A key federal official said a presidential state of emergency regarding the Tijuana sewage crisis may not be needed despite a chorus of pleas from local politicians and environmental groups to get such a declaration from the White House.

International Boundary and Water Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner on Oct. 31 said a state of emergency from President Joe Biden would likely waive some procurement requirements and environmental processesses.

She said such a declaration may save a few months in the construction process, but she said it’s best for federal officials to go through a competitive bid procedure to stretch dollars that have been allocated.

Giner’s comments came during an Environmental Protection Agency public information meeting. The hour-plus meeting provided historical context on the problem, an update on the excess sewage from Hurricane Hilary, information about sensors that have been installed to test air quality in the Tijuana River Valley and what federal officials have done so far to fix a sewage problem that has existed for roughly 100 years.

Giner’s organization is hosting the next public meeting.

It’s set for 5:30 p.m. in the Winn Room at the Coronado Public Library, 640 Orange Ave., on Nov. 8.

Mexico is ‘delivering on its commitment’

Doug Liden, who monitors border water for the EPA, reported that Mexico is “delivering on its commitment” to repair broken sewage lines.

He said Mexico has committed $45 million of a $144 million pledge on two major projects to alleviate the transboundary flow of sewage. He said the rest of the money will be spent on projects over five years.

The U.S. has committed $330 million on sewage construction projects that include doubling sewage capacity treatment to 50 million gallons a day from Tijuana at the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant; and Biden recently asked Congress for an additional $310 million to fix and enhance the plant.

He said officials hope to select a contractor by the end of the year.

Liden has spent nearly two decades at the EPA developing U.S. and Mexico jointly financed wastewater, drinking water and stormwater projects in the southwest border region.

While he complimented Mexico, he noted that it doesn’t matter how much money the U.S. spends on its side of the border unless Mexico fixes its “broken infrastructure.”

Coronado News investigation

The Coronado News earlier this year did a five-part investigative series on the public health crisis of human waste flowing from Tijuana and onto the shorelines of Imperial Beach and Coronado, regularly shuttering beach access.

The sewage also has sickened locals, U.S. Border Patrol agents and Navy SEALs and has befuddled prior U.S. and Mexican administrations whose leaders have failed to keep their promises to stop the transboundary flow of sewage into southern San Diego County, The Coronado News found.

The newspaper also 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 cannot handle the overflow of waste coming from a city where large pockets of homes have no sewage pipes and some homes share a water hose for drinking water.

Community advocacy

Since that series concluded in late March:

FILE: A Stop the Sewage rally on Friday, Sept. 1. Staff photo by Sofie Fransen.

Feds: Advocacy paid off

In early October, Newsom said he wasn’t issuing a state of emergency because it cannot accelerate federal work needed on a federal facility.

Giner at the recent public meeting said even if Biden doesn’t declare a federal state of emergency, the White House has taken notice of the community’s calls for action.

IBWC Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner.

She and Martha Guzman, an EPA regional administrator, pointed to the additional $310 million Biden has sought from Congress as evidence their work has paid off.

“Your advocacy has been extraordinary. It resulted in $310 million in the disaster supplemental bill.”

International Boundary and Water Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner.

“Your advocacy has been extraordinary. It resulted in $310 million in the disaster supplemental bill,” Giner said.

Yet, Giner said the current situation is “unacceptable” and she continues to work with Mexican officials to stop the sewage flow.

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Craig Harris has 31 years of daily journalism experience and is editor and associate publisher. He most recently worked at USA TODAY as a national investigative business reporter, and he’s a two-time Polk Award winner. You can catch him at the Coronado dog beach with his beagle, Daisy, who has her own Twitter account. He can be reached by email or at 602-509-3613.