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.