Feds Face Lawsuit Over Cross-Border Sewage Flows Into San Diego
Polluted water flows out of Goat Canyon into the Tijuana River Valley near the U.S.– Mexico border on March 2, 2017. (OFFICE OF CITY COUNCILMEMBER DAVID ALVAREZ)
The San Diego County city of Imperial Beach and the Port of San Diego are pushing forward with plans to sue the federal government over cross-border sewage flows.
The lawsuit comes after federal officials turned back a request by San Diego-area politicians and regulators to take steps to stop the cross-border sewage flows. The region has endured poor water quality linked to renegade sewage flows for decades.
The International Boundary and Water Commission was asked to take steps to alleviate the persistent sewage flooding.
Those requests included building a basin system that could catch and control flows of raw sewage, fortifying systems that catch and divert flows coming through certain canyons, and doing more frequent water quality testing at significantly more locations.
The IBWC declined an opportunity to comment on the legal action, deferring to the Justice Department, which handles any litigation involving the agency.
In a letter to the state water resources board, Justice Department officials said the IBWC is an agency that is working toward solutions, but the DOJ said treaty limits and a lack of funding keep the IBWC from acting unilaterally and implementing solutions.
The Justice Department said the federal agency is working with Mexican counterparts to study solutions, but the IBWC did not commit to adopting any of the suggestions coming from the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina said he is disappointed.
“But it is expected, given the history of mismanagement and dysfunctionality and incompetence of the IBWC,” he said.
Dedina spearheaded the move to sue the federal government and the contractor that runs the International Wastewater Treatment plant near the border. Sluggish response to a massive cross-border sewage spill last February created momentum that led to the lawsuit.
“The EPA estimates that there are more than 100 sources of toxic waste and sewage being discharged into the river every day,” Dedina said. “In addition, to up to 25 million gallons of treated and untreated sewage every day. So the river is essentially a river of sewage. Even during dry weather flows. So that’s really the problem that we face all the time.”
Dedina expressed hope about a movement toward a solution after a December meeting with IBWC officials, but he was also cautious.
“My constituents and I are at a loss. This problem is real, it is getting worse and we do not understand why the government’s tactic appears to be avoidance,” Dedina wrote to the IBWC.
Imperial Beach was the first community to work toward the federal lawsuit. Others have since joined the effort, including the city of San Diego, the county of San Diego, Chula Vista and the Port of San Diego.
Port Commissioner Dan Malcolm took part in a number of meetings last year that included federal officials and focused on the cross-border pollution problem.
“It just seemed to me like it’s the same as what it always has been. Which is a bunch of talk, and let’s study the issue and you know, let’s keep studying it,” Malcolm said.
Federal officials promised much better communication with their Mexican counterparts after the public outrage over last winter’s massive weeks-long spills.
The Department of Justice letter cites areas where the effort is being focused, and that includes a discussion with Mexican officials and a search for specific solutions.
“We’ve worked throughout the years to try and solve the problem, but it's just gotten to the point now where it seems like the problem is getting worse and not better,” Malcolm said.
The port commissioner said millions of gallons of sewage are hitting local beaches and the time for talk is over.
“We have to act. We have no other choice at this point but to move forward with litigation,” Malcolm said.