Local and state electeds call for federal leaders to step up and end the cross-border sewage crisis at the Tijuana River

Feb 21, 2024

By Melissa Sparks-Kranz, legislative affairs lobbyist (environmental quality)

It’s not just water flowing into the Pacific Ocean from the Tijuana River. Cloudy wastewater and sewage particulate matter are also being flushed into the ocean and sometimes the air. After a decade of advocacy from affected cities, a contingent of state legislators have introduced a joint resolution supported by Cal Cities urging Congress to provide $310 million to clean up the river.

Cross-border pollution has plagued people, the environment, and local economies for decades. A grim report from San Diego State University found the crisis will have large and far-reaching impacts. The pollution has already led to a resurgence of pathogens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria once thought eradicated in California, as well as 700 consecutive days of beach closures. Flooding and extreme storms have only exacerbated the contamination.

“The sewage crisis has evolved into an existential threat to San Diego communities, constituting a public health ticking time-bomb that currently poisons the very air, water and economy of the border region,” said Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre, who has been spearheading efforts to secure funding.

How we got here   

For decades, sediment discharge, trash, and sewage have run through the Tijuana River Valley, much of it generated near the international borders of Mexico. Formed in 1889, the now-named International Boundary and Water Commission recognized these border sanitation issues as early as 1944.

Since then, federal and state lawmakers have passed several environmental laws, including the federal Clean Water Act and California’s Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act. The two laws protect navigable waters and prohibit discharging pollutants unless regulators approve the necessary environmental permits.

Additionally, the California Coastal Act guarantees maximum public access to the coastline and the federal Resource and Conservation and Recovery Act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the power to control hazardous waste. Despite these laws, cross-pollution has worsened.

Without greater state and federal action, lawmakers could set a precedent for all of California’s coastline. The lack of financial and technical support to address these longstanding issues could threaten state and federal environmental laws.

Last August, Gov. Gavin Newsom sent letters to the federal government requesting assistance, calling it a crisis that Congress and President Joe Biden must address. President Biden in October proposed $310 million in emergency supplemental funding.    

Next steps

The Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee heard AJR 12 (Alvarez) on Feb. 20. During the hearing, Aguirre provided lead testimony and Cal Cities voiced support for AJR 12. The resolution is also supported by all 18 mayors in San Diego County.

The bill will move next to the Assembly Floor and then to the Senate for a vote in each house before moving forward as a formal resolution to Congress. Cal Cities will carry its support position on AJR 12 to Washington later this year.