SD County Declares TJ River Valley Pollution a Public Health Crisis


By Sandra G. Leon

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution today that declares the pollution and sewage entering the US from the Tijuana River Valley to be a public health crisis for the South County region.

The resolution, offered by newly-elected Supervisor Nora Vargas, calls attention to the health concerns related to toxic sewage and pollution that spills over the border and contaminates San Diego beaches as far north as La Jolla.

“In declaring pollution at the Tijuana River Valley as a public health crisis, we are acknowledging that the diverse sources of contamination have a direct correlation to health outcomes in our South County and coastal communities,” the resolution reads.

Environmental issues related to sewage from Mexico flowing across the border into the Tijuana River Valley in San Diego have become worse over the past 30 years as Tijuana has grown exponentially and outpaced the development of its sewage infrastructure. In rainy months, sewage overflows into the US and through the TRV to the San Diego coast, causing beach closures from Imperial Beach to Coronado.

The Tijuana River in Mexico usually flows less than 30 million gallons a day and is diverted to a sewage treatment plant in Mexico under a water quality treaty between the United States and Mexico that has led to improved water quality along San Diego beaches during the summer.

But during the winter, or after rainstorms, the Tijuana River treatment plant is shut down and forces millions of gallons of stormwater runoff into enter the United States. The Tijuana River overflows into the US through the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge and Tijuana Estuary near Imperial Beach before reaching the Pacific Ocean just over a mile north of the International Border.

A report commissioned by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in 2020 found that the Tijuana River runoff contained 710 times more arsenic, five times more lead, seven times more uranium, and 1,135 times more hexavalent chromium than local tap water. CBP conducted the study after many of its Border Patrol agents reported headaches, rashes, infections, and breathing problems from being near the sewage during their shifts. In a six-month period from June to December 2017, 83 Border Patrol agents reported sewage-related illnesses.

“As a public health agency for the region, the County, along with federal, state, and other local agencies, has a responsibility to address the issue head-on in order to improve the overall health of residents in our binational region.”

The revised international trade agreement between the US, Mexico, and Canada that replaces NAFTA included $300 million in funding to help address raw sewage spilling into the Tijuana River Valley from Mexico, in addition to $25 million for the EPA’s Border Water Infrastructure Program included in this year’s federal budget passed by Congress.

The US Mexico Canada Agreement, called USMCA, signed by President Trump on January 29, 2020, addressed environmental problems like the Mexican sewage flow across the border as part of the international trade agreement.

The new County resolution connects pollution and health impacts that adversely affect public health for South County residents.

“This action is long overdue in an area that is faced with poor air quality, sewage leaks, waste from industrial plants, the litter of waste-tires that can become breeding sources for disease-carrying mosquitoes, plastic pollution, sediment, and trash,” said the resolution. “This direct environmental impact coupled with the long-lasting health impact undermines our region’s public health.”

The resolution passed unanimously with all five Supervisors voting in favor, including Vargas, Chairman Nathan Fletcher, Jim Desmond, Joel Anderson, and Terra Lawson-Remer.

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