Since 1993, the San Diego City Council has been redeclaring a state of emergency in the Tijuana River Valley over the sewage, sediment, and rubbish as large as tires that flow into the area in the Tijuana River.
The original emergency declaration was sounded by then-governor Pete Wilson, who said, "The magnitude of this disaster has the potential to exceed the capabilities of the services, personnel and facilities of the cities in San Diego County."
On Tuesday (December 13), assistant city attorney Tom Zeleny asked the council to end the practice.
"There are only two purposes for declaring a state of emergency — to bring state and federal money to address the problem," he said. The declaration also allows the city manager to hire contractors to deal with the mess, work that would be billed to the federal government, according to a 2002 city memo.
In 1993, 15 million gallons of raw sewage crossed the border every day, jamming the river valley and threatening the estuary, Zeleny said. Since 1993, much progress has been made, he said. Congress gave the International Boundary and Water Commission money to build a sewage treatment plant that treats up to 25 million gallons of Tijuana wastewater a day. Crews went to Tijuana to train wastewater managers, and cooperation between the two cities has increased, he said.
Now, there are sewage flows only when it rains, Zeleny said. His comments echo what was said in that 14-year-old memo:
"Flows of untreated sewage in the Tijuana River Valley have all but ceased, with the exception of occasional flows due to shutdowns or breaks in the Mexican sewerage system. The health and safety concerns related to raw sewage flowing unabated in the Tijuana River Valley that precipitated the declaration of the State of Emergency in 1993 are no longer a major issue."
But Andy Hall, city manager for Imperial Beach, and Mark West, a newly elected I.B. council member and the chairman of Surfrider San Diego, urged the council to keep the declaration in place, citing county Health Department statistics that show the Tijuana River mouth at Border Field State Park was closed more than 200 days because of contamination, and that Imperial Beach's beaches were closed 20 percent of the year.
The 2002 memo to the city council supported that view, concluding that, while there had been much progress since the 1993 catastrophe, the state of emergency is still vital.
"In order to ensure long-term success, resolution of the border sanitation problem must continue to be a high priority, until adequate facilities are constructed to handle all of Tijuana’s sewerage needs. The continued State of Emergency is one such vehicle to maintain focus on the border situation," the memo concludes.
Councilman David Alvarez asked the city to continue declaring a state of emergency.
"Even though a lot of the impact occurs in Imperial Beach, it is simplistic thinking to say our resources are not affected," he said. "We have not reached a level where we have certainty.... We have not reached that point yet."
Despite the city attorney's concerns, the council voted unanimously Tuesday to again declare a state of emergency involving the Tijuana River at the border. I.B. councilman West applauded the council vote, saying a lot of work remains to be done.
"We've seen more closures in IB last year than the years before and we have not been able to trace the source," he said. "The cost and risk to human health are still too significant — in the event there is a failure of infrastructure and heavy rain, we could again see exceptional amounts of sewage come across the border."