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EPA selects Tijuana sewage pollution projects for environmental review

The comprehensive infrastructure solution includes a suite of projects to improve international sewage pollution, which flows from the Tijuana River in Mexico to the U.S.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Plugging the international sewage pollution problem currently clogging waterways at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego won’t be cheap.

It will cost more than double the $300 million allocated to address the problem in the 2020 U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Environmental Protection Agency officials announced Monday they had selected a suite of projects dubbed the comprehensive infrastructure solution to mitigate transboundary flows of sewage and trash, which pollute the Tijuana River and its tributaries that flow from Mexico into San Diego before emptying in the Pacific Ocean.

The infrastructure plan calls for expanding the existing South Bay International Treatment Plant owned and operated by the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission.

The treatment plant — which is situated on the U.S. side of the international border — will more than double its current 25-million-gallon wastewater treatment capacity by 35 million gallons a day.

Also included in the plan is a new 5-million-gallon San Antonio de los Buenos treatment plant in Mexico, installing Tijuana River trash booms, diverting up to 60 million gallons a day of Tijuana River water at a new facility and sending treated waters back to Mexico for reuse, among other projects.

The infrastructure plan’s $627 million price tag — by far the costliest of a dozen plans considered by the EPA over the past year — would fund projects expected to reduce transboundary flow days by 76%.

Days of impaired water quality at Imperial Beach — California’s southernmost beach, which is heavily impacted by the pollution crisis and was closed 160 days in 2020 — is expected to be reduced by 95%.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, an outspoken advocate who has called for years for a solution to the sewage problem, said in a statement the plan will help resolve the decades-long crisis.

“This far-reaching plan will involve significant sewage infrastructure fixes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border so that residents of Imperial Beach, Coronado, south San Diego County and Tijuana have access to clean beaches year-round,” Dedina said.

Annual operations and management costs related to the infrastructure plan are estimated to be $26 million.

Now the projects have been selected, the EPA will begin conducting environmental review in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

But rather than analyze the environmental impacts of all the projects simultaneously, EPA officials said during a virtual meeting Monday it was more efficient to divide the environmental review process into two tiers, as projects with a significantly less environmental impact could be completed sooner.

The first environmental review will evaluate the International Treatment Plant expansion project — the largest and most impactful infrastructure improvement for treating contaminated wastewater before it flows into the Pacific Ocean through the South Bay Ocean Outfall.

The expansion project would treat all sewage from central Tijuana and canyons until 2050. Sewage that pools in canyons and has been documented as sickening agents with Customs and Border Protection would be significantly reduced.

The second environmental review will evaluate projects related to U.S.-side Tijuana River diversion, which EPA engineer Doug Eberhardt said will take longer to analyze due to potential impacts on riparian habitat in the Tijuana Estuary, where certain species are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

EPA officials said they expected most if not all the $300 million in USMCA funding to spent on infrastructure projects on the U.S.-side of the border.

Dave Smith of the EPA said additional funding through the Border Water Infrastructure Program and state of California was expected to help cover costs of implementing the plan.

He said the state legislature is currently considering a $20 million appropriations bill to fund projects in the Tijuana River Valley, which could be used to quickly build trash booms which collect trash and sediment which flows through the Tijuana River during the rainy season.

Representative Juan Vargas — a Democrat whose district includes Imperial Beach — said in a statement he would support future budget requests to fully fund the EPA’s infrastructure plan to address the impacts of transboundary wastewater flows.

“These impacts have created an environmental health crisis, closing beaches and affecting residents and wildlife in San Diego’s border region. I stand ready to support future budget requests to help reverse those impacts and make this project a reality,” Vargas said.  

Several attendees of the webinar questioned why EPA officials proposed sending Mexican wastewater treated in the U.S. back to Mexico for reuse.

Smith noted California’s state water recycling laws contain stringent provisions, including wastewater pretreatment requirements and controls on recycling wastewater from the commercial and agriculture industry.

“At this point there is no full-scale pre-treatment programs in place in Tijuana,” Smith said.

“We can’t ensure the water is free of contaminants that would be of concern if recycled in the U.S. — that’s why we’re focusing on the potential for water recycling in Mexico," he added. "They would share substantially in paying for the project.”

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