February 25, 2005

Unraveling Waters

By Katia Lopez-Hodoyan

Part Two of two

The mere amount is gruesome and unsettling. An average of 50 million gallons of sewage tainted water is poured into San Diego Coastal beaches every day; a quantity that for decades has turned enticing and beautiful beaches into a deceiving health hazard for thousands of beach goers. The problem is not a new one. It is the end result of the Tijuana River Estuary treatment plant that is not designed to process over 25 million gallons of sewage each day from Tijuana. Nonetheless, the amount of sewage transferred from Tijuana into the U.S plant often exceeds this sum. The outcome of the latter results in the expulsion of untreated surplus sewage into San Diego Coastal waters. When this occurs, beach closures are inevitable, as they have been for over 30 years.

IB pier overlooking the deserted ocean.

The problem is multifaceted, as are the proposed solutions. Among them is a secondary sewage treatment plant called Bajagua which has recently been labeled the “preferred plan” by the Coronado City Council and the International Boundary Water Commission. In addition to being a secondary wastewater treatment plant, Bajagua is designed to treat and reclaim treated sewage water in Tijuana where the plant is to be constructed. The facility would be able to process between 50 and 75 million gallons of waste every day, thus surpassing Tijuana’s River Estuary maximum capacity of 25 million gallons. Nonetheless, one of the most attractive elements of this project is that it can meet 56 percent of Tijuana’s current water demand by recycling treated water and reinserting it back into the city for irrigation purposes. If approved the plant will also be designed for future growth. In 20 years it will have enough capacity to supply nearly 100 percent of Tijuana’s water demand with reclaimed water, according to the project plan. Bajagua which is a public-private company would absorb the payment for construction of the facility. Nonetheless, over several years, both the U.S and Mexican government would reimburse the $250 million spent for the construction of the plant. Once the treatment facility begins to operate, the IBWC would pay Bajagua through a fee for service contract.

“As of now, the Bajagua project is the preferred plan,” says Sally Spener from the IBWC headquarters in El Paso, Texas. “The plant would fulfill all environmental regulations on both sides of the border.”

Local Congressman Bob Filner who drafted the Bajagua federal proposal, believes that the construction of this treatment plant would curtail and eventually eliminate the sewage spills that end up in Imperial Beach and Coronado waters. If negotiations among Mexico, U.S and the IBWC go through, Bajagua could be constructed in Tijuana in roughly 16 months after a bi-national accord is signed.

However, there is local opposition to the construction of the plant. Wildcoast executive director Serge Dedina describes the wastewater treatment facility as placing a band-aid on a broken leg. According to this conservation organization, the problem goes far beyond the treatment of sewage, but rather it extends its tentacles into the infrastructure and quality of life in the neighboring city of Tijuana. In order to improve the sewage treatment at the ‘colonia’ level, one needs to build local, smaller treatment plants around disconnected areas so that children don’t play near the waste before it’s transported, according to Dedina. The implementation of relatively small treatment plants called ‘Eco-Parque’ have been proposed by environmental groups in the past. They have not been taken into consideration though.

“The solution entails more than just the construction of more sewer plants,” says Dedina. “We have to rethink the handling of this issue by going to the root of the problem. These companies are thinking of sewage plants that would work in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles, but they have no experience working or dealing with the infrastructure of developing countries. They see it as sewer treatment plants, we see it as a colossal health issue.”

Authorities have been hesitant to implement several small-scale sewage facilities because it has no control over “unhooked” shelters that are built unregulated. Furthermore, the increasingly rapid growth of Tijuana has worked against the current treatment plant located in San Ysidro and operated by the IBWC. The $500 million facility recently settled a lawsuit for not complying with state environmental standards, specifically not treating sewage to the secondary level. The IBWC agreed to construct and operate a plant with this advanced treatment in the year 2008.

Another casual proposal for this issue is the reconstruction of Tijuana’s river channel which runs through the center of the city. According to Dedina, one of the fundamental problems arises with the lack of open space in Tijuana. If the channel was reconstructed into a park space, it could receive irrigation from all the surplus water that runs through it. An irrigation canal could be built into the green belt so that it could be constantly moist with reclaimed water.

‘The amount of money that will be used for the construction of Bajagua could be used to improve the ‘colonias’ and to change the infrastructure of the city,” says Dedina.” It makes no sense to keep on building multi-million dollar facilities without looking at the root of the problem.”

Until construction and implementation of a proper sewage plant take place, the Tijuana/San Diego region will face sewage spills into its coastal waters until the year 2008 when the IBWC improves its facilities. The only other virtual scapegoat at the moment is the culmination and operation of the Bajagua project before that year. Nonetheless, as of yet it has not been fully approved. In the meantime, authorities will have to enforce local measures so that residents, tourists and beach goers don’t swim or fish in the contaminated ocean. According to Dedina, recommendations at a local level should include placing more yellow warning signs on the beach so that surfers and swimmers don’t miss the alerts. Also, because Imperial Beach has a highly diverse population, the city should include contamination postings in English, Spanish and Tagalog along the pier where fishing takes place. Currently there are none.

Ignorance is one of the major reasons people forgo the warning signs and go into the water. It is important for people to acknowledge the severe health risks that can result from the swallowing of water plagued with bacteria. Ecoli, hepatitis, rashes and severe intoxication are only a few side effects triggered by sewage water. Until the completion of a proper sewage plant facility is underway, one will have to see beyond the simple yellow warnings and understand what these aluminum postings represent.

The IBWC invites the public to submit their suggestions on improving this environmental issue by mailing their concerns to USIBWC 4117 N. Mesa, Suite C-100. El Paso, TX 79902 . The deadline is February 28, 2005.

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