A Saturday forum on environmental justice became another platform for Imperial Beach anger over the prolonged, extraordinary sewage dumps into the Tijuana River. By the end of the forum, state water quality officials had committed to leading the effort to contain the border flows.
"I won't stand by and watch this happen," said Dave Gibson, the executive officer of the Regional Water Quality Control Board. "We are not going to change what happens in Mexico tomorrow, but we can manage what's coming across our border."
Gibson spoke after an impassioned plea from Imperial Beach mayor Serge Dedina and city councilman Mark West, where Dedina criticized Gibson's five-year effort.
"The reality is that the recovery team is not working, we need legal action," Dedina said. "The EPA is not doing its job. The U.S. Attorney's Office is not doing its job, the IBWC is not doing its job, the U.S. Congress is not doing its job..... You've seen our president abandon us."
The state Regional Water Quality Control Board, which formed the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team more than five years ago, put on the event in Barrio Logan to hear what environmental problems the public — especially in disadvantaged communities — want the board to take on.
Advocates talked about Chollas Creek problems and the high asthma rates in Barrio Logan and Logan Heights.
But the loudest calls for help came from IB, including comments by Dedina during the brief time he was at the meeting.
Since February, more than 140 million gallons of raw sewage have come down the Tijuana River into the five miles of land between the river channel and the ocean. Border patrol agents noticed the stench, and their command reported it to the International Boundary and Water Commission, where a manager called his Mexican counterparts to report the downstream evidence of the dump — though Mexico had agreed in cross-border treaties to notify the IBWC of such problems.
Until the massive rains in mid-February, the sewage apparently sat in the river channel, which runs through county park land, state parks and then to the ocean. (For an excellent timeline of spills, see Barbara Zaragoza's article in the San Diego Free Press).
The largest dump occurred in the first two weeks of February, when sewage collector pipes in Tijuana collapsed and repair crews in Tijuana diverted sewage straight into the river while they repaired the pipes, according to the IBWC's report.
The most recent flows, on May 22 and May 25, resulted from a suicide attempt and a car crash that cut power to pump stations in Tijuana. The IBWC estimates that the episodes resulted in a total of 735,00 gallons of stormwater and sewage going down the river channel instead of being pumped to the International Boundary and Water Commission sewage treatment plant.
"Anything that can go wrong already has gone wrong," said IB resident Baron Partlow, who repeated Dedina's assertion that the reported 143 million gallons dumped into the river in March was an intentional act.
"It is an environmental and terrorist attack on the U.S," Partlow said. "It is the government of Mexico's fault."
Partlow, who apparently believed he needed border patrol permission to enter Goat Canyon in Border Field State Park, said that the estuary was badly damaged by the sewage dump.
"Serge Dedina called for citizens' rage. I am citizens' rage," Partlow said.
Adam Collardey, cochairman of Surfrider's No B. S. campaign, seemed less than impressed with citizen rage — he favored a sustainable solution that would require political will — both in the U.S. and Mexico — to build.
"I've seen this issue used to spread hate in the community, hate against Mexico. We need to make that stop," he said.
For more than five years, Regional Water Quality Control Board executive officer Dave Gibson has been running the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team in planning doable steps to improve the river valley. The recovery team is made up of dozens of agencies with claims to the valley, including the county's department of environmental health and its parks, the city of San Diego, the cities of Imperial Beach and San Diego, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, the state parks, the International Water and Boundary Commission and both the state and federal EPA, to name a few.
No leader has emerged despite Gibson's earnest search for one — though he agrees it makes sense that none want to lead, he has said. Each agency or entity controls only a small part of the valley and none have control over Mexico, nor do any have the kind of money it would take to accomplish the goals.
In May, it became apparent that Gibson would be taking the lead when outcry over the massive sewage spill prompted state legislators to commit $2.1 million to cleaning up the valley. The first step is a $500,000 study of how feasible his plans are. On Saturday, Gibson laid out his plans for the river valley.
He has two big ideas: Create catchment basins where the river enters the U.S. to trap trash and sediment, and divert sewage-tainted water to the IBWC treatment plant. The second idea: The water board will set goals for the maximum acceptable daily amounts of filth coming down the river. Setting the goals means they can take action against sources of filth that make the water dirtier than that maximum daily figure, called total maximum daily loads (TMDLs).
TMDLs can be enforced by litigation, and environmental groups have successfully sued state and federal agencies for allowing polluters to exceed the daily limits. Up to now, the water board and the EPA haven't set standards, in part because it changes the discussion to an enforcement action.
In theory, TMDLs pave the way for more funding and more enforcement against violators.
The elephant in the room, however, is funding. Under the budget proposed by President Donald Trump, the U.S. EPA border programs and many of the agency's other programs have been funded at zero dollars, as has the wing of the state department that funds the IBWC. If the state board establishes clean water standards, presumably the money to build infrastructure, test the water, and take action against violators would come from the state budget — which hasn't been generous with the water boards.