South Bay elected officials are filing a lawsuit Friday to force the federal government to plug up the millions of gallons of sewage and polluted water that routinely stream over the border from Tijuana into the San Diego region.
The cities of Imperial Beach and Chula Vista, as well as the Port of San Diego are suing the U.S. side of the International Boundary and Water Commission, or IBWC, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The move comes amid rising tensions in recent months between local authorities and the IBWC — which oversees water treaties with Mexico and provides funding for infrastructure projects along the border.
"We gave them a good faith effort to do the right thing, and they choose to do what they've always done, which is nothing and deny the problem," said Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, who spearheaded efforts to address the issue after a massive spill in 2017 fouled beaches as far north as Coronado.
The IBWC declined comment, citing a policy of not discussing ongoing litigation.
In anticipation of the lawsuit, the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice responded in writing on Thursday to regional officials, saying it had little authority over the funding needed to carry out projects that could help divert the cross-border pollution.
"U.S. IBWC funding requests must go through the State Department … to be considered for inclusion in the President's annual budget, and ultimately are subject to an appropriation by Congress and apportionment. … There are, of course, many competing demands on the executive branch's annual budget."
The lawsuit alleges that the agency hasn't taken sufficient steps to control sewage, industrial waste, pesticides and massive amounts of trash that regularly flow through the Tijuana River and into the Pacific Ocean.
As a result, sections of the Imperial Beach shoreline were closed for more than 160 days in both 2017 and 2016, as well as for more than 200 days in 2015, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs filed an intent to sue the IBWC in September, triggering a 60-day waiting period to file litigation in order to give the federal agency time to respond to local concerns.
A month later, the county and city of San Diego also signed on to the legal strategy, but neither party has followed through and joined the lawsuit yet. Officials did not immediately respond to inquiries about their decision to sit out the court battle.
In December, IBWC held a meeting with local officials to discuss the issue. The San Diego County Regional Water Quality Control Board and others called for building a number of projects to address the water pollution, including infrastructure to divert flows from the Tijuana River to the nearby International Wastewater Treatment Plant located west of San Ysidro.
The regional water board also has called for improving wastewater capture in the canyons west of the Tijuana River, where border patrol officers have increasingly complained of having to track down illegal crossers in polluted mud and water.
"I was in the meeting with IBWC, and really what it came down to is they wanted to study the problem further and get a working group together," said Port Commissioner Dan Malcolm. "That's not a reasonable response. We have a duty to the public as environmental stewards."
The Department of Justice letter noted that several of the projects called for by the plaintiffs were undergoing feasibility studies to — along with technical analysis — identify funding sources in both the U.S. and Mexico.
"Their response is that the status quo will eventually solve these things, even if it would take 20 years," said Dave Gibson, executive officer of the regional water board.
Before the two countries spent billions of dollars decades ago to construct treatment plants on both sides of the border, around 10 million gallons of raw sewage a day flowed down the Tijuana River and into San Diego County.
The local Border Patrol union has said it's considering filing its own lawsuit, claiming that its members have come down with respiratory problems and other illnesses because of the pollution.