Leon Benham has proudly called Imperial Beach his home since the Civil Rights era, and today he continues a fight to clean the nearby Tijuana River and stop the flow of raw sewage from Mexico into the Pacific Ocean.
Part of that effort includes being executive director of Citizens for Coastal Conservancy (“C4CC”), a non-profit organization based in Imperial Beach that advocates for objective science to help address the cleanup of the Tijuana River Valley and the coastal ocean environment.
“Our mission statement and our core purpose is to educate local citizens about border ocean water pollution and provide practical solutions,” Benham said.
Benham considers that C4CC has raised public awareness and scrutinized government policies, but more work is needed to find sustainable solutions.
Small grassroots organization
“We’re a small grassroots local situation,” Benham told The Coronado News in a July interview. “We’re not funded by state agencies or federal agencies and we advocate for the cleanup of our beaches.”
The organization provides public outreach through social media platforms, especially its YouTube channel, where Benham shares videos with information about their work and happenings along the valley.
Benham, 63, shared that some folks have referred to C4CC as a ‘phantom organization’ regarding its efforts to keep elected officials accountable. But records show that C4CC is a registered non-profit organization with the IRS.
Beyond his active presence in C4CC, Benham is a member and treasurer of the Imperial Beach-South Bay Kiwanis Club, which focuses on serving the needs of children, fighting hunger and improving literacy.
During the day, Benham welcomes neighbors who visit his backyard garden that extends across three houses near the Tijuana Estuary. Cucumbers, kale, tomatoes and zucchini are among the list of varieties found in the Kiwanis Club Of Imperial Beach Community Organic Garden.
New member of Citizens Forum board
Meanwhile, Benham this summer joined nine community members for the new United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) Citizens Forum board, appointed by Commissioner Maria Elena Giner.
I hope to bring an educated voice to the process.”-Imperial Beach resident Leon Benham on being appointed to the USIBWC Citizens Forum board.
“I hope to bring an educated voice to the process,” said Benham about his new two-year role. “To bring thoughtful consideration and clarity.”
With multiple years of experience as an estimator and project manager on various local and statewide environmental projects, Benham raises awareness about the sewage crisis in the city he’s called home since 1963.
Work, interest and advocacy
Benham shared specific issues that are most important to C4CC’s efforts during a tour alongside the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park.
He said efforts for change began in 2014 around the same time when he worked as the chief estimator and project manager to build public county trails in the park.
Benham went on to found C4CC in 2019.
Benham said while he’s lived next to the U.S.-Mexico border for six decades, he’s studied the history of sewage systems, years of restoration in the Tijuana River Valley and ecological history pertinent to the area.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Benham said the native habitat in the area included a clean river system.
Now, part of the Tijuana River sits below Hollister Street, surrounded by invasive species like castor bean plants and a thick stench of sewage.
“As a kid,” he said. “I would snorkel and there would be fish everywhere and there were kelp beds in there, and we would dig up clams and we’d take ’em home and eat them.”
According to Benham, mud and sand accumulation in the valley happened after a series of January storms in 1993 along with the Rodriguez Dam rainwater and sediment release, which caused the river to change course.
The result then was flooding, but now a mix of sewage and rainwater has caused standing ponds next to generational family ranches in Imperial Beach.
For this reason, Benham considers that to successfully restore the Tijuana River Valley, its natural habitat must be restored.
Opposes EPA plan for sewage fix
However, he believes the new Environmental Protection Agency plan, known as the agreement of Minute No. 328 between the U.S. and Mexico, will allow additional sewage to enter Imperial Beach.
According to the EPA, the agreement will bring in $330 million from the U.S. and $144 million from the Mexican government to help fix an environmental crisis that has existed since the Great Depression through a series of projects on both sides of the border.
But Benham considers the plan’s sewage-capturing implementation fails to benefit the US.
Rather, he claims, it will result in the San Antonio de los Buenos (SAB) wastewater treatment plant in Tijuana capturing less sewage and causing additional sewage outflow in Imperial Beach.
“That’s what we are complaining about. We’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, why should we take on all the sewage?’” said Benham. “We are going to be on the hook for processing all of Mexico’s sewage forever.”
In a recent petition expressing opposition to the EPA plan, Benham said over 300 people signed to oppose it.
The sludge and trash problem
Benham said sludge from failing treatment plants affects nearby trails and ranches.
Additionally, after heavy rains, trash collects on a tributary that follows Smuggler’s Canyon draining path. During the dry season, such as the summer months, that tributary holds large amounts of sand.
The sand could benefit nearby beaches, but the Tijuana River’s non-existent flow cannot allow the sand to reach the ocean, explained Benham. The issue with the river, said Benham, is that it has been spread across the valley which is not allowing the water and sand to move by consolidated flow.
“The sand is meant to transport to the beach…and now our beaches are getting smaller because we’re being starved of sand. Eventually it’ll affect Coronado,” he said.
Additionally, spreading the river has allowed for floods in the valley that have resulted in local berms added in the perimeters to protect family homes and public spaces like one near the Southwest Little League baseball field on Sunset Avenue, he said.
Southbay organization proposes a solution
Benham said his organization pledges support to a practical solution that includes installing Flow Equalization Basins (FEBs) to solve the sewage contamination crisis.
The FEBs system would include three basins, about 10-20 feet deep, said Benham.
During dry events, the water entering from Mexico through the Tijuana River would be diverted into these basins allowing 300 million gallons to be captured, with 10 days of storage capacity, he added.
Currently, the International Boundary and Water Commission International Wastewater Treatment Plant handles an average of 27 million gallons a day of sewage from Tijuana.
Morgan Rogers, IBWC Area Operations Manager, has disputed some of Benham’s claims noting that the IBWC treatment plant does not discharge untreated sewage into the ocean.
“The IBWC plant is not a significant source of contamination of our beaches,” Rogers said. “The most significant source of contamination of our beaches is the daily and year-round flow of raw sewage in Mexico.”
Rogers said more than 35 million gallons of sewage a day comes from Mexico that is discharged directly into the ocean south of the border.
“This raw sewage then drifts north with the ocean currents and contaminates our beaches,” Rogers said.
Benham: Plan most cost-effective
Benham considers that Flow Equalization Basins are the most cost-effective and immediate solution to fix the pollution.
He said his proposal can be implemented within a year and help with pollution-induced beach closure days that have drawn the ire of local residents and tourists.
This would allow the IBWC treatment plant to operate at a constant volume by diluting pollution, allowing the plant to work more efficiently, he said.
The FEBs would capture all sewage from the Tijuana River, the plant would clean it, and two pipes would pump recycled water 15 miles east along the border, according to Benham.
He said one pump could send water to Otay Lakes for reuse while the second would be sent back to Tijuana with 15% solids for tertiary treatment if Mexico chooses.
However, Benham admits that not many elected officials are pushing for this type of change.