Gov. Pete Wilson, declaring a “state of emergency” in San Diego because of rampant sewage flows from neighboring Tijuana, vowed Friday to help provide almost $900,000 in state funds to treat the waste in the United States during the next year and also called on federal authorities to kick in additional assistance.
“The raw sewage flowing across the border creates an extreme peril,” Wilson, a former San Diego mayor, said at a news conference in Imperial Beach.
Authorities say the flows--which have transformed the Tijuana River into a thick ribbon of raw sewage, daily carrying an estimated 12 million gallons a day of brackish wastes into wetlands on the U.S. side of the border--contribute to the contamination of beaches in south San Diego County and create stagnant pools that are fertile breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes.
The effluent, which also pollutes area farmland and private residences, creates a rank odor that often permeates the area.
Even the many illegal immigrants who daily traverse the area have taken to wrapping plastic bags around their feet while crossing waterways and pools in the Tijuana River estuary, hoping to protect themselves from the aguas negras-- literally, “black waters.”
The northward flow of Tijuana’s sewage--a problem that dates back decades but has worsened in recent years as Tijuana has grown rapidly into a city of more than 1 million residents--is considered one of the most intractable binational pollution problems along the almost-2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
It has been the topic of endless discussions in Washington and Mexico City, and has often emerged as a major irritant in U.S.-Mexico relations.
Although the state funds should help in the treatment of collected Tijuana sewage, area lawmakers and activists who have worked on the issue say that the real value of the emergency proclamation is that it demonstrates Wilson’s resolve to break what many view as formidable federal environmental barriers, related to the presence of sensitive wetlands in the Tijuana River National Estuarine Sanctuary.
The emergency declaration proclaims that “the magnitude of this disaster exceeds the capabilities of the services, personnel and facilities” of the county.
“I think having the governor of California behind us is a most important thing,” said Rosemary Nolan, a San Diego resident who serves as president of Citizens Revolting Against Pollution, an activist organization known by its scatological acronym, CRAP. “He’s a big gun.”
The immediate threat is composed of so-called “renegade” flows that escape from Tijuana neighborhoods where sewage treatment is inadequate or nearly non-existent. That effluent ends up in the Tijuana River, which flows into the U.S. just west of the San Ysidro border checkpoint.
Both U.S. and Mexican officials expect to have the broad problem largely under control by 1995, the projected opening date for a nearly $200-million border-area sewage-treatment plant, complete with an outfall pipe extending into the ocean. That plant is the result of years of negotiation and controversy.
Between now and 1995, however, raw sewage will probably continue to flow from Mexico into San Diego County, creating a need for an interim collection and treatment system for Tijuana River sewage.
Area lawmakers and activists expressed the hope that Wilson’s effort to dramatize the problem will stir federal regulators, who--in the eyes of San Diego-area officials--have been been slow to take corrective steps for a looming health emergency.
“If nothing else it gives the bureaucrats the incentive to get off the dime and let us take care of the problem,” said Brian Bilbray, a San Diego County supervisor who once mounted a bulldozer and attempted to block the sewage flows in a widely publicized expression of exasperation.
The declaration of emergency, Bilbray also noted, should allow suspension of some state environmental restrictions governing wetland tracts, thus helping efforts to divert sewage flows and destroy mosquito larvae.
Solving the problem, San Diego area officials say, has proved particularly difficult since much of the Tijuana River estuary--where the sewage ends up--is a federally protected wetlands habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, concerned that cleanup plans might actually harm species that inhabit the wetlands, has reacted cautiously to abatement schemes.
But Wilson, in a letter to Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, called on the Fish and Wildlife Service to assist San Diego-area authorities in diverting sewage flows, channeling the river and clearing riparian brush to allow for improved application of insecticides that kill mosquitoes.
“Our focus clearly must be on protecting the public’s health and safety,” Wilson said in his letter to Lujan. “The problem must be resolved now.”
The International Boundary and Water Commission, a U.S.-Mexico body that has jurisdiction over a range of border matters, has agreed to intercept the polluted river water and divert it into San Diego’s municipal sewer system.
However, city officials are unwilling to pick up the estimated annual $860,000 tab for treating sewage from Tijuana.
On Friday, Wilson said he will direct the State Water Resources Control Board to provide the money needed for the first year of treatment of Tijuana sewage in San Diego. The wastes are expected to be funneled into the San Diego sewer system by May, upon completion of construction of an interception system in Tijuana.
Wilson, however, in a letter to U.S. Secretary of States James Baker, requested that the boundary commission provide the annual fee to San Diego in coming years. The governor also called on Baker to direct the commission to undertake repairs on existing Tijuana sewage pipelines, fixing breaks that have exacerbated the sewage flow into San Diego.
Area representatives voiced the hope that Wilson’s clout in Washington will work to San Diego’s advantage.
Lee Grissom, president of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, said Friday that Wilson’s declaration of emergency was an “excellent example” of how San Diego stands to benefit from state government under the leadership of a former mayor.
“This problem occurred during Deukmejian’s term in office,” Grissom said of former Gov. George Deukmejian. “This problem occurred during Brown’s term in office, he said, referring to Jerry Brown. But they didn’t understand the situation, because they weren’t San Diegans.
“It is the first time that someone sitting in the corner office (of the Capitol) understands the implications it has for San Diego and is implementing the tools to resolve it,” Grissom said.
Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Rancho San Diego), who has been urging the Wilson administration for weeks to make its emergency declaration, agreed.
“He understood the history and the background. It wasn’t something we had to introduce him to,” Peace said. “Interesting enough, he understood it better than some of the people who were trying to give him advice. . . .”
Peace said such a declaration of emergency for anything related to the border problem “has never been done before, and it was a very tough fight in that the governor took the action this time with split advice within his administration. I can’t praise him enough. It was very significant.”