Friday, December 3, 2010

South San Diego Water Quality Workshop

Join Scripps Institution of Oceanography, WiLDCOAST, the County of San Diego's Department of Environnmental Health, and San Diego Coastkeeper at TRNERR (Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center, 301 Caspian Way, Imperial Beach, California.) on December 7th from 6-8pm to learn about the process that goes into monitoring ocean water quality and influences beach closures and advisories. Walk away with practical tools that will help you to know when the water is safe and how to safeguard your health -- and some great food and raffle prizes too!

Protecting and preserving nature’s systems

Mike A. McCoy’s passion for achieving a better understanding of the interrelationship of ecological systems has evolved over the decades. “It wasn’t much understood in the ’60s,” he says.
As a member of the stakeholders group setting up the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative for the California Department of Fish and Game, Mike travels the Southern California coast intent on preserving marine and estuarine systems.
“We have to understand and revamp the way we think. We have to look at any system like a microcosm — look locally and think globally,” Mike says.
Mike’s work started more than 40 years ago. A proposed marina created by dredging the Tijuana Estuary caught Mike’s interest in 1970. He recognized the importance of preserving it and its wildlife as one of the last intact salt marsh ecosystems in Southern California.
“If we fragment ecological systems, remove corridors and connections, we’ll slowly destroy their complexity and vibrancy,” he notes.
But about one-third of the community wanted to protect the estuary and two-thirds wanted a marina, he recalls. The creation of a marina meant money for the local tax base.
“The importance of 1.8 million people living in proximity to the estuary was an educational opportunity for so many to learn about the critical role these systems play in their daily lives,” Mike states. “Estuaries are the nurseries of the sea.”
In spearheading the 10-year effort to save the estuary, Mike challenged numerous cities and the San Diego County Comprehensive Planning Organization, including area mayors.
“The road was not easy and was paved with stress and violence along the way,” he remembers. “Death threats, bullets and loosening of lug nuts on our wheels happened during this time.”
With congressional support and that of the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association (SWIA), of which Mike was one of the founding members and now serves as president, the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge was acquired in 1980. The Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve was established in 1982. By 2005 the Tijuana Estuary, the most southwesterly coastal wetland in the U.S., was dedicated as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.
“Mike is one of those most responsible for bridging the political gap and keeping this estuary from development, which in turn allowed for a two-country stewardship for the benefit of this wetland of international importance,” says Bob Miller, SWIA vice president.
— Marty Coffin Evans

Border sewage plant nears completion

By Mike Lee

Sunday, November 28, 2010 at noon

An expanded sewage-treatment plant more than a decade in the making has started processing wastewater in San Ysidro, and the agency in charge said it’s on track to meet a court-ordered deadline for reducing coastal water pollution.
The International Boundary and Water Commission is supposed to comply with U.S. Clean Water Act standards by Jan. 5 at its South Bay treatment facility, which handles up to 25 million gallons of raw sewage a day from Tijuana.
If the agency makes good on that effort, it will close a troubled chapter in the county’s most-polluted region and provide more momentum for a growing initiative to rid the border lands of trash, sediment and other pollutants. Even in its degraded state, the lower section of the river valley is prized by environmentalists because it’s one of the largest intact estuaries in California.
“Piece by piece, we are filling holes and dealing with the water quality issues on the border,” said Serge Dedina, head of the advocacy group Wildcoast in Imperial Beach. “It’s not just one solution. It’s a whole strategy.”
Upgrades at the sewage treatment plant are at the core of the overall plan. The boundary commission built it in the late 1990s to combat millions of gallons of sewage that commonly flowed north across the border. Related problems go back 70 years or more because South Bay communities are downhill from Tijuana, a fast-growing city that’s long struggled to provide adequate sewage infrastructure.
The U.S. wastewater plant is run by the boundary commission, which operates sewage and flood control projects all along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The San Ysidro facility has never met the “secondary treatment” standards in U.S. law. That’s partly because the commission couldn’t afford to complete all of the necessary infrastructure within its initial budget of $239 million.
For much of the past decade, treatment upgrades were on hold while a San Diego County company called Bajagua lobbied for a federal contract to build and operate a separate plant in Mexico. That effort fell apart in May 2008, when the U.S. government decided to upgrade the San Ysidro facility rather than build from scratch in Tijuana.
The boundary commission eventually selected PCL Construction of Tempe, Ariz., as the lead contractor for an $88 million project that started in January 2009. The price tag jumped to $92.7 million after the contractor added crews to meet the court mandate.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Steve Smullen, area operations manager for the U.S. section of the boundary commission.
As Smullen toured the grounds last week, workers put finishing touches around the cavernous concrete basins where wastewater is scrubbed. A faint smell of sewage hung over the site, which is within sight of the fence along the international border.
Scores of metal railings and freshly painted pumps glistened in the midday sun, while bacteria fed on the organic matter in the soupy brown water that swirled in new million-gallon tanks. Over the next several weeks, Smullen’s goal is to build up colonies of microscopic organisms so they can process full loads delivered from the adjacent primary treatment plant.
Once the solids and the bacteria are separated out, the treated water is supposed to meet secondary standards and be flushed to the Pacific Ocean through an existing 3.5-mile pipe.
The current project doesn’t increase the plant’s overall capacity, but it will make the end product cleaner. The boundary commission needs to reduce the amount of suspended solids to comply with U.S. law, and it must decrease the toxicity of the water it discharges.
“We are hopeful the problems will be fixed,” Smullen said. “Time will tell.”
It’s not clear how much the work will improve the ocean water near the South County shoreline, which is bedeviled by multiple sources of contamination that routinely sicken surfers.
David Gibson, executive officer at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, said he is optimistic about the expanded plant but he warned that there may be hiccups along the way.
He said the facility is hard to operate because Mexican factories don’t have the same kinds of controls as U.S. companies on the compounds they discharge to the sewage system. In addition, Tijuana residents typically use less water than San Diego County residents and that makes their sewage more concentrated and tougher treat.
Two other main pollutants in the watershed — trash and sediment — also present a major challenge. The regional board is drafting regulations to limit those sources of contamination in the Tijuana River, and it’s targeting the U.S. government as the responsible party.
No one is sure how much that strategy will cost or how long it will take, but Gibson said he aims to force more cleanup efforts as an alliance of more than 30 groups and agencies try to gain ground with cooperative efforts. That binational initiative involves crafting long-term plans for trash collectors, larger basins for capturing mud and building an environmental ethic among Tijuana residents.
“In the end, it will require the kind of capital investment, operations and maintenance to manage sediment and trash that we currently have for sewage,” Gibson said. “It will not be cheap and it will not be simple.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tijuana River Pollution Quiz

Tijuana River Pollution Quiz

Written by Travis Pritchard

Pop quiz time.
Which of these ammonia test results are from the Tijuana River?

Which of these phosphate test results are from the Tijuana River?

If you guessed the dark blue ones, you are correct! Give yourself an A. These test tubes are some of the results from last weekend’s volunteer water quality monitoring event. The ammonia, nitrate, and phosphate levels in the Tijuana River were literally off the charts high. When it rains (which it recently had), the treatment facilities get overwhelmed and raw sewage flows into the river and out to the ocean. Our water quality tests show those trends in the water quality.
Check out Jen’s blog on July’s Tijuana River Valley sewage spill to learn more about efforts underway to fix this problem. You can check out the results of our water monitoring efforts at the watershed wiki. And don’t forget to check the current beach status before you head out into the water.
The Surfrider Blue Water Task Force is a great way to get involved and take action to prevent contaminants from reaching San Diego's watersheds and ultimately reaching the Pacific Ocean to negatively impact our coast and marine life. Blue Water Task Force members currently monitor the bacteria levels in the Tijuana River Watershed on the US side of the border, specifically at the Tijuana River mouth and other select areas in the Tijuana Estuary.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Month of border cleanups yields 56 tons of trash

A monthlong series of cleanups in the U.S.-Mexico border region yielded more than 2,300 tires and 56 tons of garbage that could have ended up at sea by way of the Tijuana River.Environmental group Wildcoast of Imperial Beach increased efforts to control pollution near the border this month with the help of several partners, including nonprofit organizations such as Surfrider San Diego and San Diego Coastkeeper.More than 2,800 volunteers participated.Among the most successful cleanups this month:-An Oct. 16 event at Cañon de los Laureles in Tijuana that cleared 21 tons of trash from the channel that drains into the Tijuana River. That involved 30 volunteers.-An Oct. 18 gathering of 41 trade-student volunteers and instructors from the San Diego Job Corps. They removed about 1,000 tires from the main channel.Last Saturday's cleanup was canceled due to rain, a pattern that Wildcoast officials are expecting to continue, said Paloma Aguirre, border program manager for the group."This month has been great, but I was kind of saddened and disappointed that we couldn't host the last cleanup," Aguirre said.The group will wait for better weather before scheduling future cleanups and environmental workshops in the border area, she said.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Chapter Meeting Wed. 15th, 7pm at Forum Hall

In a effort to kick off Coastal Cleanup Day and Tijuana River Action Month, this month's chapter meeting will focus on Beach Cleanups and Border Sewage and is honored to have Bob Scott give a presentation. Bob is a Professional Geologist and Certified Hydrogeologist at URS Corporation here in San Diego where he has been employed for over 20 years. He currently manages its local site assessment and remediation group and conducts work related to soil and groundwater contamination. He recently completed a study funded by the State for the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team to identify the locations, quantity and characteristics of trash and sediment that gets transported downstream from Mexico during rain events. The information that his team has collected will help in developing a program to address this problem. Bob will share the results of the study and work that is currently being done in the valley related to trash and sediment. We'll also cover general chapter updates and ways to get involved with Surfrider. You don't need to be a Surfrider member but it's always encouraged. This one is at Forum Hall in UTC / La Jolla, Click Here for directions

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tracking IB's 'smelly water'

Originally published July 27, 2010 at 10 p.m., updated July 28, 2010 at 12:02 a.m.

For the past decade, surfers and others have complained about an unusual odor wafting over the sand and waves of Imperial Beach.
It’s often described as having a detergentlike quality, and it comes with shimmery bubbles in the surf zone. One scientific paper calls it “smelly water.”
For just as long, the on-again-off-again scent has defied attempts to determine its source and answer questions about whether it poses dangers for beach users.
“We are really concerned because our noses and all of our physical senses when we are in the water are telling us one thing, and the tests are telling us another,” said Ben McCue, a surfer and coastal program manager for the nonprofit group Wildcoast in Imperial Beach.
In recent weeks, conservationists have fashioned a plan to solve the mystery using high-end tests that go beyond the typical sampling for indicator bacteria in coastal waters. They said the issue is resurfacing now because upgrades at the International Wastewater Treatment Plant in San Ysidro are nearly done after years of debate, allowing beach advocates to focus on other issues in one of the county’s most polluted areas.
“We are going to nail it down this summer,” McCue said.
As usual, the main barrier is money — an estimated $15,000 to look for chemical clues that can help pinpoint the source of the odor, which is widely thought to be from wastewater. It will take more time and money to determine whether the impurities cause human health problems.
The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, which regulates water pollution in the area, offered about $14,000 for testing several weeks ago. Those funds were only available until the fiscal year ended June 30. No reports of odor problems surfaced during the testing window, so the plan was shelved.
Regional board officials said they are trying to free up money from fines paid by polluters to underwrite the analysis. Until that happens, they are unsure about how to view the occasional stink.
“That is one of the reasons I am interested in exploring this further — to find out what we don’t know,” said David Gibson, head of the regional board. “It’s worthwhile investigating.”
A natural suspect is the Tijuana River, which for decades has carried sewage-tainted runoff from Mexico to South Bay beaches during the rainy season.
What worries McCue is that the unsettling smell occurs in the summer when the river isn’t flowing to the Pacific Ocean.
Instead, beach users have noticed the odors when nearshore currents are moving north. Some have also linked it to southwest winds.
One leading theory is that the smell is from the South Bay Ocean Outfall, which deposits treated sewage from the United States and Mexico about 3.5 miles offshore near Imperial Beach.
McCue and others said it’s more likely that the smell is from treated and untreated sewage dumped into the surf zone roughly five miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border at Punta Bandera.
The plume from Punta Bandera typically travels south but it moves north across the border about 12 percent of the time, according to a 2009 paper by Eric Terrill, director of the Coastal Observing Research and Development Center at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
His research wasn’t designed to pin down the funky odor.
“Right now, I don’t think we have a gold-standard test that has said unequivocally that it is Punta Bandera,” Terrill said. “Wildcoast is on the right track. … A special study needs to be done.”
One reason the odor mystery remains unsolved is that standard beach water tests assess fecal indicator bacteria, which can be killed by treatment or diluted to the point that they are not found.
The problem is that there still could be harmful viruses or other pollutants in “smelly water” even if the bacteria aren’t detected.
Clay Clifton, watershed monitoring program manager for San Diego Coastkeeper, said he started hearing about the strange smells shortly after he started working at the county’s Department of Environmental Health in the late 1990s.
“We said, ‘Let’s document that there is a contamination event happening,’ ” Clifton said. “This happened year after year where we went out with our traditional bacterial analysis, collected samples and processed them. … We never had any exceedances (of water-quality standards).
“We were scratching our heads and wondering what is going on,” Clifton said.
Any new sampling efforts likely will target ingredients in laundry soap. Some detergents used in Mexico aren’t approved in the United States, making them useful indicators of where wastewater originates.
In addition, tests may look at caffeine or artificial sweeteners, traces of which could connect the odors to human excrement and raise concerns about the potential for waterborne illnesses. That kind of chemical fingerprinting is several times more expensive than fecal indicator tests.
“Usually when you test the water, you know what you are looking for,” McCue said. “In this case, we are trying to figure out what’s in the water. It’s almost a reverse investigation.”
Even if the regional board agrees to finance a study, success will hinge on the smell lingering long enough to get several water samples.
“These events come and go depending on what the surf is doing,” Clifton said. “You could very easily miss it.”

Friday, July 23, 2010

Sick of Sewage

Reactions to 2.1 Million Gallon Sewage Spill in Tijuana River Valley

Written by Jen Kovecses

Of San Diego’s eleven watersheds, the Tijuana River watershed is the largest. Most of it lies on the Mexican side of the border. It is also the watershed with some of the worst sewage pollution in our region. When you hear about Imperial Beach being closed because of high bacteria counts, it is a good bet that the sewage causing the problem came from Mexico. After years of squabbling over how to fix the problem – building the Bajagua treatment plant, upgrading other facilities – there seemed to be enough political drama to start a Mexican soap opera but no real solution to the problem. In April of this year, La Morita sewage treatment plant opened in Tijuana. This plant will treat much of the sewage in the Tijuana region and reclaim some of that treated wastewater for use in the irrigation of an adjacent nursery. The trees grown with that reclaimed water will be planted throughout Baja California. This plant is a big step towards being the first region in Mexico to treat 100% of its sewage.

Needless to say, it was with dismay that I read the news on Sunday that there had been an enormous spill – 2.1 million gallons of raw sewage – in the Tijuana River Valley at the beginning of June. Maybe more alarming than the spill itself is that none of it was captured by the International Boundary and Water Commission’s facility. The IWBC treatment facility was designed specifically to capture these types of flows. The foreign origin of the problem and the federal status of the IWBC facility have put this spill outside of the regulatory reach of the Regional Water Quality Control Board and it seems that in addition to no clean-up, there will be no real enforcement action either.

While news of this spill is a sad reminder of the many infrastructure problems of the border region, we need to stay focused on the positive steps that have been taken to remedy the problem. Less than ten years ago, it was not uncommon to open your morning newspaper to read a story about huge volumes of sewage flowing untreated into San Diego’s creeks and bays. These spills would leave behind a wake of pollution that fouled our shorelines and exposed surfers and swimmers to micro-organisms that can make people sick. In the face of government and regulatory inaction, groups like San Diego Coastkeeper stepped in with advocacy, including a lawsuit to force upgrades to our wastewater collection system. Since that time, we have seen a huge drop in sewage spills. So we know with enough pressure and will that change can happen.

Spills suggest problems aren't under control

Second sewage overflow since June flows into U.S.
Originally published July 20, 2010 at 2:05 p.m., updated July 20, 2010 at 9:24 p.m.

A second major wastewater overflow in Tijuana since the start of June has sullied the Tijuana River Valley in southern San Diego County.
More than 2.7 million gallons of sewage-tainted water coursed through the dry river bed on July 7 and 8, according to state and federal reports. No health problems have been linked to the spill.
It came just over a month after more than 2.1 million gallons of sewage crossed the international border downstream at the base of a canyon known as Smuggler’s Gulch.
Both are among the largest wastewater accidents to affect San Diego County since 2000. Because both incidents started in Mexico, California regulators have little leverage to issue fines or cleanup orders like they typically would if a local city caused the problem.
Despite major improvements to Tijuana’s sewage system in recent years, the back-to-back spills during dry weather suggest that long-running problems aren’t entirely under control.
“Although this spill did not cause direct human health impact, it is evidence that there are still improvements to be made. … We need increased funding for border environmental infrastructure,” said Paloma Aguirre, a conservationist with the nonprofit group Wildcoast in Imperial Beach.
Officials at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board said Tuesday they are considering how to handle the two sewage overflows, likely with a consultation or letter requesting details about the incidents in hopes of improving reporting protocol and warding off future problems.
Senior engineer Brian Kelley at the regional board said he has seen numerous similar problems over the past three decades.
“It’s somewhat frustrating,” he said. “But it didn’t raise a huge red flag because we are used to it.”
Leaders at Tijuana’s water and wastewater agency said the incident mainly involved drinking water that was discharged into the river to clear a pipe and repair a leak.
A report from the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which manages wastewater facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border, said the problem started about 9 a.m. July 7, when a break in a drinking-water line filled a concrete channel in Mexico and mixed with treated sewage.
Public works officials in Tijuana failed to increase pumping capacity to handle the extra load, resulting in an overflow to San Diego County, according to the boundary commission.
It said the flows were largely absorbed into the dry Tijuana River bed and did not reach as far as the bridge at Dairy Mart Road in San Ysidro, roughly 1.5 miles northwest of where the river enters the United States.
The line break was repaired about 24 hours later.
A second report filed with environmental regulators in California said drinking water was not harmed and there were no known injuries related to the spill.
That incident came on the heels of a smaller spill a month earlier. On June 2 and 3, roughly 5 million gallons of wastewater from a line break in Mexico flowed through Smuggler’s Gulch to a structure in the United States that was designed to divert such flows to a treatment plant in San Ysidro.
In that case, boundary commission officials said they suffered from a pump failure and having a pipe out of service, leaving them unable to capture about 2.1 million gallons of sewage that contaminated parts of the river valley.
Staff writer Sandra Dibble contributed to this report.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Beach may have a scoop

Sand-replenishing project appears resurrected, thanks to Army Corps
Thursday, July 15, 2010 at midnight

Sand replenishing could begin in the fall if approvals are granted by the Imperial Beach City Council, San Diego port officials and the Army Corps of Engineers.
A plan to bring 300,000 cubic yards of sand to Imperial Beach’s shore may be back on track.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to deepen the San Diego Bay entrance called for dumping the sand early last year just off Imperial Beach’s coast. The project was postponed indefinitely in October because of permitting delays and scaled back to 100,000 cubic yards after logistic complications prevented the placement of the beach-quality sand closer to the city’s shoreline.
Since then, the Army Corps agreed to forego the use of its larger but limited dredging equipment in place of a contractor’s smaller and more maneuverable apparatus. Additionally, the San Diego Unified Port District agreed to take $1 million of $1.8 million previously approved for a larger, more uncertain federal sand renourishment project in Imperial Beach and redirect about $300,000 of it for the bay-sand project.
Both actions allow for the original 300,000 cubic yards of sand to be deposited closer to the city’s beach.
All that’s left now is getting the changes approved.
The Imperial Beach City Council agreed last week to ask the Army Corps to enter into an agreement allowing both to participate in the San Diego Harbor Maintenance Dredging Project. They also agreed to use the Port District’s $300,000 for the project.
Without threatening any future federal funding for the larger Silver Strand Shoreline Renourishment Project, Imperial Beach is looking for ways to keep all of its sand-replenishment options open.
The council also agreed to ask the state Department of Boating and Waterways about redirecting $4.2 million also earmarked for the Silver Strand project for a third sand project, this one proposed by the San Diego Association of Governments. The council also supported the use of $700,000 in port funding, the balance of the $1 million, toward SANDAG’s Regional Beach Sand Project.
“We’re exploring other potential options to fund the most imminent projects as soon as possible,” said Greg Wade, community development director.
The SANDAG project is a repeat of a 2001 effort that placed 2.1 million cubic yards of sand on county beaches.
The Silver Strand Shoreline Renourishment Project, which was sidelined last year after it received no funding in this year’s federal energy and water appropriations bill, was authorized in 2007. City officials had hoped funding would follow.
The Shoreline Renourishment Project would place 1.6 million cubic yards of sand on the Imperial Beach shore, with periodic deposits for 50 years. A funding request has been submitted for next year’s appropriations bill.
Right now, the best hope is for the city to get sand from the Army Corps’ bay-deepening project.
Wade said he hopes to get all city approvals for that in place for the July 21 council meeting. The Port District also needs to approve the agreements, as does the Army Corps. He said work could begin as early as this fall.
The SANDAG project won’t get started until 2012.
The Port District has asked that if it funds the bay-dredging project, the Army Corps and Imperial Beach should establish a long-term dredging arrangement.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

No cleanup in huge TJ sewage spill

Mexican discharge raises jurisdictional, legal issues By Mike Lee

A mechanical breakdown and construction work at some U.S. sewage facilities allowed more than 2.1 million gallons of wastewater from Mexico to flood the Tijuana River Valley in San Diego County in early June.
Unlike most other spills of that size, it has prompted scant enforcement action by water-quality regulators and no cleanup.
The incident ranks as one of the county’s largest sewage-related accidents in the past decade, and one that likely would prompt hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties if it was caused by a local agency.
A top regulator at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board said he doesn’t plan to issue fines because the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission is exempt from them under the principle of sovereign immunity.
Federal facilities can deflect some environmental fines under a legal theory that is thought to have its roots in Britain. The policy shielded the king from being sued in his own courts. Congress has removed the waiver from various laws but not the Clean Water Act.
“We have one hand tied effectively behind our back,” said David Gibson, executive officer of the regional board.
Gibson said the investigation has been complicated because the discharge started in Mexico, where he has no authority.
The boundary commission took required steps to notify local agencies about the sewage spill in a report but didn’t try to recapture the liquid, Gibson said. He said it’s not clear what restoration steps the commission must take because it didn’t cause the spill.
“We are going to have a meeting with them to clarify roles and responsibilities, and coming out of that we will consider our compliance options,” he said.
Alternatives include issuing a cleanup order, but Gibson wouldn’t commit to a strategy before consulting with the commission.
He also said the overflow raised questions about the level of maintenance the federal agency must do at its sewage diversion structures.
“That is certainly one of those things we will address in black and white … in the next permit” issued for operating those facilities, Gibson said.
Commission spokeswoman Sally Spener said her agency took precautions to prevent the wastewater spill from reaching the river valley, but that its efforts were undermined by “unforeseeable circumstances.” Spener said the commission has not changed any policy or procedure because of the incident.
“I think that everyone who is involved with this understands that the true solution is to have improvements in the wastewater collection system in Mexico,” Spener said.
Other regulators said that is not the only issue.
“Even though the source is south of the border, it is bypassing U.S. taxpayer-funded infrastructure that was designed to capture that flow,” said Bart Christensen, a senior engineer for the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento who has spent 25 years working on wastewater issues in the San Diego-Tijuana region.
“If there were (millions of gallons) of sewage spilled anywhere else, you couldn’t say, ‘Well, gee. We were working on something, therefore our system was down,’ ” Christensen said.
South Bay conservationist Paloma Aguirre was planning a trash cleanup event for the nonprofit group Wildcoast in early June when she noticed sewage streaming through the Tijuana River Valley.
“It was black and there was a definite smell,” Aguirre said.
The source was uphill in Mexico, where an estimated 5 million gallons of sewage were released June 2 and 3 and then funneled to the United States through Smuggler’s Gulch.
On the U.S. side of the border, that region is sparsely populated by farmers and ranchers. Much of the nearby land is protected habitat for birds and other species.
Problems in Smuggler’s Gulch started the morning of June 2 after workers in Tijuana shut down the Matadero Pump Station to fix a broken sewage line, according to a report by the boundary commission.
The commission’s report said the Smuggler’s Gulch collector captured all the wastewater from Mexico until 4:30 p.m. At that point, the pumps couldn’t keep up and the sewage ran into the Tijuana River Valley until about 8 a.m. the next day, the report said.
Spener said one of the boundary commission’s pipes for shunting sewage to its nearby wastewater treatment plant was out of service at the time because another pipe was being placed underneath it during upgrades to the system. She said the project had been coordinated with officials in Mexico in hopes of avoiding problems.
“We waited to cut (the pipe) until we thought we were ‘all clear’ regarding potential spills,” Spener said. “We still had one line in service and we felt that would be adequate to handle any flows that came across” from Mexico.
She said the temporary system was working until a breaker on one pump kept tripping, forcing it out of action.

Over the past decade, San Diego County has had several spills of more than 1 million gallons. The incidents include:
June 2010: A mainline break in Mexico released more than 2.1 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the Tijuana River Valley.
March-April 2007: A ruptured pipe spewed 7.3 million gallons of sewage into the Buena Vista Lagoon.
November 2004 to November 2006: At least 14 million gallons of sewage flowed undetected from Navy barracks into San Diego Bay.
October 2004: Wastewater and debris clogged the Point Loma treatment plant, sending 2.26 million gallons of sewage into the ocean.
February 2004: A blocked sewer line in Balboa Park caused 4.9 million gallons of sewage to flow into San Diego Bay.
August 2003: A line break led to a 1.5 million-gallon spill at a treatment plant operated by Oceanside.
April 2003: A line break caused a 1.2 million-gallon spill in the Rainbow Municipal Water District.
February 2001: A clogged sewer line caused Mission Bay to become contaminated with about 1.5 million gallons of sewage that had overflowed into Tecolote Creek.
September 2000: About 2.7 million gallons of sewage spilled from a Camp Pendleton housing complex into the Santa Margarita River estuary.
February 2000: A clogged sewer line along Alvarado Creek went undetected for a week, allowing 34 million gallons of sewage to flow into the San Diego River.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Next Monthly Tijuana River Action Network Meeting

Next Monthly Tijuana River Action Network Meeting (every last Wednesday) - Wednesday June 30th at 6:00pm - Tijuana Estuary Training Center 301 Caspian Way, Imperial Beach, CA 91932.
Cross-border collaboration to address the conservation and restoration of the Tijuana River watershed by engaging in outreach, education, and being advocates for natural resources. Network meetings are a great way to meet and share ideas with staff and volunteers from Fundacion la Puerta, Proyecto Fronterizo, Fundacion Que Transforma, Alter Terra, Surfrider Foundation, Border Encuentro, Grupo Ecologista Tijuana, Tijuana Calidad de Vida, Tijuana Estuary, WiLDCOAST, Tijuana River Citizens’ Council and more. Volunteers and community members are welcome and encouraged to attend!

Environmental Issues Hurting Communities in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region

By Regina Ip
The United States and Mexico share a 2000-mile border where a population of 9 million is growing more than twice as fast as the populations of U.S. and Mexico.
Despite this growing population, the border region is confronted with many environmental health issues because of the lack of clean drinking water and proper health care. Even more, five out of the seven poorest communities in the country is in the border region. More than 35 percent of its population is living in poverty.
The living conditions in the area are in dire need of help. From weak social communities to inadequate building infrastructures, where there is no running water, sewage systems or electricity, the U.S.-Mexico border region faces many detrimental environmental health issues that cannot be fixed with the shortage of health care professionals or the stigma associated with the area.
“Almost everywhere you go in this world, there are people or groups of people that experience environmental injustices,” Paula Stigler said. “They are often low-income and people of color who do not have a voice and therefore are exposed unjustly to contamination in both their community and their workplaces.”
Stigler, who is the environmental program manager and tribal liaison for The San Diego Foundation, has been working on environmental issues, like water monitoring, with indigenous communities in San Diego County and Mexico for about ten years.
She has worked with various people including tribal health community promoters in remote tribal communities in Baja CA Mexico, local San Diego tribal environmental programs, communities in Cañon de los Laureles (Goat Canyon) in Tijuana and elsewhere.
Currently, Stigler is earning her doctorate in global health at UCSD/SDSU. She is currently interested in studying how climate change and its policies will affect susceptible populations in the border region.
The severity of the environmental health problems parallels those found in Third World countries. In addition to the underrepresented communities in the border region, many other residents are living in poor conditions. In some cases, there is no clean water for food, like drinking and cooking, or for hygienic purposes like bathing and washing. Even more, there is no basic sewage system to maintain wastes.
Because of this, residents have a much higher chance of catching waterborne and infectious diseases, such as salmonella infections, mosquito-transmitted malaria, measles and tuberculosis. Considered as a place where many people from different countries pass through often, about an average of 1.6 million per day, the health of those living in the border region confronts a national concern.
According to Stigler, some of the border cities do not follow safe air standards. Hazardous waste is a big problem as the border region becomes more industrialized.
New River, which runs down the inland region of Southern California, is the most polluted river in the United States. It has more than 100 industrial chemicals and 76 million liters of raw sewage passes through the river each day.
The rate of tuberculosis is twice the national rate. The rate of Hepatitis A is three times the rate of United States’ and two times the rate of Mexico’s. Salmonella and shigella dysentary is four times the rate of U.S. and Mexico.
Stigler develops workshops and speaks at community meetings on how residents can protect themselves from harmful contaminants in drinking water and in the environment. At these workshops, she calls attention to problems like poor drinking water.
“When looking at exposure to poor drinking water, it’s often a concern for waterborne pathogens and dehydration from gastrointestinal problems,” Stigler said. “This is especially problematic for children and the elderly. Since environmental health deals with so many different issues [like] air, trash, food, water, there are many health concerns [such as] cancer from exposure to dangerous chemicals, asthma from poor air quality [and] lead poisoning from exposure to lead in homes.
Stigler said that the current methods to solve the problem of poor water resources are not enough.
“Drinking water infrastructure was brought to communities in Mexico, however after assessing the decrease in gastrointestinal problems within the communities, my research found that the water was still contaminated due to unsafe storage practices in the homes and a lack of disinfection in the system.”
Stigler has formed the Tribal Environmental Health Collaborative, which is made up of tribal representatives, tribal NGO’s and universities that are assessing the top priorities for tribes in San Diego on environmental health and also trying to find funding to address their problems.
She said that, with the San Diego tribal environmental health collaborative project (TEHC), it’s difficult to measure the success of the drinking water infrastructure.
In addition, there is the issue of cultural competence in environmental health initiatives.
With the services that help tackle the issue, there are cultural conflicts in language and views on how to interpret natural elements, like water, which is considered sacred and represents nature.
“Cultural conflicts arise often due to a misunderstanding of how different communities and governments operate. When working binational there are language and communication barriers as well as cultural differences that can make the work challenging,” Stigler said.
“One thing I noticed was that while in the US we are accustomed to accomplishing many tasks via email and non-personal contact, in many other communities the face-to-face method is obligatory and works best for them,” Stigler said. One aspect of the language barrier involves the different approaches to communication that make it difficult to maintain regular contact. “Recognizing this is critical to having successful projects.”
Besides the language barriers, Stigler also comes across other communication challenges because of what technologies are used to communicate and how the political hierarchies work in the community. Understanding and respecting tribal sovereignty is very important.
“Politics is always an issue. Communication is probably the second biggest issue whether it be that calling internationally is not always easy or the same language isn’t spoken is a huge challenge.” Stigler said. “Also, a lack of understanding about the issues, the politics around those issues and no resources to address the problems. Many people are stretched so thin in addressing these problems and the resources are so slim that it can be really difficult to keep projects going.”
Despite the cultural challenges, the attempts to address and solve the environmental health issues have made some impact.
“Many tribes are now more aware of health and environmental concerns and beginning to address them through their tribal governments, which is a huge step in the right direction.”
Stigler will continue to work as a program manager to bring environmental awareness to local tribes.
“I hope to continue to work with non-profits who are fighting environmental injustices in our region and globally,” she said.
Those who are interested in helping can volunteer or donate to numerous organizations who are working on the issues, such as Environmental Health Coalition and the Native American Environmental Protection Coalition.
“There are many projects and groups that advocate for environmental injustices. I have worked with the US and Mexican governments both to help bring clean drinking water to communities in Mexico and have also received funding from foundations to organize tribes to assess and advocate for addressing environmental health priorities in their communities.”
Regina Ip is a public information intern with the Comprehensive Research Center in Health Disparities (CRCHD) and is majoring in Communications and Biology at UC San Diego. The CRCHD is a partnership of organizations focusing on community health and health disparities research. This publication was supported by the UC San Diego Comprehensive Research Center in Health Disparities Grant # 5 P60 MD000220 from the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, National Institutes of Health.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Waiter, There's a Metal Rod in My Sand

In 2005, surfers and beachgoers in Imperial Beach noticed that chunks of rock, mangled metal rods and other debris were washing up on the shore.
The problem started, they said, not long after the federal government dumped 250,000 cubic yards of sand near the shoreline of the city's beaches. (That's enough to fill up 12 percent of Qualcomm Stadium.)
The Army Corps of Engineers had dredged the sand from the San Diego Bay floor as part of a project to clear the way for large vessels. The federal agency made an agreement with Imperial Beach to dispose of the sediment near its shores.
The city's beaches are constantly losing sand to erosion, and city officials saw the project as an opportunity to replenish the sand they say is important for attracting tourists. But surfers and environmentalists said the sand was contaminated.
Five years later, the city is gearing up to enter into a similar agreement with the Army Corps to bring as much as 300,000 cubic yards of sand to Imperial Beach. Last month, it asked the Port of San Diego to provide $1.8 million for two sand replenishment projects. It wants to give $1.1 million to the Army Corps of Engineers and $700,000 to a second project planned by the San Diego Association of Governments.
Environmentalists fear contaminated sand might once again be dumped on Imperial Beach and say the city has given them little chance to weigh in on the project's fate.
Greg Wade, the city's community development director, said plans to fund the Army Corps project would depend on several factors, including how much money the city gets from the Port and how the city can best leverage its money to get more sand.
Wade said a plan to keep debris out of dredged sand was not implemented before the Army Corps' earlier project, which may have explained the contamination, but that the city would be more vigilant this time around.
He said the City Council would review the project's environmental assessment and ensure that measures to prevent contamination -- like inspecting the sand on the dredge boat and running it through a grate to filter out debris -- were included in the plans.
The Army Corps' current project will dredge the channel entry to San Diego Bay off the tip of Point Loma, not in the heavily trafficked bay where sediment contamination is more likely.
"The fact that it's in the entrance channel gives me some comfort," Wade said. "The possibility of that type of material in the sediment is less likely."
Those differences provide little comfort to Serge Dedina, a local surfer and executive director of Wildcoast, a nonprofit environmental group based in Imperial Beach. He questions why the city, which is primarily interested in sand, would help pay for a federal project whose main purpose is to clear vessel routes of excess sediment and to dispose of sand as an afterthought.
Scott John, manager for the Army Corps' $1.4 million project, said the dredging does not depend on additional funding from Imperial Beach. But if the city pays for the sand -- giving the Corps more money -- the agency could dredge deeper and lengthen the time before the agency has to return to maintain the area.
"It's common for some of our projects to enter into cost sharing agreements and for other agencies to split the cost of dredging in exchange for the sand," John said.
The agreement would guarantee the sand would be delivered to Imperial Beach instead of another dump site near Coronado.
Without cost-sharing agreements, John said, the Army Corps usually disposes of sand at the nearest available dump site to save on transport costs.
Dedina's concerns are pitted against the cash-strapped city's desire to attract more tourists and generate greater tax revenue. Sand acts as a buffer between battering waves and coastal development and also makes the city's beaches attractive to visitors.
City officials say most of Imperial Beach's sand historically came from sediment that washed in from the mouth of the Tijuana River. But that natural, recurring source was eliminated when the river was dammed. The city has had to find other ways to replenish its beaches from erosion caused by storms and the flow of currents in the area that carry sand from Imperial Beach north toward Coronado.
"We basically have been fighting for every project," said Imperial Beach Mayor Jim Janney. "I'm sorry, but we're basically asking for anything. The real goal, in my opinion, is to maintain Imperial Beach as a viable area. This is called opportunistic sand."
Dedina said he was concerned that the decision to ask the Port for money for sand should have been more open and allowed more opportunity for public input. It is especially important, he said, for groups like his that want to protect coastal wildlife and have a serious stake in how sand replenishment projects are carried out.
Janney acknowledged that the decision to ask the Port for money was made during a private conversation with Port Commissioner Mike Bixler and City Manager Gary Brown. But he said they had the city's best economic interests in mind.
"We had to keep this on the radar screen," he said. "It was dropping below their cutoff line for available money and we wanted to reiterate the desire to bring material to Imperial Beach."
He said he and other City Council members would not allow the Army Corps to bring contaminated sand to Imperial Beach.
"From everything I've been told, the material that's in the dredge, that material is extremely good sand," he said.
But he said he also had a responsibility to jump at any opportunity to secure increasingly scarce funding for sand replenishment.
"I would hate it to come about that people say we never advocated for the money," Janney said.
Please contact Adrian Florido directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Efforts to clean up Salton Sea begin with Mexican pollution

A signs warns people not to enter the New River near the town of Calipatria. (Jay Calderon The Desert Sun)

Keith Matheny • The Desert Sun • May 17, 2010
As Mexican officials cut the ribbon on a new wastewater treatment plant in Tijuana late last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and San Diego-area environmental watchdogs were among those on hand applauding.

The U.S. is more than an interested observer in its southern neighbor's efforts to clean up the environment along the border and even into the fringes of the Coachella Valley. It's an investor and partner.
The EPA has helped build 88 water and sewer projects along its more than 2,000-mile border with Mexico using about $550 million in Border Environment Infrastructure Funds, an offshoot of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, said Douglas Liden, a water infrastructure specialist for EPA's western region.
The total cost of the work is $1.6 billion, and about half of the projects and expenditures have been on the Mexican side of the border.
The projects are in Mexican border cities experiencing explosive growth, having inadequate or no sewer systems, and usually with much smaller U.S. “sister cities” on the other side bearing the brunt of the pollution, said Tomas Torres, director of EPA's San Diego border office.
The EPA-assisted work includes two major infrastructure projects to improve water quality in the New River, which flows into the nearby Salton Sea and is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the United States.
The river carries a harmful stew of industrial and municipal waste with historically little or no treatment. It flows north from the Mexican border city of Mexicali, with a metropolitan area of nearly 1 million residents, past a number of California communities before emptying into the Salton Sea, the state's largest lake.
A tainted Salton Sea has far-reaching effects for the valley and the rest of Southern California. Toxins in the water negatively affect everything from fish, birds and other wildlife to the humans who fish and boat on it.

The New River flows north into the United States of America from Mexico through an opening in the international border. The river is considered one of the most polluted in the U.S. Officials on both sides are working to clean it up. (Omar Ornelas The Desert Sun)
The EPA also contributed $41 million for planning and construction of two large wastewater treatment projects in Mexicali that totaled more than $98 million in construction costs, Liden said. The most recent project went online in 2007, and the two projects remove more than 40 million gallons per day of untreated sewage from the New River, he said.

Though environmental problems persist, the river and Salton Sea's environmental conditions have “drastically improved,” and public health risks have been reduced, Liden said.

Officials say the U.S.-funded projects are critical.
“We're at the end of the pipe, like it or not,” said Ben McCue, a coastal conservation program manager with Wildcoast, a nonprofit environmental protection group working to improve the Pacific coastal region near the border. “It makes more sense to use our tax dollars on that end than here.”
The collaborations produce positive results in the U.S., said Jose Angel, assistant executive officer of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board's Palm Desert office.
“Surely we have a vested interest in seeing Mexico address its water quality issues at the border,” he said. “We've found that a cooperative approach with Mexico works better than an antagonistic one.”
Joint effort
The EPA works through the North American Development Bank, a binational financial institution capitalized and governed equally by the United States and Mexico, to finance environmental projects certified by the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, also created as part of side agreements from NAFTA, Liden said.
Other projects using U.S. funds in Mexico have included removing tons of hazardous waste from abandoned factory sites and developing air quality management programs, according to the EPA's website.
U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a Texas Democrat whose Congressional district includes much of the state's western border with Mexico, supports the cross-border water infrastructure projects.
“The community on the other side is usually five to 10 times larger,” he said. “That always has an impact on our environment on this side of the border. Tuberculosis and other types of diseases don't recognize borders.”
Under the cooperative agreement between the EPA and its Mexican counterpart agency, infrastructure projects must be within 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, of either side of the border. Mexico must provide at least a 50 percent match in money, but typically provides more than half for its projects, EPA officials said.

A small tributary of the New River flows into the Salton Sea near the area where the New River empties into the sea. The New River is among the most polluted in the U.S. (Jay Calderon Desert Sun file photo)

The Mexican-side projects must have a demonstrable environmental benefit for the U.S.

Douglas Eberhardt, chief of the infrastructure office for EPA's western region, said that when he started working on Mexican border projects in 1989, “you had 13 million gallons of raw sewage a day coming across the border in the Tijuana River.”
Border Patrol agents in 1994 sued the U.S. government to receive hazard pay for working along the polluted Tijuana and New rivers flowing across the border from Mexico. The officers in 2005 settled the case for $15 million and the government gave them protective gear when working by the rivers, their attorney, Gregory McGillivary, said.
Diseases abound
Just on the U.S. side from Tijuana is Imperial Beach, counted among California's most polluted beaches by Wildcoast and other environmental groups. It's typically closed about 200 days per year due to pollution, McCue said.
Researchers at San Diego State University's Graduate School of Public Health found Hepatitis A and other viruses — including strains of polio virus — in 80 percent of water samples at Imperial Beach within three days of rain.
And waterborne diseases such as Hepatitis A and cholera occur at much higher rates in the Texas border region than in other parts of the state, according to a December 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The EPA has invested $42 million for wastewater collection and treatment projects in Tijuana and nearby Rosarito, Mexico, since 1998, about 40 percent of the projects' $98 million total cost. It doubled to 80 percent the number of homes in the Tijuana area with sewer services, despite rapid population growth, Liden said.
Along the Texas border, the EPA put $20 million into a wastewater treatment plant in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, that was completed in March, serving 126,000 residents. A smaller project in Ojinaga, Mexico, sister city to Presidio, Texas, was also completed this spring, said Gilbert Tellez, EPA's environmental engineer for the border program in the Texas region.
“In the Ojinaga area, you can really see a decrease in bacterial counts in the Rio Grande River. It's a pretty drastic change there,” Tellez said.

Shrinking funding
The program isn't without problems.
The Government Accountability Office's December report found that water and sewer infrastructure projects along the border have been “ineffective” because multiple government agencies involved in the projects in addition to the EPA, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Army Corps of Engineers and Housing and Urban Development, have failed to comprehensively assess needs and coordinate their efforts.
Annual funding for the EPA border projects has dropped from a high of about $100 million several years ago to $17 million this fiscal year, Eberhardt said.
McCue said he'd like to see the program continued and expanded.
“I think it's more difficult for people who aren't local, who can't see the benefits, and say, ‘Why are we spending U.S. taxpayer dollars in Mexico?'” he said. “But it really comes down to the most efficient and effective way to spend that money.
“You can get more done by working collaboratively in Mexico rather than unilaterally here in the U.S.”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Vote to Allow City to Hasten Dirty Storm Water to the Ocean

The San Diego Planning Commission Thursday approved a proposal by the city’s Storm Water Department to clear vegetation from creeks around the city, even though the plan acknowledges that it will cause storm water that reaches the coastal waters to be even more polluted.
The impetus for this project comes from flooding that causes problems in a few areas -- for example, some areas of the Tijuana River Valley, Alvarado and Grantsville areas in the San Diego River watershed.;
The problem is that the plan identifies about 170 areas in the city for vegetation clearing and new road building in open space, including creeks where flooding has never been a problem, such as in the Gilman Canyon section of Rose Canyon. When challenged by the Friends of Rose Canyon, the city quickly removed those areas from the plan, causing me to wonder. If the city admits that these specific areas are not necessary for the plan, how were all of the sites selected?
Strangely, the plan does not include any hydrologic models that would allow us to predict what the effect of vegetation removal from our creeks will be, whether vegetation removal will solve property loss from flooding, or even whether it will cause worse flooding problems downstream. But, we can be sure that removing vegetation will decrease water quality because wetland plants and soil microbes have been demonstrated to clean urban pollutants out of storm water. Instead, the city will continue to use a method that has fallen into disfavor in the last century because of environmental degradation that it causes.
Other cities approach storm water management in a new way. Instead of speeding storm water to the ocean as fast as possible, they find ways to keep our storm water on the land as long as possible. This can be achieved by increasing the infiltration where the rain falls, by intercepting it on the way downstream with basins and wetlands, and by repairing eroded creeks so that the water spreads out, slows down, and sinks in. (Read more about this process here.)
Sadly, none of these alternatives are part of the approved plan.
Seven San Diego environmental groups (San Diego Coastkeeper, Costal Environmental Rights Foundation, San Diego Audubon Society, Friends of Rose Canyon, Sierra Club San Diego Chapter, San Diego Canyonlands, and California Native Plant Society San Diego Chapter) have called for the city to reconsider its plan and come up with a solution that will reduce flood damage and also have beneficial effects on the rest of our environment. This call has been ignored so far, it remains to be seen whether the City Council will answer it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Surfers support 2 fired lifeguards


IMPERIAL BEACH — After changing into their wet suits on a stormy Sunday in March, off-duty Imperial Beach lifeguards Aaron Quintanar and Hans Fernan joined a gathering of grieving surfers in a paddle-out paying homage to a fallen friend. Mourners atop surfboards joined hands. Several tearfully recounted old times and shared their deep sense of loss.

Two weeks later, Quintanar and Fernan were fired for violating an unwritten city rule prohibiting the use of a lifeguard tower to suit up before heading into contaminated water. Signs posted that March 7 morning noted that the beach was polluted with runoff from the rain that began falling the night before.

Now the surfing community is rallying behind the pair, saying the punishment went overboard.

“This just compounds the wounds,” said Imperial Beach resident and surfer Greg Hughes. “They fired two great guys that have spent a good portion of their lives training to save lives in Imperial Beach. Both lifeguards are great watermen and do their jobs because they love this community and want to help make it safe. These guys volunteer to train lifeguards in Mexico on their own time.”

Imperial Beach officials say the city has a long-standing directive aimed at making lifeguards role models for beachgoers.

“We want (lifeguards) to set a good example for the rest of the community to not go swimming in polluted water,” City Manager Gary Brown said. “We want to discourage people from doing that so our lifeguards don’t have to rescue people in polluted water.”

Beach closures immediately north of Mexico are routine. The city’s beach has been closed for 35 days this year due to runoff, mostly after heavy rains.

The former lifeguards understand what they did was wrong but say it is being taken out of context.

“We weren’t down here because the surf was 6 feet or to have fun,” said Quintanar, 45, as he sat near the Imperial Beach pier last week. “I was in a fog. I just showed up. It was a cold, rainy, ugly day. I didn’t think about contamination. Hans didn’t see the signs. I don’t recall seeing them.”

City officials would not comment further about the dismissals because they are a personnel matter.

The paddle-out was for Britt Clamp, who died in a motorcycle accident in February in the El Centro desert. Quintanar said he and Clamp became close friends after Clamp moved to Imperial Beach in 1980. Clamp was well-liked among surfers, about 50 of whom attended the memorial north of the pier.

Quintanar, who earned just under $20 an hour, has 600 rescues over 26 years as a seasonal lifeguard, most in Imperial Beach. Fernan, a 15-year veteran, was selected in 2001 as one of the country’s top five favorite lifeguards in a national contest.

Both say they weren’t treated fairly and would accept any appropriate disciplinary action if they could get their jobs back.

“I think it’s worth fighting,” said Fernan, 37, who earned about $2.50 more an hour than Quintanar because of a previously held supervisor position.

Keeping lifeguards from polluted waters is not unusual. Lt. Nick Lerma with San Diego Lifeguard Services said San Diego has a policy prohibiting lifeguards from going into polluted water while on duty, except for rescues.

But, Lerma said, “We don’t have anything that says they can’t go into the water on their time off.”

He also said that as far as changing in a city facility, “we haven’t spelled that out for anybody.”

Word of the firings has spread among surfers, some of whom are asking elected leaders to intercede. Many have been sharing the news via e-mail.

Brent Jex, an attorney with Keegan & Baker, a San Diego firm specializing in employment litigation, said California law “is really broad in terms of giving employers the right to fire for basically any situation.” He said there are exceptions, such as exercising one’s First Amendment rights.

“I’m not sure a lifeguard could fall into this,” Jex said. “Religious practice, freedom of speech, there might be some protection in there. I would need to research it more.”

Quintanar said he was contacted by city officials April 26 to see if he and Fernan wanted to discuss the matter, but the meeting was canceled.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sewage treatment plant opening big step forward for Baja region


Wednesday, April 28, 2010 at 12:05 a.m.

TIJUANA— In 1990, Tecate, Rosarito Beach and Tijuana treated about 50 percent of their sewage, with the rest running into the Tijuana River or being dumped directly into the Pacific Ocean. That led to frequent closures of beaches in south San Diego County due to high levels of contamination.

With the opening Tuesday of the La Morita sewage treatment plant in Tijuana, officials said the region will soon treat 90 percent of its wastewater. The facility in the fast-growing southeast portion of the city will treat up to 20 percent of the incoming flow for use in irrigation. A nursery built next to the plant will use some of the water to grow trees and plants that will be planted throughout Baja California. The treated water will also irrigate a soccer field and public plaza next to the plant.

With the opening of another facility scheduled for the end of the year, Baja California Gov. José Guadalupe Osuna Millán and Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos predict the region will treat 100 percent of its sewage, a first in Mexico. Throughout the country, only about 35 percent of the wastewater is treated.

“This is a significant step toward our goal of making Tijuana green,” the governor said during a ceremony inaugurating the plant.

Environmentalists on hand for the opening hailed it as significant progress toward cleaning up the border.

“We are here to recognize and applaud their work,” said Ben McCue, of the U.S. environmental group Wildcoast. “In turn, we get clean water in San Diego.”

The plant, designed to treat about 5.6 million gallons of sewage daily, is in a valley surrounded by fast-growing suburbs and industry. It will serve approximately 250,000 people.

While the plant was built with funds from Mexico’s federal government and a loan from Japan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is contributing $2.7 million to connect more than 8,000 homes to the plant. Since 1998, the agency has invested $56 million to pay for 18 infrastructure projects in cities along the border, seven of which have been completed, said Doug Liden, an environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The region is close to reaching its wastewater treatment goal even though the population has increased by an average of 100,000 people a year during the past decade.

“Ten years ago, the focus was getting the waste out of the river,” Liden said. “The waste is pretty much out of the river. Now the focus is on trash and sediment.”

Monday, April 26, 2010

South Bay secondary treatment facilities to be completed by January

Environment and Resources - Water
BY Emily Holding
Tuesday, 20 April 2010 16:04

After years of waiting for funding and litigation, the construction of the secondary treatment facilities at the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant finally has a projected date of completion.

Ed Brusina, commissioner of the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, says the long-awaited facilities should be finished next January. In a March 23 letter to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, Brusina called the completion of the secondary treatment facilities one of his highest priorities.

The South Bay Treatment Plant in San Ysidro was built in 1997 to handle untreated wastewater from Mexico coming into the U.S. through the Tijuana River. The plant treats 25 million gallons of water per day to primary treatment standards, but the Clean Water Act requires that water be given secondary treatment before it is released into the ocean. The secondary treatment facilities were not included in the initial construction due to lack of funding and legal challenges, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Lack of secondary sewage treatment provisions has led to beach closures in places like Imperial Beach and Coronado. Environmental group WildCoast reports that 80 to 90 percent of the beach closures in San Diego County each year are due to this pollution carried into the U.S. from the Tijuana River. Last March, surfers at Imperial Beach were encouraged to get Hepatitis vaccinations due to the pollution.

Pollution from Tijuana has been a concern since 1934, when the U.S. and Mexico asked the International Boundary Commission to cooperate in a report on the Tijuana sewage problem. In the ‘90s, the U.S. and Mexican sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address the problem by building the South Bay treatment plant, which was completed in 1997.

In 2001, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board (CRWQCB) sued the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) in federal court, asking for judicial enforcement of waste discharge requirements at the South Bay plant. The court issued a final judgment in favor of the CRWQCB in December 2004, which included a Compliance Order directing the USIBWC to construct secondary treatment facilities by August 24, 2008.

A year before this due date, the USIBWC asked for an amendment to the Compliance Order that would extend the deadline to March 2010. But Congress ended up setting aside $66 million in the 2008 budget for the secondary treatment facilities. Despite this funding for secondary treatment of the South Bay plant, the court extended the deadline to Jan. 5, 2011.

In order to meet this deadline, Drusina said that the USIBWC negotiated two modifications to the existing contract in early 2010 to speed up the process. The modifications cost about $4 million and include overtime for existing and additional crews and accelerated delivery of equipment. In the letter to the CRWQCB, Drusina said the USIBWC has made some in-house changes as well, which include a full-time contracting officer and increased on-site personnel observations.

“This additional work will result in secondary treatment of SBIWTP (South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant) effluent by January 5, 2011, which the contractor has guaranteed and in accordance with the deadline established by the court order,” Drusina wrote, adding that he appreciates “that this has been a long project fraught with difficulties, and that we are all anxious to complete the SBIWTP.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Environmentalists call for binational solution to clean up Tijuana River

Jay Novak used to ignore the pollution warning signs in Imperial Beach and go surf the dreamy, if dirty, break.

No more.

"I used to go out in the water even when it was polluted," he said. "I ruptured both of my eardrums from ear infections. Obviously, I don't do that anymore."

Toxic chemicals and fecal matter have lined the Tijuana River Valley for decades, making it one of America's most polluted rivers. But there may be a glimmer of new hope. Even as the condition of the valley has continued to deteriorate, collaborative new efforts among U.S. and Mexican environmental groups have brought forth new attention and some positive momentum.

The binational river enters the United States behind the Plaza de las Americas mall in San Ysidro, and empties into the Tijuana Estuary, just south of Imperial Beach. In addition to being a primary habitat for hundreds of species of animals, the estuary channels water from the Tijuana River into the Pacific Ocean.

Novak, founder of the Tijuana River Valley Citizen's Council (TRCC), has witnessed the pollution firsthand.

"Any day during or after a rain you can see the water coming out," he said. "It's not a pleasant sight. The water is usually brown and sudsy, and it's usually littered with lots of plastics and debris."

The amount of pollution that flows out of the river, often in excess of 225 million gallons of contaminated water per minute, swamps the small filtering facility in the riverbed on the American side. Novak said the plant can only treat 25 to 30 million gallons per day.

"When the plant is overwhelmed by the amount of water during and following rainy days all that polluted water simply bypasses the system and flows straight into the estuary and then into the Pacific Ocean," he said.

Oscar Romo, Watershed Coordinator for the Tijuana River National Estuary Research Reserve, said that sediments in the water pose a threat to the environment and public health.

Paloma Aguirre, coastal conservation program coordinator at WiLDCOAST, said a study conducted by SDSU found strands of Hepatitis A and other diseases in the river.

All parties acknowledge that the crisis has amplified in recent years.

"The problem has a direct correlation to the population of Tijuana and the lack of proper sewage and trash facilities," said Novak. "As Tijuana has grown, so too has the pollution and dirty water issue."

Aguirre said that the local government is simply unable to keep pace with the rate at which Tijuana has grown. She said that although it might be easy to blame Tijuana and the Mexican government, that it is not fair and unproductive.

"There is absolutely no blame to be placed anywhere," she said.

Romo shared the same sentiments.

"It is so easy to point the finger at a community like Tijuana," he said. "But that is plain ignorance. Mexican officials are taking this problem very seriously. It is not as if they don't care or don't want to do anything to help, it is just the means by which to implement a project that are unavailable to them. Mexico has simply not had the financial resources to have taken care of the issue by themselves."

Dan Murphy, campaign manager of the "No BS" campaign for the Surfrider Foundation, agreed.

"They are trying on their side of the border," he said. "They want to know and are willing to learn what they need to do to prevent their sewage from winding up in the river."

The organizations agreed that their biggest challenge was the issue of bi-nationality.

"Because it is a binational issue, there are different levels of involvement on a local, regional, and national scale on both sides of the border," said Aguirre.

Prior administrations have made attempts, Romo said, but those efforts have been hasty and foolish.

"The Reagan administration was the first to shed light on the issue," he said. "But it acted quickly and irrationally. Now we are paying the consequences for that botched attempt."

Murphy said that the government on our side is slowly becoming more involved.

"Senator Denise Ducheney introduced a bill to allocate a certain amount of funds to starting a tire recycling program in Mexico," he said. "Not only that, the EPA has been doing a great job lately of working with the water agencies down there. So we're really seeing a lot of progress."

Aguirre said the most important step was to keep open lines of communication between environmentalist coalitions and government officials from each side.

Politics may prevent those lines from opening.

"By the time we even begin to establish a good relationship and social network with their officials, it is re-election time," said Romo. "It is difficult to maintain the type of communication we need with so much turnover."

With constant communication being the key, local nonprofits, such as TRCC, the Surfrider Foundation and WiLDCOAST have stepped up their levels of involvement and are making an impact by keeping communication lines open and bustling.

Kelly Keniston, steering committee member at TRCC, said the joint efforts of such organizations are new and leading the issue in the right direction, despite previous conflicting views between the groups.

"We are all working together to keep the issue on the forefront of the elected officials' minds," she said.

Murphy agreed.

"We've made a lot of progress," he said. "Every time we come together and have these meetings, there is more getting done, and even more on the horizon."

The organizations, which now convene under the recently formed Tijuana River Recovery Team, are cautiously optimistic about its prospects of garnering national attention.

"It's a local problem," said Romo. "We'd like it to be solved by locals on each side of the border, but we know that is not possible. To us it is a huge issue, but to officials in Mexico City and Washington D.C, it's not yet."

These organizations are focused on raising awareness locally and regionally, which they hope will translate into bringing national recognition.

"There are a ton of people here in our community that don't realize the severity of the situation," said Novak. "If people living here don't know about it, I doubt people living in Sacramento or outside of the state are any more informed."

A priority of the groups is to start small and let local efforts snowball into much larger future efforts.

"A big focus is getting volunteers down here," said Murphy. "They need to see the issue first hand. From there, the community can put a huge amount of pressure on politicians, letting them know that we are tired of swimming in pollution. We are tired of having to get Hepatitis shots all the time, and getting our ears drilled from the sewage. We're not going to just stand there and watch these beautiful waves breaking from the beach. We are tired of this issue."

By: Anthony Dacong

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I.B. Declares April Environmental Awareness Month

In the spirit of Earth Day on April 22, Imperial Beach has declared April Environmental Awareness Month and is hosting events to help residents recycle, reuse items and clean up their neighborhood.

In honor of Environmental Awareness Month, the city and EDCO will bestow “Recycling All-Star” awards to four Imperial Beach residents who exemplify exceptional recycling and waste reduction practices based on their ratio of recycling, trash and green waste put curbside for trash pick-up. Award winners will receive $100 from EDCO and a bag of environmental goodies from the city. Each of the winners will be chosen on a different pickup day, giving recyclers throughout the city a chance to win all month long.

The 9th annual Citywide Garage Sale, to be held 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 24, will offer residents a free opportunity to sell clothing, furniture and other items they no longer use. It's also a chance for shoppers to save money and support their neighbors by spending the day shopping among the garage sale locations instead of going to a mall.

Maps of the garage sale locations are available at the city's Public Works Department and at any 7-Eleven stores in Imperial Beach starting April 20. Maps will also be available on the city's Web site,

“These community events are a great way to check-off spring cleaning to-do lists and prepare for summer by picking up some new items at a garage sale,” said Environmental Program Specialist Guy Nelson. “Plus, you can get to know your neighbors and support your community while lessening the adverse impact on the environment.”

Also on Saturday, April 24 will be the 8th annual Creek to Bay Cleanup held by I Love a Clean San Diego and sponsored in part by Imperial Beach. The city is sponsoring the cleanup as a regional watershed activity to raise public awareness on storm water pollution. Residents are encouraged to participate in two cleanup sites scheduled at the Tijuana River mouth and Tijuana River Valley. For more information or to join a clean-up team, visit

Residents are encouraged to clean out their homes and get rid of appliances, furniture, yard waste, metal concrete, asphalt, home-improvement debris and electronic waste through the Home Front Cleanup event. Residents can dispose of any such items as long as they do not contain hazardous waste for free courtesy of EDCO. Items should be dropped off at the collection site at Mar Vista High School from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 1.

Seniors or physically disabled residents not able to drop items off for the Home Front Cleanup can schedule a curbside pick-up of no more than five bulky items. Those wishing to utilize this offer must schedule an appointment before April 23 by calling EDCO at (619) 287-7555.

For more information about Environmental Awareness Month activities, contact Imperial Beach Environmental Program Specialist Guy Nelson, at (619) 424-4095.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Seven miles to Mexico

The group is Tijuana River Network. The mission, adjusted a few times, but seemingly decided, is … “To support the conservation and restoration of the Tijuana River Watershed though education, outreach, and advocacy without borders.”

The group met in Playas de Tijuana last Saturday, March 27, at the quaint Café Aquamarino. Representatives from Fundacion la Puerta, Proyecto Fronterizo, Fundacion Que Transforma, Alter Terra, Surfrider, Border Encuentro, Grupo Ecologista Tijuana, Tijuana Calidad de Vida, Tijuana Estuary, WILDCOAST, and the hospitable hostess and owner of the cafe, Carmen Romo, gathered to share and collect ideas.

The purpose of the meeting was to unite the efforts of Mexico and U.S. governments, citizens and environmental activists and to create change for the polluted condition of the beaches, river valley, the waters and the ecological lives that are shared between the two. People are refusing to allow the area to become no man’s land. With persistence, anything is possible. With more voices, persistence will be heard.

California and Mexico share a unique relationship – geographical neighbors with different sized bank accounts. The good thing about black and white issues is the gray space in between. The gray area is where commonality will bring change to the area. I was one of two people who spoke basically zero Spanish, but Oscar Romo of TJ River National Estuarine Research Reserve, for our benefit, two out of 14 people, gave his entire presentation in English.

Compromise and respect was abundant in the group’s conversations. Sincere smiles, hugs and besos were plentiful. The walls of Carmen’s café are a soft turquoise; nothing stands between her windows and brilliant views of the ocean. Smells of coffee and teas infused with flowers swirled together with the salty air blowing in off the Pacific. Standing there, taking it all in, for just a moment we forgot that the water in front of us contained high levels of sewage. We forgot that ocean lives would be lost due to plastic ingestion. We forgot that trash would float down into the waves, carrying tires and children’s shoes. We remember though the water test results and the reasons why we crossed the border. We want to believe that every ocean should be brilliant blue - like Carmen's walls - but they are not.

This group is about being a good neighbor. We know that when we help Mexico advance, we advance our own lives. Neighbors choose what kind of relationship they are going to have with the other. The TJ River Network is going to share and take turns; the next meeting will be on the U.S. side. Numbers will help this cause, show up; we can get this thing rolling.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sewage from Tijuana River Fouling Southbay Beaches

SAN DIEGO - An influx of sewage from the Tijuana River prompted an ocean contamination warning stretching from the U.S.-Mexico border to the northern limits of Imperial Beach Tuesday.

Field measurements indicating northward-flowing pollution near the mouth of the Tijuana Estuary prompted the alert, according to the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health.

Signs cautioning the public about the contamination will stand along the affected beaches until follow-up tests determine that they are safe again for recreational uses, the DEH advised.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Dead Seal

Within a five foot square of Imperial Beach, I found a soft green piece of sea glass, an electric cordless beard shaver – without metal blades – an indistinguishable plastic toy-thing, and the approximately, two-week old carcass of a once brown Seal – eyes gone. I made phone calls. Seals are federally protected: dead or alive. (I’m new to this, bear with me.)

“It is the responsibility of the planet to take the seal,” the woman stated. She works with a local protect-the-seal group. I agree that it is. However, it seems the planet’s slacking off on its responsibilities and shouldn’t the Seal be allowed a decent burial. Don’t we all deserve that much? Does anyone have a small boat, could you just drag its body out a little bit and let its life disperse with dignity?

The Seal waits on the rocks at the southernmost end of Sea Coast Dr. Two people and some rope, forget the boat. It had a life just as we do; it’s now gone, as ours will be too. I know all of you here feel a part of the ocean. Salt water runs through our veins too. Two people, tops.