EPA Announces Short-Term Projects to Plug Border Sewage Flow

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced two short-term projects in San Diego, California to plug the flow of sewage and contaminants which fouls the Pacific Ocean in the United States after bypassing crumbling wastewater infrastructure on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. (Courthouse News Service photo/Bianca Bruno)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Emphasizing the “unprecedented” bipartisan cooperation between local and state governments, Border Patrol and the International Boundary & Water Commission, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced short-term projects Wednesday to plug the international sewage flow across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The two projects — which will cost $25 million and are funded by the EPA’s Border Water Infrastructure Program — will control sewage and wastewater, sediment and trash that flows from the Tijuana River across the U.S.-Mexico border into San Diego, Wheeler said during a press conference Wednesday at the U.S. Coast Guard station in San Diego. 

They are separate from the $300 million earmarked in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement for wastewater infrastructure projects along the U.S.-Mexico border.

San Diego leaders are lobbying for most of the USMCA funds to be spent to stop the sewage flow from Tijuana, something Wheeler acknowledged Wednesday, saying “most of it will come here.”

“We are working with Mexico and want to make sure we are solving the problems on both sides, not just this side,” Wheeler said, noting the funds could be “one time only” and the EPA is prioritizing projects which will “use the money to solve the problem for the next generation.”

In the short term, the EPA is entering into a contract with the IBWC to divert 10 million gallons of additional wastewater a day for treatment, Wheeler said. The EPA is paying to fund the construction and design of the diversion.

It is a project Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina said will have an immediate impact on beach closures in his city due to contamination. As mayor of the southernmost coastal city in California, Dedina has been calling for the overhaul of international wastewater treatment for years and joined other cities and the state in suing to force compliance with the Clean Water Act.

“Our residents in Imperial Beach, we faced — like everyone else around the world — a pandemic, we faced economic devastation,” Dedina said.

“But unlike everyone else in the world we also faced a sewage apocalypse, where 160 days this year our beach has been closed. When our residents needed the beach the most, they didn’t have it,” he added.

Dedina said ongoing sewage infrastructure improvement projects have already reduced the international sewage flow “to zero for the first time this year.” The Poniente Collector project was completed within the past month using $3.9 million in EPA funding to keep 4.5 million gallons of sewage a day from entering the Tijuana River, Wheeler said Wednesday.

Reducing the flow by another 10 million gallons that will be diverted to the wastewater treatment plant “will have a huge impact on keeping our beaches clean,” Dedina said.

But keeping the pressure on Mexico to improve its infrastructure across the border “is really going to be the key to this issue” he added.

“We’ve got to push Mexico to fix its sewer system, they’ve got to look at water reuse seriously to make sure there’s zero flow from Tijuana going anywhere near the ocean,” Dedina said.

A second project will focus on better controlling trash and sediment which flows through an area called Smuggler’s Gulch – just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The EPA will work with the city of San Diego to come up with a permanent solution to control the rubbish which would otherwise flow into the Pacific Ocean. The project also aims to reduce flooding risk to the nearby community.

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