Tijuana River mouth, Imperial Beach
  • Tijuana River mouth, Imperial Beach
  • photo by John C.R. Jones
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Kevin Vaillancort, a foreign-service officer assigned to the U.S. embassy in Tijuana, wants to assure the people who have banded together to stop the sewage and contaminants flowing across the border that applying pressure on Tijuana’s governing bodies was a good idea.

“There’s no need to tiptoe,” Vaillancort said in an August 9th interview. “They know exactly what’s going on and they know they are woefully deficient in dealing with this. Our reluctance to speak directly and forcefully is allowing the Mexican government to act like the problem is solved when it is not. Our reluctance to ruffle feathers is being understood as us not caring that much…. In no way does [political pressure on stopping sewage spills] make diplomats’ lives more difficult.”

Vaillancort has a clear idea of what does make diplomats’ lives difficult, since he came to Baja California from a post in Pakistan.

“Significantly fewer of this host country’s occupants want to kill me, and that’s always a pleasure,” he said drily.

Imperial Beach city officials became more vocal after hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage were diverted into the river in Mexico during a difficult repair on collapsed sewer pipes in Tijuana. The February and March 2017 sewage flow on the normally dry Tijuana River stunk up the area from the Dairy Mart Road bridge to the ocean. When it reached the ocean, beaches in I.B. and Coronado were closed for weeks. I.B. officials have aimed their ire at the International Boundary and Water Commission. They’ve garnered support from state and federal representatives and they have filed a notice that they intend to sue the commission for not doing enough to prevent the catastrophes.

Better funding of the border water commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would help, but U.S. agencies and representatives should focus their lobbying on city and state levels, Vaillancort said. Political will in Tijuana and Baja California is far more useful than engaging Mexico City: to Mexico City, Tijuana is about as important as Hawaii is to Washington DC.

“Mexico is not a poor country,” Vaillancort said. “I came here from a poor country. They have to see why this is in their interest and it would matter more to have Jerry Sanders [CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce] and governor Jerry Brown lobbying Tijuana and Baja California.”

The recent problems with Mexican taxi drivers are a good example of the way to address a border problem that affects U.S. citizens, he said. For weeks, Tijuana cab drivers escalated a war on Uber and Lyfft customers, to the point where people were being beaten.

“When San Ysidro sent a business delegation to tell people in Tijuana, ‘Take care of this or we will advise our people against visiting,’ it got fixed in 48 hours,” Vaillancort said. The Baja government stepped in and forced a solution in Tijuana.

“They are used to a stronger, more centralized government,” he said. “If you talk tougher, they have a much more amenable response.”

Many researchers, environmental nonprofits including Surfrider and WildCoast, and state parks staff have gone to Tijuana to build relationships and learn about the sources of the trash and contaminated flows that end up in the valley. Most of Imperial Beach mayor Serge Dedina’s efforts with WildCoast, the nonprofit he founded, involve projects and preservation in Mexico. Their efforts centered on building relationships rather than making demands, however right they may be.

“The previous action plan was predicated on the assumption, and it was a reasonable assumption, that the Mexico counterparts would form a committed and active group to work on the problems on their side of the border,” Vaillancort said. “There is a growing realization that less carrots and more sticks are going to have to be used.”

That is precisely what the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board decided when its executive director announced that it would undertake setting limits on how much raw sewage can be in cross-border flows.

David Gibson, executive officer of the board, said, “[Allowable pollution limits called] TMDLs would be enforceable, though our preference would be to do real things in Mexico [such as source control] and the United States [involving interception and diversion] that protect people and the environment in the Tijuana River Valley and the cities of Tijuana, San Diego, Imperial Beach, and Coronado. These efforts should constitute a second line of defense in partnership with the agencies in Mexico — not as the default operation.”

The City of Tijuana's water agency, Comisión Estatal Públicos Servicios de Tijuana (CESPT), does have a master plan for the region that would beef up wastewater treatment to enable it to serve a city of one million people. There’s also a plan to build a desalination plant in Rosarito that would boost the region’s water supply by 60 percent.

Vaillancort said, “The best-case scenario is that at the same time you raise the wastewater capacity to almost meet the current need, you’re going to increase the water supply 60 percent, you’ve already eaten up the progress that was made.... People should lobby [the North American Development Bank] to block the desalination plant in Rosarito.... It’s not unreasonable to want to be sure the city can handle a 60 percent increase in wastewater.”

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Comments

Matingas Aug. 15, 2017 @ 2:07 p.m.

Unfortunately, Tijuana has much bigger problems and they won't be helping much. I just walked by the river and it's full of garbage and sewer and the squatters are back...

Over the weekend there was a leak near my apartment in downtown and the whole street flooded with sewer water. They didn't fix it until early Monday. CESPT keeps suspending water services for many neighborhoods and seems like a mess as a utility service.

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martygraham619 Aug. 15, 2017 @ 6:33 p.m.

Thanks for the update! Really appreciate your insight.

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Visduh Aug. 15, 2017 @ 7:55 p.m.

So, this diplomat thinks that more talk will clean up the sewage. For as long as I've lived in the county, there has been talk about "solutions" to the sewage mess. Forgive me, but it looks as bad as it did forty years ago, thirty years ago, etc. Talk hasn't done a darned thing to clean up TJ's sewage discharges, and I doubt that more talk will change that. The real point of this is the contempt for the US that exists in Mexico and especially in its higher government circles. Changes of party there from PRI to PAN and back again haven't made much real difference at all. Mexico revels in being a bad neighbor and until it starts to cost that country, little will change. So, let's see what this renegotiation of the NAFTA brings.

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dwbat Aug. 15, 2017 @ 8:26 p.m.

How about taking Mexico to the International Court of Justice? They need to be dealt with in the harshest way. This is beyond low-end criminal behavior.

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MURPHYJUNK Aug. 16, 2017 @ 8:53 a.m.

any what will happen besides a ruling on paper ?

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Ponzi Aug. 15, 2017 @ 9:29 p.m.

Depending upon how one defines "time," the United States was at war with Mexico at one time. For old Spanish settlers families that story is part of their DNA. Americans took their land.

Just like our sentimental segment of Confederate sympathizers in the South, lost land or power stays in the blood of the underdogs for generations. I kind of see Mexico as the future landscape of America. The inequality where the top families enjoy 90% of the spoils and the rest of the people fight it out to be where they can get in that remaining 10% which is 99% of the population.

Mexico is ruled by mass-landowners and the people have to rent the land. There never were any small family farms like in the pioneer America. Those wealthy landowners in Mexico control the government, are many involved in corruption and financing drug smuggling operations. These wealthy people own homes in Spain, the United States and other havens. They do not care about the petty sewage problem in Tijuana.

Sure, Mexicans have a voting democracy, but their parties are both corrupt and controlled by the drug cartels, money launderers, oil arbitragers, human Trafficking for labor and sex. All you need to do to understand the corruption in Mexico is to read their budgets. You can see where their priorities are.

Most of those priorities are making Mexico City an awesome place to live and to hell with every other city. Mexico City has very low crime because of the military presence. Mexico City is where the oligarchs live to conduct business and then they return to their retreats in Europe, South America or North America.

Think about it, what major biotech, electronics, software or other modern field has a major player in Mexico? I hate to say it, not being a Trump supporter, but Mexico is a big drug dealer. That is where most of America’s drugs come from.

How do you expect a country that thrives on corruption and greed, to care about the little border communities and their toilet problems?

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martygraham619 Aug. 16, 2017 @ 6:32 p.m.

Wildcoast has asked for a clarification of their strategy in dealing with Mexican authorities. This sentence is the problem: "Their efforts centered on building relationships rather than making demands, however right they may be." While Wildcoast's website does list CESPT and Conagua as partners, (which is where my mistake was rooted) ,http://www.wildcoast.net/who-we-are/partners, Wildcoast spokeswoman Fay Crevoshay said that their strategy with the Mexican government has been aggressive and confrontational; making demands and bringing publicity to the problem they are working on, raising the stakes until their opponent gives in and begins to work with them. At that point, they become partners and are no longer adversaries - at least on that particular issue, Crevoshay said.

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martygraham619 Aug. 17, 2017 @ 8:49 a.m.

From: http://www.wildcoast.net/who-we-are

"In 2017, working in partnership with local communities and the Mexican government we will protect islands, reefs, and mangrove ecosystems as well as involve local fishing families in conservation endeavors that provide a sustainable lifeways for people whose lives are intertwined with coral reefs and mangroves treasures."

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Enviromarco Aug. 16, 2017 @ 9:39 p.m.

Bajagua? Anyone? Bueller?....

Yeah, I keep harping on this. A decade (or so) ago Wildcoast and a cast of associates were so convinced Mexico, NADBANK, BECC, EPA, and a the Japanese (seriously, ask them) had this problem under control that they killed a project that would have resulted in a brand new sewage treatment plant in Mexico to address many of these very problems. Their reason for opposing? It would be paid for by US taxpayers and it was moving forward by people lobbying the Bush/Cheney administration. Nevermind that we were bleeding taxpayer dollars all over the middle east at the time.

Come on Serge, Paloma, any of you at Wildcoast or who were there at the time? How about Lori Saldana; she staked her claim to killing Bajagua as well. Step up and admit you capitalized on a giant media opportunity to the financial benefit of your organization(s), but screwed the community in the long run...

-Marco

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