The Tijuana sewage system is outdated, non-functioning and leaking human waste and pathogens into the Pacific Ocean, riding sea currents from the Tijuana River into Imperial Beach and Coronado, and a key federal official said at least $300 million more is needed to stem the crisis.

An urgency to fix the nearly 100-year environmental problem was reiterated Sept. 13 at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting. That’s where International Boundary and Water Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner said that “about 40%” of the assets currently used to stop the sewage flow “have a high likelihood of failure.”

Giner said around $150 million already has been allocated for urgent rehabilitation needs, but the total price tag for construction repairs, new sewage treatment facilities and mechanisms to catch waste has risen to $900 million.

IBWC Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner.

Giner told the water board that the federal government’s priority is to reduce transboundary flows of sewage by 90%, which can be done by expanding the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment plant near the U.S.-Mexico border so it can process 50 million gallons of waste a day from Mexico or double its current capacity.

But Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre said the Water Board and federal government have failed to properly monitor the outdated treatment plant.

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats representing San Diego County are working together to get additional funding, and the plan includes lobbying former U.S. Navy SEALS who are members of Congress, according to Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey.

Sens. Feinstein, Padilla seek more money

Giner’s comments come amid a recent “Stop the Sewage” rally in Coronado as well as a request for emergency federal supplemental funds from California’s U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla and U.S. Rep. Scott Peters. In addition, local and federal officials have repeatedly called upon Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Joe Biden to declare states of emergencies to kickstart construction projections to stop the sewage flow.

The pressure for change comes after The Coronado News earlier this year published a five-part series that examined decades of broken promises by U.S. and Mexican officials to end the continual sewage flow from rapidly growing Tijuana. The effluvium has polluted the ocean and shuttered beaches in Coronado and Imperial Beach, with the shores of Imperial Beach being closed 644 consecutive days as of Sept.13. Further, the public health crisis continues to cause widespread illnesses on both sides of the border, including sickening U.S. Border Patrol Agents and Navy SEALS, The Coronado News found.

IBWC Commissioner Dr. Maria-Elena Giner during the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board on Sept. 13. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

Effects of Hurricane Hilary

Peters notes that $300 million was secured under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement in 2020, and Mexico has pledged $144 million for a myriad of construction projects. Yet, he told The Coronado News that’s not enough.

He and others in the California congressional delegation are seeking $310 million more for the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Peters noted that during a massive storm caused by Hurricane Hilary in late August, the treatment plant completely failed causing raw sewage to rush onto streets and to seep into canyons and neighborhoods in San Diego County. Further, Peters noted in a letter seeking the funds that the plant’s failure of the Hollister Street Pump Station leaked more than 20.000 gallons of sewage into the streets of Imperial Beach. 

‘Full-court press’ for emergency money

MaryAnne Pintar, the congressman’s chief of staff, told The Coronado News that members of Congress were able to put together about another $50 million primarily from a program called the Border Water Infrastructure Program to help.

However, even with the collective $350 million or so in available funding, engineers at the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant recently found there was a bigger need for rehabilitation before moving forward with the expansion of the plant, according to Pintar. 

She said now is the time to be asking for more money “because we’re at the stage of the federal budget process where legislators are considering what’s called emergency supplemental appropriations…so we are trying to get this as an emergency supplemental.” 

Bailey, the Coronado mayor, has also been advocating for the emergency supplemental funding.

Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

He said that during the past two weeks, there has been a “full-court press” with Peters, the governor’s office, Aguirre of Imperial Beach and San Diego County Supervisor Nora Vargas to lobby congressional leaders for the money.

We’ve also been making requests of the five former SEALs serving in Congress to sign on to letters to secure funding for the projects.”

-Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey.

“We’ve also been making requests of the five former SEALs serving in Congress to sign on to letters to secure funding for the projects,” Bailey said, noting to The Coronado News that this is the single biggest political push since a 2017 massive sewage leak from Tijuana polluted San Diego-area beaches. 

If the additional $310 million is not received, Giner, the IBWC commissioner, said that leaders have a plan to move forward – although she said that strategy cannot be made publicly available at this time. 

Treatment plant update

However, Giner did provide extensive updates on the functioning of the treatment plant since Hurricane Hilary touched down as a tropical storm in San Diego last month. 

She said excess sewage flows clogged screens used to catch trash from the Tijuana River that flows into the U.S., and the constant sewage flow “actually wore out three of our six pumps before Hilary. Now, post-Hilary, we only have two of our pumps working.” 

The treatment plant currently has the capacity to treat 25 million gallons per day (MGD) of wastewater, and part of the expansion of the plant includes being able to treat up to 50 MGD with a peaking capacity of 75 MGD.

With Hurricane Hilary, excessive inflows exceeded the capacity of the treatment plant by 100% for six hours and by 320% or 80 million gallons daily for six hours from Aug. 20 to Aug. 21, according to Giner. 

This caused eight feet of flooding, covering the pumps and flooding the electrical system. 

So, in addition to the rehabilitation that already has to happen, Giner said that the plant is in recovery mode, and $8 million has been released for recovery costs.

“Most of it has to do with cleaning it, redoing our electrical stations, replacing our pumps,” Giner said. 

The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board on Sept. 13. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

And according to IBWC official Mario Castro, recovery is already being made at the Hollister Street Pump Station as officials have ordered a replacement pump, expecting it to be operational within the next 30 days. 

“With this new pump, we expect transboundary flows at Goats Canyon and Smuggler’s Gulch to be significantly reduced if not eliminated,” Castro said in an email obtained by the Coronado News. 

Goats Canyon and Smuggler’s Gulch are canyon collectors, conveyance structures used to capture and divert dry weather transboundary flows occurring in the canyons on the United States/Mexico border to the treatment plant.

However, in preparation for another possible storm, the IBWC identified a need for an additional $32 million. 

Total cost hovers around $1 billion

Giner said when everything is added up, the total cost to fix the problem hovers around $1 billion, a similar total other officials told The Coronado News in early June.

“What we really need is money and compliance,” said Celeste Canto, chair of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, referring to the federal government maintaining the plant.

Giner ended her presentation on Sept. 13 by providing an update on Minute 328, a U.S.-Mexico agreement signed in the summer of 2022 that lays out a package of sanitation projects in San Diego and Tijuana. 

She said Mexican officials have reported the new San Antonio de los Buenos Wastewater Treatment Plant will go out to bid in 2023, with various sewer line and pump station projects also in various stages of implementation.

Third leg to potentially fix the issue

San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Officer David Gibson said there is one more important point of conversation to the treatment of wastewater coming from Tijuana. 

San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Officer David Gibson. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

“Replacing San Antonio de los Buenos is a very important commitment from Mexico; increasing the size of the international treatment plant – also critical. But there’s a third leg of the triangle which is the (Tijuana) river diversion and treatment system that was proposed in which the water board and local agencies have long advocated for,” Gibson said. 

That project involves constructing a new Tijuana River diversion system to intercept river water and route it to a new Advanced Primary Treatment Plant at the treatment plant, according to a federal report.

“Without that third component, the other two catch us up to where we needed to be 10 years ago, and doesn’t foresee and forecast the future growth in Tijuana and the flows in the river that need to be treated,” Gibson said. 

IB mayor: Water Board, feds failed

Aguirre, the Imperial Beach mayor, expressed her dissatisfaction with the treatment plant during the public comment period on Sept. 13, and she pushed for the river diversion.

“How did the Water Board and EPA drop the ball so monumentally on the failures of the IBWC plant, the second largest wastewater plant in the county?” Aguirre said.

Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre speaking during the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board on Sept. 13. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

She noted that the Tijuana River is the most polluted river in California and should be the highest priority to get fixed.

“We need treatment for the Tijuana River. We want the Tijuana River to be diverted,” Aguirre said.

Voice from Tijuana

General Director of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental Margarita Diaz followed Aguirre’s comments, bringing a voice from Tijuana. 

General Director of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental Margarita Diaz speaking during the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

“It’s amazing the condition that it’s in right now, and the amount of money that is needed to rehabilitate and how it’s not working. Because on the Mexican side, we are reliant on the U.S. side about this treatment plant…and it was going to be built in the U.S. because they comply with the laws, and they have more budget and they will be in a better place in the U.S. to work,” Diaz said. “And we’re seeing several years later that it’s not.”

Aguirre said she appreciates the call for more money, but more needs to be done from the governor and president.

“I continue to call on Gov. Newsom and President Biden to declare a state of emergency…so that we can finally have a fix for this community,” Aguirre said. 

More News

Madeline Yang is a reporter for The Coronado News, covering the City of Coronado, the U.S Navy and investigating the Tijuana/Coronado sewage issue. She graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University with her Bachelors in Journalism with an emphasis in Visual Storytelling. She loves writing, photography and videography and one day hopes to be a filmmaker. She can be reached by phone at 916-835-5843.