Just how smelly are thirteen acres of raw sewage? Soon, very soon, we shall find out. Next Monday a federal agency is planning to start building an open pond for raw sewage just over the border (on the American side), about four miles inland from the ocean. To date no public hearings have been held to discuss the pond’s odoriferousness – or its potential for flooding, or its effect on the local ground water, or, for that matter, any aspect of its operation. “I’ve never seen something move so fast in government,” marveled an aide to county supervisor Tom Hamilton. Commented another observer of the pond-planning process, “It’s an interesting example of how strings can be pulled.”
The federal agency building the pond is the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which normally would be required to seek environmental approval from state and local officials. However, the IBWC has declared that the pond is an “emergency measure,” thus relieving the need for detailed review.
The “emergency” referred to is the fact that raw sewage from Tijuana has been flowing across the border into the United States and down the Tia Juana River toward Imperial Beach. This is happening because of a breakdown in the normal system for disposing of Tijuana’s sewage. Tijuana itself has no facility for treating any of its waste. Instead, for the last six years the Mexican city has regularly piped most of its sewage across the border and into San Diego’s sewage treatment network, where it eventually reaches the Point Loma treatment plant. Recently, however, Tijuana has been producing more sewage than the pipe from the border can handle, so the Mexicans have been pumping the excess waste (some five million gallons a day) to a discharge point in the surf about three miles south of the border. The latest emergency developed when this winter’s storms disabled some of those Mexican pumps – and as a result, the raw sewage has been gurgling up through manholes near a pumping station about two miles west of the international border crossing. Gravity and the normal draining patterns of the border geography have sent the waste northward down a gulley, from where it flows into the river, through the shoreline estuary, and then out to sea and onto the sands of Imperial Beach.
The IBWC’s idea is to trap that excess sewage into a thirteen-acre pond, where it would sit for only a few hours each day – until those periods of time (in the evening, for example) when the pipes leading to Point Loma are less full. According to the IBWC’s plan, a valve then would be opened and the sewage in the pond will flow into the San Diego system. Furthermore, the IBWC stresses repeatedly that the sewage pond arrangement should only be temporary – necessary just until the Mexican government fixes the aforementioned broken pump or completes construction of a new pumping plant, work that the Mexicans have promised will be completed by the end of this year. The IBWC has the money (some $40,000 to $45,000) to pay for the pond, plus it also owns several hundred acres surrounding the proposed site (just east of the intersections of Dairy Mart and Monument roads).
Given those circumstances, a number of South Bay residents reluctantly concur that the pond is a simple, if not so elegant, solution. The pond site does not contain any rare plants, so no ecology groups have voiced alarm (and in fact, migratory birds would likely be attracted to a sewage pond). “The pond is probably the least of many evils,” commented one San Ysidro realtor. Another man, active in the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, repeats the refrain. “It’s like a bad earthquake – nobody wants it, but you gotta live with it.”
But if the resignation is widespread, it’s hardly universal. “This a government cesspool<” fumes Ruth Schneider, Chairwoman of the Otay Mesa/Nestor community planning group. Schneider says she’s heard the IBWC’s assurances that the pond will be chemically “deodorized” and that the sewage won’t contaminate the area groundwater. She’s still skeptical. Although Schneider charges that local officials “don’t want to question what the federal government is doing,” at least one official has balked. Congressman Duncan Hunter flatly opposes the pond construction, according to one aid, both out of concern over public health issues and because “this just says to Mexico, ‘hey don’t worry about it. We’ll cover it…’ It actually takes away incentive for Mexico to act.”
That aid says Hunter is looking for a way to stop construction from beginning. However, South Bay skeptics doubt the young legislator has the necessary clout to buck the IBWC. Barring interference from Hunter, the IBWC faces only one other possible hindrance to its plans. The state coastal commission will be considering whether the pond conforms to environmental codes at a hearing in San Diego later this month. At this point, the commission appears likely to give the pond the nod. Moreover, the IBWC says it doesn’t plan to wait for that verdict but will start building the pond next Monday.