San Ysidro residents were stunned and angry when they learned that neighboring Imperial Beach and the Surfrider Foundation are pushing a plan for an 80-acre capture basin for sewage, sediment and trash within a mile of their homes – to keep that sewage, sediment and trash from coming to IB beaches.
“I am actively involved in this community, I have been for 13 years, and the first time I heard about this was from a flyer we got about two weeks ago,” said Cinnamon Clark. “We had just a few days to get the word out to our neighbors and more than 100 people showed up because we don’t want a sewage pond by our homes.”
Clark says that homes on the edge of the Dairy Mart flats where the basin would go are in awful danger if there’s a 100-year flood. “In that event, our homes will be flooded with sewage,” she said. “Tell me who will insure us against that damage.”
Surfrider’s No Border Sewage campaign leader Gabriela Torres told San Ysidro residents that they weren’t included in stakeholder meetings because the plan was very preliminary. The Surfrider website shows that the group held a meeting in mid-March where the plan was revealed to stakeholders. Members of Citizens for Coastal Conservancy, IB residents who have proposed the alternative plan, say they were excluded from meetings they asked to attend.
Ironically, Torres has criticized the secrecy of elected officials who did not disclose what they were working on. While Torres is regularly referred to as the project leader and attorney, Surfrider Foundation attorney Angela Howe, whose name appears on court filings, said that Torres is an attorney but is not working as such with Surfrider. Border sewage has long been anathema to IB. Mayor Serge Dedina, as executive director of his nonprofit Wildcoast, has long made sewage contamination a priority issue. He and Wildcoast’s Coastal Director Paloma Aguirre, who is on the four-person city council along with Surfrider’s San Diego Chapter past chairman Mark West, have declared the border sewage contamination to be an environmental justice issue.
More ironically, they failed to include San Ysidro as a stakeholder in the Surfrider plan that’s been under discussion for months – though it closely resembles the plan drawn up several years ago by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board for its Tijuana River Recovery Project.
Aguirre attended the San Ysidro meeting and later reported to the I.B. city council that she learned “there are opportunities for collaboration” with the San Ysidro residents. Requests for comment sent to Aguirre and Dedina did not get a response late Tuesday afternoon. Howe, from Surfrider, said that the organization is "inclusive" and will involve San Ysidro in future discussions.
Leon Benham, an Imperial Beach resident and restoration expert, brought forth an alternative plan that proposes that, rather than pooling the noxious liquids until the border sewage treatment plan can process it, local officials purchase and install four pumps near the single river diverter in Mexico, which is chronically overwhelmed during storms and heavy flows. The four pumps have eight times the capacity of the diverter in Mexico and would pump the flows directly into the international treatment plant and the city of San Diego’s South Bay treatment plant that Benham says is underutilized. Water that isn’t contaminated by sewage, mainly stormwater, should be sent through the existing but improved north and south river channels to the beach, according to the alternative plan. That would bring fresh sand to IB’s shrinking beach, restoring a natural cycle that will protect the city’s shoreline against sea level rise.
By contrast, the Surfrider plan leaves the basin operators with sediment that has to be removed and disposed of at a cost estimated to be at least $7 million each year.
Surfrider sued the International Boundary and Water Commission in July 2018, days after the city of Imperial Beach filed a similar suit that included the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency along with the commission. The state attorney general filed its own suit not long after. The lawsuits seek to force the federal agencies to contain and clean the trash, storm water, and sewage that flow into the U.S. from Tijuana, where the city has outgrown its infrastructure.
Since then, IB officials, Wildcoast, and Surfrider have met with state and federal officials in the U.S. and Mexico, trying to obtain funding for solutions in the U.S. and Mexico. They’ve included the city of Coronado and Coronado residents in meetings on the sewage crisis.