In summary

As the Tijuana River sewage crisis worsens, local leaders and community organizations in San Diego and elsewhere have pleaded with Gov. Gavin Newsom to intervene. The governor has so far deferred to the White House and Congress, leaving dozens of communities helplessly at the whims of federal lawmakers.

“If I had a chance to tell Gov. (Gavin) Newsom something about the pollution in the Tijuana River Valley, I would tell him to get it fixed as soon as possible because the odor is horrible, and I don’t know what else it’s doing to our health. Like my partner says, if this was happening to rich people in La Jolla, this would have been taken care of a long time ago.”

That’s what Analisa Corrales, a nine-year resident of the Nestor neighborhood in San Diego, told me when I asked how she felt about the pollution from the Tijuana River Valley and how aerosolized contaminants might be affecting the health of her and her three children. They are 12 years old, 7 years old and 6 months old, and they live less than 2 miles from the sewage-choked river.

“My son is constantly congested with allergies and has stomach aches. My 7-year-old has allergies, too,” Corrales said. “I’m sure it has something to do with the air we breathe, and I’m worried about the health of my baby.” 

The stench is so unbearable that she keeps her windows closed most days. Corrales purchased three large air purifiers for her modest apartment because she was concerned about breathing in dangerous particles.

Corrales is not alone. Several San Diego-area state legislators, the entire San Diego County Board of Supervisors and over three dozen community organizations all share her concern about the pollution, and have urged Newsom to declare a state of emergency over the worsening sewage crisis. Even cities as far north as Pacifica and Santa Cruz are asking Newsom to do more.

An emergency declaration could help “get it fixed as soon as possible,” as Corrales pleaded. It could help repair the broken and overwhelmed South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, which faces deferred maintenance costs of $150 million. The price tag to fully repair the plant could reach an estimated $900 million.

Eighteen mayors in San Diego County signed onto a letter to Newsom in September expressing “deep concern and mounting disappointment regarding the absence of effective state leadership in addressing the ongoing pollution catastrophe in the Tijuana River.” They asked the governor to declare an emergency and work with the Biden administration to help address what has become a public health crisis.

But Newsom says he doesn’t have the authority to issue an emergency declaration because, as his administration sees it, the problems are occurring within the jurisdiction of the federal government. In a letter to the California Coastal Commission, which last week asked the federal government to intervene, Newsom highlighted his support of $310 million President Biden earmarked in an emergency supplemental bill last month.

Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre, who also serves as the San Diego Coast representative on the Coastal Commission, has been spearheading the advocacy to address this crisis. In an interview, she expressed appreciation of Newsom’s support for additional funding for the treatment plant, welcoming the $310 million, but “unfortunately for those who live and work in Imperial Beach, we know it is not enough. It’s an uphill battle because it is dependent on congressional approval.”

A sign in protest of the contamination of Imperial Beach by sewage that flows from Mexico into the Tijuana River. The sewage flows along the Pacific Ocean toward Imperial Beach. on Oct. 19, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Meanwhile, the sewage contaminating the Tijuana River has forced the closure of local beaches for over 700 consecutive days.

How bad is it? The Border Patrol union sued the federal government in 2004 for exposure to the “raw human sewage, massive coliform contamination, and other toxic chemicals” and won a $15 million payout. One accommodation under the settlement agreement was to not discipline Border Patrol agents for refusing go into the Tijuana River if they were in pursuit of someone. Agents were also encouraged to get vaccinated for Hepatitis A.

In 2010, a Border Patrol agent contracted a flesh-eating bacteria he attributed to training at the polluted Silver Strand beach. It ended his law enforcement career. 

Concerns about Tijuana River pollution have existed for decades as the border city’s population increased without adequate infrastructure, and industrial waste from unmonitored corporations ended up polluting local waterways that feed into the river.

“This is affecting over 750,000 people. Three-quarters of a million Californians are breathing in raw sewage.”

Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre

The International Boundary and Water Commission, the binational agency that enforces water treaties between the U.S. and Mexico, among other roles, reported that over 100 billion gallons of untreated sewage spilled into the Pacific Ocean through the Tijuana River and its tributaries over the last five years.

Heavy metals, bacteria and fecal matter are part of the toxic stew that have led California Rangers to close Border Field State Park whenever there is even mild precipitation, as stagnant water sits for months on major trails and roads leading to the beach. The park has been closed indefinitely “due to damage from Hurricane Hillary and cross-border flows related to failure of wastewater treatment plant infrastructure on the border.”

In March, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography published a report specifying how sea spray carries dangerous bacteria and chemical compounds inland through tiny aerosolized particles. The marine layer rolls in during the evenings, and even where I live in Chula Vista – about 8 miles northeast of the Tijuana River Valley – some evenings the putrid odor is overpowering.

“This is affecting over 750,000 people. Three-quarters of a million Californians are breathing in raw sewage,” Aguirre told me, referring to residents of the cities of Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, National City and the southern neighborhoods of San Diego.

On weekends, Corrales, the San Diego mother of three, takes her young family to the East County area where her mom lives. Until millions of dollars in emergency funds and resources receive congressional approval to fix and expand the existing water treatment infrastructure, it’s the only relief she can have to escape the toxic air that could be causing long-term harm to her family.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this commentary misstated the potential impacts of a state-level emergency declaration.

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Pedro Rios is the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border program and a longtime human rights advocate. His columns have appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune and Washington...