Twenty-six-hundred miles exist between the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant (SBIWTP) in San Ysidro and Washington, D.C.
In the continental United States, you can’t get much farther from the nation’s capitol.
In the decade since I joined Congress, I’ve made it a priority to close that distance and get the federal government to pay attention to the cross-border sewage that has fouled Coronado and South Bay beaches for too long, creating what I’ve described as one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in the Western Hemisphere.
If this were taking place closer to Washington, I believe we’d see a much swifter response. But getting people outside of the San Diego region to care about it has been tough.”-U.S. Rep. Scott Peters
If this were taking place closer to Washington, I believe we’d see a much swifter response. But getting people outside of the San Diego region to care about it has been tough.
More sewage funding an “uphill battle”
That’s why, last month, I was grateful to see President Biden’s request to Congress for $310 million to fix the ailing treatment plant. I led a request from San Diego’s congressional delegation, along with Sen. Alex Padilla and the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for this money and worked hard to get the administration to understand why it’s so urgently needed.
But, as I’ve pointed out, this is not a “mission accomplished” moment — getting the funding approved by both chambers of Congress, especially the Republican-controlled House, will be an uphill battle.
We need to keep the momentum going. This problem has been decades in the making; residents of the South Bay and Coronado should not have to wait decades more for solutions.
SEAL training delayed from polluted water
As the Coronado News has reported, sewage-infested waters have sickened surfers and swimmers. Last month, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported on residents sickened by the fumes. They don’t just smell bad; they are toxic and threaten neighborhoods with long-term health impacts.
The tourists who flock to Coronado beaches will stop coming if they can’t safely go into the ocean and the local economy will suffer. Coronado is also home to the Naval Amphibious Base whose Navy SEALs train in these waters. That training is delayed when the water is too polluted for safe use.
Repairing the plant and doubling its capacity will cost roughly $650 million, almost twice as much as preliminary estimates. The cost nearly doubled when a recent assessment of the plant revealed just how badly it had deteriorated due to poor maintenance and overwhelmed capacity.
We already have $350 million appropriated — $300 million secured through the United States Mexico Canada Trade Agreement and another $50 million pulled together from other federal sources. Some of this money has already been used for a preliminary engineering analysis. And, the International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC), which owns and operates the SBIWTP, has developed a spending strategy and is on target to comply with water quality standards.
Boosting construction funding
I am working to ensure we have the votes in Congress to get the additional $310 million — I’ve also proposed legislative amendments to boost annual construction funding for the IBWC to $100 million and allow the transfer of additional funds from other federal and non-federal entities to the plant.
Not getting this money means more beach closures, compromised public health and, ultimately, a more expensive tab for SBIWTP repairs in the future.
Mayors Richard Bailey and Paloma Aguirre have been tremendous partners — Mayor Bailey has reached out to Republicans across the country to drive home the importance of securing the additional funding. Mayor Aguirre has been a fierce advocate for Imperial Beach.
Lawmakers, understandably, don’t want to spend money without accountability. Last month, I led a letter signed by several members of Congress asking the Department of State for a full account of how SBIWTP fell into such a severe state of disrepair. It can’t happen again.
Mexico must do its part
Mexico must also do its part. Under a new treaty with the U.S. signed last year, the Mexican government promised to spend $144 million over the next five years to reduce wastewater flows into the U.S. This includes replacing the defunct San Antonio de los Buenos wastewater treatment plant. And construction has already begun on pipeline and pump station repairs that will dramatically decrease wastewater spills into the Tijuana River.
Currently Mexico pays the U.S. $2 million per year to support treatment operations. The new treaty that binds us to expanding the plant requires them to pay more.
The bottom line is that we’re making progress — not as quickly as any of us want —but I’m committed to getting it done. We have the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Biden Administration. Now, we need all of Congress to prioritize public health over politics.
Peters serves California’s 50th congressional district, which includes Coronado. He was first elected in 2012. He earned his undergraduate degree from Duke University (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) and worked as an economist for the United States Environmental Protection Agency before attending New York University School of Law. He and his wife of 33 years reside in La Jolla, where they raised their son and daughter.