Oct 27, 2023 - News

Biden's Tijuana sewage funding ask

The U.S.-Mexico Border wall south of Imperial Beach in May 2021. Photo: Patrick T. FALLON / AFP

The White House has joined the chorus of local and state officials seeking more money to blunt sewage flows from the Tijuana River into the Pacific Ocean.

Driving the news: President Biden on Thursday included $310 million for maintenance and improvements at the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant in his emergency funding request to Congress.

Why it matters: Cross-border pollution at San Diego's southernmost beaches presents an ongoing environmental justice crisis that threatens the health, safety and economic well-being of those areas.

Catch up quick: The $310 million request would be on top of $300 million that Congress allocated in 2020 to upgrade the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, along the border about two miles west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

  • The planned upgrades envisioned for that already-allocated $300 million would double the 25 million gallons of sewage the plant can treat daily.
  • After securing money for that upgrade, officials acknowledged the plant needed $150 million in maintenance to operate effectively at its current treatment volume.
  • In August, California's senators asked Congress for another $300 million. The county's four Democratic congressional representatives did the same a few days later.
  • But the international agency in charge of the plant told regional leaders last month the total cost for upgrades and repairs is now $900 million, as the Union-Tribune reported.

Yes, but: The president's inclusion of $310 million in his emergency ask is itself only a step — Congress still needs to approve it.

  • "Make no mistake, this is not a 'mission accomplished' moment," said Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego), who organized the September letter requesting the funds, in a statement. "This funding will need to be approved by both chambers of Congress, which remains an uphill battle, and I am already working to ensure we have the votes to get it across the finish line."

The big picture: Fixing and expanding the San Ysidro plant would be stem one of the two major sources of sewage to South County beaches. It's especially crucial in the winter, when rains increase Tijuana River flows beyond the plant's capacity.

  • The other major source is the Punta Bandera treatment plant five miles south of the border. That plant especially contributes in the summer, when ocean currents carry sewage north.

What's next: Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre estimated in an August interview with Axios that expedited fixes of the San Ysidro plant would reduce beach closure days by 65%.

  • "It's not 100%, because when we get storm events when we see a billion gallons of water per day, nothing is going to stop that," she said. "But Mexico is on their way to fixing Punta Bandera, and if our side did the same, we would see our beaches open maybe three quarters of the year."
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