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.