Water pollution at the US-Mexico border is a pressing issue that demands immediate attention. The California Coastal Commission has recently borne witness to the severe and harmful effects of sewage contamination on local communities and the surrounding environment.

In Southern California’s vast urban area, the Tijuana River Valley, usually a green oasis, is now a cause for concern due to sewage pollution causing health problems in nearby communities and harming state lands.

The rapid population and industrial growth in Tijuana have polluted its public sewage treatment infrastructure, leading to long-standing issues with broken, malfunctioning treatment plants.

Sewage leakage and discharge into the Tijuana River have not only polluted the California coastline from Mexico’s Rosario to California’s Coronado but have also resulted in sewage flowing into Imperial Beach during wet seasons.

In August, Hurricane Hilary pushed the sewage systems in Tijuana and along the border to the brink of collapse. Two billion gallons of contaminated water crossed the border, leading to Imperial Beach’s first-ever boil water advisory. The city’s businesses had to shut down, and residents suffered from illnesses such as Shigella and E. coli.

Even before this crisis, sewage pollution forced frequent beach closures, adversely impacting local tourism and depriving low-income and Hispanic communities of beach access.

At a Coastal Commission meeting, Mayor Aguirre requested a letter be sent to California Governor Gavin Newsom and President Biden, demanding a state of emergency declaration and the allocation of funds to upgrade and expand the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, responsible for treating Tijuana’s sewage.

The commission also discussed the need for the federal government to fully fund the International Boundary and Water Commission, which handles transboundary water issues and operates the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant.

A crisis of this magnitude calls for swift action, and commission members agreed to vote on the request in the coming month. The meeting included insights from experts, officials, medical professionals, and concerned citizens about the environmental, public health, and economic repercussions of US-Mexico cross border pollution.

Local doctors reported an increase in patients with gastrointestinal issues, emphasizing the need for immediate intervention. Research from the University of California-San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography revealed that sewage from Tijuana becomes aerosolized, creating a health hazard.

Despite being one of the few affordable beach communities in Southern California, Imperial Beach’s severe pollution prevents residents from enjoying the coast. The crisis has now reached the state level, with all 18 mayors in San Diego County calling on Governor Newsom to address the ongoing sewage and chemical pollutants flowing into the ocean from the Tijuana River.

Sandy Naranjo, Vice-Chair of the San Diego County Board of Port Commissioners, emphasized the widespread impact on people, water, beaches, and the region’s future. Beach closures have now extended to 650 consecutive days, affecting residents beyond the coastal areas.

Community members like Leon Benham, President of the Citizens for Coastal Conservancy, expressed their desire for clean beaches and the restoration of the pristine river valley.

Governor Newsom’s response cited jurisdictional challenges but underlined his commitment to finding real solutions. He has engaged with federal and binational partners, advocated for additional funding, and worked to secure necessary repairs for the federal water treatment plant.

In the face of this dire situation, Mayor Paloma Aguirre called on President Biden to take immediate action, bypassing the lengthy congressional appropriations process that has been in place for years. The water pollution crisis at the US-Mexico border necessitates urgent and coordinated efforts to protect public health and the environment.

Photo: Brian Auer