In early 2021, it looked like the federal government could take tackling the Tijuana River crisis seriously by spending real money in Mexico, which is the source of the problem.
The excitement spilled over to the border.
The US Environmental Protection Agency had some $ 300 million available after the US-Mexico-Canada deal dedicated funds to the transboundary pollution saga. Margarita Diaz, an environmental activist with Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambienta in Tijuana, hoped that much of the money could go to repairing long-damaged pipes, pumps and treatment plants in Mexico.
“When I heard that the money was for the Tijuana River watershed, I thought, ‘Finally, it’s happening! Something good is happening, ”Diaz said. “So what happened?” Nothing.”
The EPA announced in November that it would spend most of the money to build a second treatment plant in the South Bay of San Diego, next to another plant that cleans 25 million gallons of water daily. of the Tijuana River since the late 1990s.
The river actually begins on the American side and then winds through the city of Tijuana where it picks up sewage from the city’s damaged infrastructure and homes that do not have sewage hookups. The river then crosses a series of canyons to the US side of the border in the Tijuana River Basin and finally into the Pacific Ocean. The South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant can clean some of the water, but it does not have the capacity to clean it all.
“I just wish people understood that it would be better for us to help Mexico more,” said Alexander Yakutis, a member of a citizens’ group that informs the International Boundary Waters Commission, a federal agency that manages the processing plant on the American side. “If we can solve the whole problem by not spending a dime in the United States and half the amount in Mexico, why don’t we? “
Yakutis says not only are US dollars going further into Mexico, where project materials, labor and permits are generally cheaper, but this is also where the root cause of the cross-border sewer problem is.
“They are tackling the problem at the end of the pipeline,” said Diaz, the Mexican activist.
Meanwhile, another serious source of pollution for the resort towns of Tijuana and California remains unresolved: a treatment plant six miles south of the border called San Antonio de los Buenos. The plant broke down over a dozen years ago and is dumping about 1.8 million gallons of raw Tijuana sewage per day into the Pacific Ocean. Northern ocean currents in summer carry this wastewater straight past Imperial Beach.
The state of Baja California has been working on plans to rebuild this factory since at least 2018, but the money is not there.
The problem, say US officials, is primarily political.
“We have by no means given up on tackling this problem at the source,” David Smith, who manages permits and stormwater at the EPA’s Region 9 branch, told Voice of San Diego. “But things remain uncertain about the ability and willingness of the Mexican government to invest in these large-scale projects.”
An EPA report released in November shows that the agency assumed that about 93 percent of its $ 300 million would be spent on the US side. The rest could go to Mexico as long as the government provided some kind of dollar-for-dollar connection.
This is how projects generally take place on the US-Mexico border. The United States invests some of the funding but negotiates a cost-sharing agreement with the Mexican government.
There is a history of corruption in Mexico to get around, of politicians and entrepreneurs exchanging money or favors, which is especially common in the water industry. Both countries need to navigate to ensure that taxpayer investments are spent legally.
In other words, Doug Liden, EPA Region 9 border water expert, told the November citizens’ forum that it was important for the Mexican government to invest money in these projects. border infrastructure, because it “ensures that they have some skin in the game”.
There is money available to spend in Tijuana, around $ 46 million combined from what’s left of the $ 300 million and another U.S. fund called the Border Water Infrastructure Program. This is probably enough to limit the extensive damage in San Antonio de los Buenos and to fix some of the other faulty pipes and pumps scattered around the city.
The North American Development Bank, established by treaty and funded equally by the United States and Mexico, is extremely interested in a loan to the Mexican state of Baja California to rebuild San Antonio de lo Buenos, said bank spokesperson Jesse Hereford. But the Baja state legislature (called the Mexico State Congress) must approve a sum of money for the project before the bank can offer financing.
Yet just over a month ago, Baja’s new governor replaced the top officials who worked in San Antonio de los Buenos under the previous governor, Jaime Bonilla. This is a usual decision in Mexico, but it can disrupt the progress the bank is making with the official.
“It’s a bit (delayed) that,” said Fernando Barrera, associate director of financial services at the bank, adding that such changes have a big impact on the lending process. “It’s politically motivated and out of our control.”
Francisco Bernal, the new secretary overseeing Baja’s wastewater treatment agencies, had no details on Thursday on which water projects the agency would tackle first. He said the agency “is looking at several options.”
The previous Baja administration made significant investments to prevent sewage from flowing into the United States. The Bonilla Wastewater Agency repaired an old pumping system that was a major source of cross-border discharge and cleaned up Tijuana’s concrete canal system that guides water to the international wastewater treatment plant . That pump was nonetheless shut down for repairs as late as Monday, spilling more than 5 million gallons of sewage in the United States, according to the International Boundary Waters Commission.
However, activists stress that these fixes mainly concern infrastructure right at the border.
“It was good, but it’s at the end of the pipeline,” Diaz said. “Mexico is responding so they don’t get angry on the other side.”
Even with the improvements, wastewater from Mexico prevented from overflowing the land border is diverted to San Antonio de los Buenos, which continues to pollute the ocean for both countries.
Governor Marina Avila, the new governor of Baja, has promised to resolve binational coastal pollution. She was standing outside the sewage river from San Antonio de los Buenos as the backdrop for one of her campaign events earlier in the year.
Yet, for now, major fixes to Tijuana’s infrastructure are pending. Liden of the EPA said that allowing polluted water from the Tijuana River to drain and treating it on the U.S. side is not a misuse of the money. This is the natural route of the river flowing north, which means that the water arrives at the US treatment plant by gravity, instead of diverting the river and pumping the water to higher elevations. to the factory in San Antonio de los Buenos, for example. Some members of the Mexican public still feel left behind.
“There is a lack of accountability in the situation we are experiencing on the Mexican side of the border,” Diaz said. “It affects the most vulnerable populations here because there is no other public space than the beaches which they enjoy for free.”