U.S. Plant to Begin Treating Tijuana Sewage


Rattling up a crude road in his aging pickup, horse rancher David Gomez goes downright gushy at the sight before him.

“It’s like seeing a castle,” Gomez declares.

It is not a castle. It is a sewage treatment plant. But for Gomez and thousands of other long-suffering denizens of the Tijuana River Valley and Imperial Beach just north of the Mexican border, it just might be salvation.

The plant, which has raised the ire of some environmentalists, will treat 25 million gallons of raw sewage from Tijuana daily when it fully cranks up in coming weeks with the completion of a giant ocean outlet. Many see the system as a solution to the region’s most stubborn cross-border conundrum: raw sewage that overwhelms Tijuana’s rickety system and flows north into the United States through the Tijuana River or down canyons across the international divide.


Financed by U.S. federal dollars with some Mexican help, it is the first plant situated in the United States to treat sewage that comes exclusively from south of the border. It confronts a long-running problem that grew chronic as Tijuana’s population exploded in the past 20 years. The plant, located 300 feet inside the United States, will be run by U.S. officials of the joint International Boundary and Water Commission and coincide with a flurry of planned improvements to Tijuana’s overtaxed sewer network.

The treatment center and ocean outlet--combined cost so far, $400 million--are hailed by federal officials from the two countries as a triumph of international cooperation and a model for border zones elsewhere.

But the biggest changes are expected in the communities just north of Tijuana, where the runaway sewage is so basic a fact of life that the Imperial Beach Chamber of Commerce is as likely to field inquiries about beach contamination as about hotel rooms. Decades of spills have befouled postcard-pretty wetlands, cast a broad stench over subdivisions, cropland and horse farms and spawned a political movement that came to include suburban families, farmers and congressmen.

In working-class Imperial Beach, where 164 days of closed beaches this year shooed away tourists and surfers and afflicted waterfront businesses, leaders now dream of a civic flowering in the post-sewage era. No more barbs from out-of-town colleagues. No longer will feel-good events, such as the signature sandcastle contest, be hostage to what might wash up on the beach. Many predict a rush on long undervalued seaside property.

“There’s no single factor,” said former Mayor Michael Bixler, “that has held our city back over the years as this has.”

Still, more conflict probably awaits.

Environmental groups oppose discharging through the ocean outfall, a giant undersea pipe built by San Diego and extending 3.5 miles offshore, until the effluent is treated to a greater degree of cleanliness. The U.S. government plans additional processing, called secondary treatment, probably by building ponds next to the plant. But that method has sparked anger among residents on both sides of the border that they will be punished anew by foul odors and a proliferation of mosquitoes. Opinion is divided over an alternative proposal by a private firm to build the ponds in rural Tijuana instead and then sell the recycled water to Mexican industry.

Winter Storms Will Still Pose Problem

Even officials and nearby residents thrilled to see the plant open concede that the sewer improvements are powerless in the face of winter storms that in a flash can turn the Tijuana River into a roiling, waste-laden juggernaut.

“Every winter will be the same,” said Gomez, who summoned neighbors, later called Citizens Revolting Against Pollution, in 1990 after becoming fed up with the stink of human waste wafting across the otherwise bucolic valley. “This is a dry-weather solution.”

The problem it aims to solve is a function of topography, demographics and simple math.

Tijuana, ribbed with steep canyons feeding into the Tijuana River, sits about 90 feet uphill from southern San Diego County, where the waterway wends through wild scrub, farmland and a major estuary before emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Imperial Beach.

Tijuana’s galloping population growth--some estimates far exceed the official count of 1.3 million--has outpaced the government’s ability to build water and sanitation lines. About a third of the city lacks sewers. In outlying areas rapidly being settled, nearly two-thirds of residents rely on outhouses, according to a survey by researchers at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana.

Those factors, plus a fast-growing industry of foreign-owned maquiladora plants, add up to a huge strain on the city’s sewers, which suffer frequent clogs, breakdowns and spills.

The math: Tijuana generates about 40 million gallons of sewage a day, while its main treatment plant south of the city can handle only about 17 million gallons. Another 13 million is routinely piped north for treatment in a Point Loma plant that also handles San Diego waste.

The rest pours into the Mexican surf untreated--at times swept by tides north to Imperial Beach--or escapes along the way to end up in the Tijuana River. The river, lined in concrete until shortly after crossing the U.S. border, can become a putrid broth thinned only by fresh water leaking from Tijuana’s reservoir upriver. All told, anywhere from 1 million to 5 million gallons can make its way into the United States each day. The worst overflows onto the U.S. side have reached 30 million gallons.

North of the border, the spills have stirred resentment over the years among residents and moved local and state officials to declare states of emergency repeatedly. Rep. Brian Bilbray, an Imperial Beach Republican, etched his way into local lore years ago when, as mayor of that city, he commandeered a skip loader to dam the sewage flow. Residents on the U.S. side packed local meetings to express health concerns and politicians echoed their dismay. But small victories count: The cities of Imperial Beach and San Diego lent crews and specially equipped trucks to Tijuana this fall and succeeded in clearing clogs that had sent spills northward.

“It’s been a serious and continuing cross-border environmental issue and one of the most persistent we’ve seen in this area,” said Paul Ganster, who directs the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University. “It’s been so obvious and had such clear and obvious impacts on the U.S. side of the border.”

Other Steps Planned in Tijuana

The international plant is the grandest attempt to harness cross-border sewage since the 1930s, when the then-tiny burgs of Tijuana and San Ysidro shared a septic tank on the U.S. side. Mexico later built its own system to carry sewage to the ocean and, under the auspices of the boundary commission, opened its main plant about four miles south of the border in 1987.

The international plant was proposed in response to Mexican plans to build an additional facility in Tijuana that U.S. officials worried could send more sewage into the Tijuana River and inundate the saltwater estuary downstream with treated water. Mexico agreed to sign on to the international plant instead, pledging the amount it would have spent to build its own, about $17 million.

Interim remedies have been inadequate. Since 1991, San Diego has accepted up to 13 million gallons of sewage diverted daily from the river in Tijuana and piped to a San Diego plant in Point Loma. The arrangement, while reducing waste downstream, didn’t come close to filling the gap in Tijuana’s system. The boundary commission also has installed collectors at the bases of several canyons to capture so-called “renegade” sewage flows.

The 25 million gallons that the new plant will take from Tijuana’s central system will ease the load significantly, officials say. And an expansion of the Tijuana plant and construction of four small treatment facilities around the city during the next four years should accommodate all of the sewage, said Sara Leal, spokeswoman for the Baja California state agency that provides drinking water and sanitation services in Tijuana. Officials also plan to build a big backup sewer line to prevent spills and to upgrade the city’s main pump station.

“This is not only a San Diego project,” said Arturo Herrera Solis, commissioner for the Mexican section of the boundary and water commission. “By taking part in such projects, we’ve had to tend to our own infrastructure that the people of Tijuana demand. . . . We’re going to have fewer international problems.”

The new plant, beset by years of construction delays and legal challenges, is hardly assured a quiet start-up. It has repeatedly failed toxicity checks since opening on a limited, test basis early last year. Operators haven’t pinpointed the cause, but suspect the presence of high concentrations of detergents. Officials say the planned secondary pond treatment should clear the problem, though any additional processing is at least two years away.

Meantime, at least one environmental group, the Surfrider Foundation, is considering trying to block the ocean discharges on legal grounds. The organization worries that undersea terrain, currents and wind will push the effluent back ashore. Others are concerned about the levels of toxic metals from Tijuana’s factories.

Some activists say the long-term answer lies in removing dangerous chemicals at the factory sources and in shoring up sewer lines south of the border. San Diego officials have been helping counterparts in Tijuana carry out a new program for keeping metals and other industrial pollutants out of the sewers and for inspecting factories.

“You could invest a fraction of what we’ve spent on the treatment plant on infrastructure [in Tijuana] and you’d see a huge improvement on the beaches,” said Lori Saldana of the Sierra Club’s San Diego chapter.

Changes will be measured in various ways from the point where the Tijuana River crosses the border west of the San Ysidro port of entry to the sea six miles downstream. Equestrians hope no longer to fear for their horses while fording the waterway in the popular riding area. Biologists are curious to see how birds and plants in the vast Tijuana River National Estuarine Sanctuary respond after decades of sewage and runoff have subtly altered the mix of life there.

And in Imperial Beach, a city of 28,000, officials hope to snap out of what they call a self-esteem crisis. A $15-million spruce-up--including a new plaza and archway at the foot of the 35-year-old wooden pier--is underway along the beach, where property goes for about half the price of that in neighboring seaside communities.

Those who have mastered the complex lexicon of sewage contamination look forward to crafting a more flattering definition for their 1950s-style beach town. It has not been the city’s only border problem in recent years.

Locals have noticed the calming effects of a border crackdown that in four years has reduced to almost zero a tide of undocumented immigrants who disrupted residential life as they scurried through backyards and alleys on their way north.

“Getting rid of the illegal immigrant problem, now the sewage--the next 10 years in the life of Imperial Beach are going to be very different,” said Lorie Bragg, executive director of the Imperial Beach Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

“You’ll really see a change.”


Cross-Border Cleanup

An international waste water treatment plant will process up to 25 million gallons of sewage piped daily from Tijuana’s overtaxed system. Treated sewage will be discharged 3.5 miles out to sea through a tunnel, called an outfall, passing beneath the ocean floor. Residents on the U.S. side hope the soon-to-open plant will end decades of untreated-sewage spills across the border.