SAN DIEGO--Rattling up a crude road in his aging pickup,
horse rancher David Gomez goes downright gushy at the sight before him.
"It's like seeing a castle," Gomez declares.
It is not a castle. It is a sewage treatment plant. But for
Gomez and thousands of other long-suffering denizens of the Tijuana River Valley and
Imperial Beach just north of the Mexican border, it just might be salvation.
The plant, which has raised the ire of some
environmentalists, will treat 25 million gallons of raw sewage from Tijuana daily when it
fully cranks up in coming weeks with the completion of a giant ocean outlet. Many see the
system as a solution to the region's most stubborn cross-border conundrum: raw sewage that
overwhelms Tijuana's rickety system and flows north into the United States through the
Tijuana River or down canyons across the international divide.
Financed by U.S. federal dollars with some Mexican help, it
is the first plant situated in the United States to treat sewage that comes exclusively
from south of the border. It confronts a long-running problem that grew chronic as
Tijuana's population exploded in the past 20 years. The plant, located 300 feet inside the
United States, will be run by U.S. officials of the joint International Boundary and Water
Commission and coincide with a flurry of planned improvements to Tijuana's overtaxed sewer
The treatment center and ocean outlet--combined cost so far,
$400 million--are hailed by federal officials from the two countries as a triumph of
international cooperation and a model for border zones elsewhere.
But the biggest changes are expected in the communities just
north of Tijuana, where the runaway sewage is so basic a fact of life that the Imperial
Beach Chamber of Commerce is as likely to field inquiries about beach contamination as
about hotel rooms. Decades of spills have befouled postcard-pretty wetlands, cast a broad
stench over subdivisions, cropland and horse farms and spawned a political movement that
came to include suburban families, farmers and congressmen.
In working-class Imperial Beach, where 164 days of closed
beaches this year shooed away tourists and surfers and afflicted waterfront businesses,
leaders now dream of a civic flowering in the post-sewage era. No more barbs from
out-of-town colleagues. No longer will feel-good events, such as the signature sandcastle
contest, be hostage to what might wash up on the beach. Many predict a rush on long
undervalued seaside property.
"There's no single factor," said former Mayor
Michael Bixler, "that has held our city back over the years as this has."
Still, more conflict probably awaits.
Environmental groups oppose discharging through the ocean
outfall, a giant undersea pipe built by San Diego and extending 3.5 miles offshore, until
the effluent is treated to a greater degree of cleanliness. The U.S. government plans
additional processing, called secondary treatment, probably by building ponds next to the
plant. But that method has sparked anger among residents on both sides of the border that
they will be punished anew by foul odors and a proliferation of mosquitoes. Opinion is
divided over an alternative proposal by a private firm to build the ponds in rural Tijuana
instead and then sell the recycled water to Mexican industry.
Winter Storms Will Still Pose Problem
Even officials and nearby residents thrilled to see the
plant open concede that the sewer improvements are powerless in the face of winter storms
that in a flash can turn the Tijuana River into a roiling, waste-laden juggernaut.
"Every winter will be the same," said Gomez, who
summoned neighbors, later called Citizens Revolting Against Pollution, in 1990 after
becoming fed up with the stink of human waste wafting across the otherwise bucolic valley.
"This is a dry-weather solution."
The problem it aims to solve is a function of topography,
demographics and simple math.
Tijuana, ribbed with steep canyons feeding into the Tijuana
River, sits about 90 feet uphill from southern San Diego County, where the waterway wends
through wild scrub, farmland and a major estuary before emptying into the Pacific Ocean at
Tijuana's galloping population growth--some estimates far
exceed the official count of 1.3 million--has outpaced the government's ability to build
water and sanitation lines. About a third of the city lacks sewers. In outlying areas
rapidly being settled, nearly two-thirds of residents rely on outhouses, according to a
survey by researchers at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana.
Those factors, plus a fast-growing industry of foreign-owned
maquiladora plants, add up to a huge strain on the city's sewers, which suffer frequent
clogs, breakdowns and spills.
The math: Tijuana generates about 40 million gallons of
sewage a day, while its main treatment plant south of the city can handle only about 17
million gallons. Another 13 million is routinely piped north for treatment in a Point Loma
plant that also handles San Diego waste.
The rest pours into the Mexican surf untreated--at times
swept by tides north to Imperial Beach--or escapes along the way to end up in the Tijuana
River. The river, lined in concrete until shortly after crossing the U.S. border, can
become a putrid broth thinned only by fresh water leaking from Tijuana's reservoir
upriver. All told, anywhere from 1 million to 5 million gallons can make its way into the
United States each day. The worst overflows onto the U.S. side have reached 30 million
North of the border, the spills have stirred resentment over
the years among residents and moved local and state officials to declare states of
emergency repeatedly. Rep. Brian Bilbray, an Imperial Beach Republican, etched his way
into local lore years ago when, as mayor of that city, he commandeered a skip loader to
dam the sewage flow. Residents on the U.S. side packed local meetings to express health
concerns and politicians echoed their dismay. But small victories count: The cities of
Imperial Beach and San Diego lent crews and specially equipped trucks to Tijuana this fall
and succeeded in clearing clogs that had sent spills northward.
"It's been a serious and continuing cross-border
environmental issue and one of the most persistent we've seen in this area," said
Paul Ganster, who directs the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San
Diego State University. "It's been so obvious and had such clear and obvious impacts
on the U.S. side of the border."
Other Steps Planned in Tijuana
The international plant is the grandest attempt to harness
cross-border sewage since the 1930s, when the then-tiny burgs of Tijuana and San Ysidro
shared a septic tank on the U.S. side. Mexico later built its own system to carry sewage
to the ocean and, under the auspices of the boundary commission, opened its main plant
about four miles south of the border in 1987.
The international plant was proposed in response to Mexican
plans to build an additional facility in Tijuana that U.S. officials worried could send
more sewage into the Tijuana River and inundate the saltwater estuary downstream with
treated water. Mexico agreed to sign on to the international plant instead, pledging the
amount it would have spent to build its own, about $17 million.
Interim remedies have been inadequate. Since 1991, San Diego
has accepted up to 13 million gallons of sewage diverted daily from the river in Tijuana
and piped to a San Diego plant in Point Loma. The arrangement, while reducing waste
downstream, didn't come close to filling the gap in Tijuana's system. The boundary
commission also has installed collectors at the bases of several canyons to capture
so-called "renegade" sewage flows.
The 25 million gallons that the new plant will take from
Tijuana's central system will ease the load significantly, officials say. And an expansion
of the Tijuana plant and construction of four small treatment facilities around the city
during the next four years should accommodate all of the sewage, said Sara Leal,
spokeswoman for the Baja California state agency that provides drinking water and
sanitation services in Tijuana. Officials also plan to build a big backup sewer line to
prevent spills and to upgrade the city's main pump station.
"This is not only a San Diego project," said
Arturo Herrera Solis, commissioner for the Mexican section of the boundary and water
commission. "By taking part in such projects, we've had to tend to our own
infrastructure that the people of Tijuana demand. . . . We're going to have fewer
The new plant, beset by years of construction delays and
legal challenges, is hardly assured a quiet start-up. It has repeatedly failed toxicity
checks since opening on a limited, test basis early last year. Operators haven't
pinpointed the cause, but suspect the presence of high concentrations of detergents.
Officials say the planned secondary pond treatment should clear the problem, though any
additional processing is at least two years away.
Meantime, at least one environmental group, the Surfrider
Foundation, is considering trying to block the ocean discharges on legal grounds. The
organization worries that undersea terrain, currents and wind will push the effluent back
ashore. Others are concerned about the levels of toxic metals from Tijuana's factories.
Some activists say the long-term answer lies in removing
dangerous chemicals at the factory sources and in shoring up sewer lines south of the
border. San Diego officials have been helping counterparts in Tijuana carry out a new
program for keeping metals and other industrial pollutants out of the sewers and for
"You could invest a fraction of what we've spent on the
treatment plant on infrastructure [in Tijuana] and you'd see a huge improvement on the
beaches," said Lori Saldana of the Sierra Club's San Diego chapter.
Changes will be measured in various ways from the point
where the Tijuana River crosses the border west of the San Ysidro port of entry to the sea
six miles downstream. Equestrians hope no longer to fear for their horses while fording
the waterway in the popular riding area. Biologists are curious to see how birds and
plants in the vast Tijuana River National Estuarine Sanctuary respond after decades of
sewage and runoff have subtly altered the mix of life there.
And in Imperial Beach, a city of 28,000, officials hope to
snap out of what they call a self-esteem crisis. A $15-million spruce-up--including a new
plaza and archway at the foot of the 35-year-old wooden pier--is underway along the beach,
where property goes for about half the price of that in neighboring seaside communities.
Those who have mastered the complex lexicon of sewage
contamination look forward to crafting a more flattering definition for their 1950s-style
beach town. It has not been the city's only border problem in recent years.
Locals have noticed the calming effects of a border
crackdown that in four years has reduced to almost zero a tide of undocumented immigrants
who disrupted residential life as they scurried through backyards and alleys on their way
"Getting rid of the illegal immigrant problem, now the
sewage--the next 10 years in the life of Imperial Beach are going to be very
different," said Lorie Bragg, executive director of the Imperial Beach Chamber of
Commerce and Visitors Bureau.
"You'll really see a change."
Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All