Tijuana River mouth, Imperial Beach
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.”