sewage to Imperial Beach. Other speakers in opposition said they favored border crossing shutdowns and limiting commerce to encourage a more immediate response from Mexico.

County allocates water quality funds

Meanwhile, the county also approved a $8.11 billion budget, which includes improving water quality in the Tijuana River Valley.

“This budget provides significant increases to programs that help lift up our communities,” Lawson-Remer said. “We also will continue to build and improve community infrastructure and protect our beaches, waterways, and other unique environmental resources.”

The vote follows a press conference last week in which Vargas said communication with Mexican officials continues, but what is truly needed is that the Biden administration considers this environmental crisis a priority.

Vice Chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Terra Lawson-Remer speaks at a press conference on June 20 regarding a proposal to formally declare a state of emergency related to the transboundary sewage pollution crisis. Photo courtesy of Board of Supervisors Media Staff.

“We’ve never declared a state emergency for the Tijuana River Valley,” said Vargas. “The goal is that we’re able to advocate for additional dollars from the federal government and really prioritize the work that so many of us have been doing for decades.”

‘We can’t ignore children’

Meanwhile, a letter writing campaign in the South Bay Union School District allowed elementary school students participating in a three-week summer Intersession program, set to conclude this month, to share how the sewage contamination in Imperial Beach has personally affected them.

Fisher proposed this initiative in May and according to Aguirre and the SBUSD Extended Learning program, those letters will be mailed to the White House this week.

“I hope that we continue to send boxes or envelopes worth of those from our children in this region to the White House,” Fisher told the Coronado News. “They’ll see them consistently – not just one time – and then they can put it to the side and ignore it if they choose to, which I don’t think they’re willing to, we can’t ignore children,”

State of Emergency means change

The county’s emergency declaration mirrors Imperial Beach’s efforts.

“We’re going to see some influence happen at the right level, which is in Washington, D.C.,” said Fisher. “It’s going to cost less the sooner that we do it, just because we see inflation and prices of materials continue to go up.”

In terms of Imperial Beach closing its beaches, they will continue to be closed until this project is finished, he added.

Apart from closures every single day this year, the city can’t hire enough lifeguards because of a polluted beach, Aguirre told the Coronado News.

“We’ve been supported by every single mayor in San Diego County, all 17 of my fellow mayors in the county are supporting the call for emergency and once this happens then we can have the declarations at the federal and state levels,” said Aguirre.

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Julieta is a reporter for The Coronado News, covering education, small business and investigating the Tijuana/Coronado sewage issue. She graduated from UC Berkeley where she studied English, Spanish, and Journalism. Apart from reporting, Julieta enjoys reading, traveling, and spending quality time with family and friends.