Apr 1, 2024 - News

What to expect from Congress' $100 million border sewage fix

The U.S.-Mexico border wall in Imperial Beach

The border wall between Mexico and Imperial Beach. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Congress is spending another $100 million to fix a decrepit San Ysidro wastewater treatment plant.

Why it matters: The move offers hope of genuine progress on the stubborn cross-border sewage crisis caused by the broken treatment plant.

State of play: The South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant is overwhelmed by sewage from Tijuana and dumps millions of gallons of untreated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, creating an ongoing environmental justice crisis along the South County coast.

Driving the news: The federal government's $1.2 trillion appropriation bill sent $156 million to the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which manages the plant and other water infrastructure along the border.

  • María-Elena Giner, IBWC commissioner, told NBC 7 that roughly $100 million of that would go to immediate fixes for the treatment facility.
  • Currently, the plant cannot treat the sewage it discharges into the ocean to Clean Water Act standards, Voice of San Diego reported last year.

Catch up quick: The IBWC learned of the severe maintenance problems while preparing for a $300 million expansion from funds Congress allocated in 2020.

  • That expansion was meant to double the plant's capacity — from treating 25 million gallons of sewage a day to 50 million gallons.
  • Engineers hired to sketch out that project determined they needed to fix the existing plant before they could consider expanding it.
  • To cover those repairs and the inflated price tag for the expansion, President Biden asked last year for an extra $310 million — he got $100 million.

The IBWC expects to sign a contract for the repair work this summer.

Zoom out: Cross-border pollution also comes from a treatment plant five miles south of the border, Punta Bandera, especially in the summer months when currents carry sewage north.

What we're watching: A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, who helped secure the repair funds, said she expects the plant to meet Clean Water Act requirements by August due to ongoing repair work unrelated to the new funds.

  • "Getting the plant operating to the point that we aren't violating Clean Water Act standards is a great first step," said MaryAnne Pintar, chief of staff for Peters.

The bottom line: Paloma Aguirre, mayor of Imperial Beach, where sewage closed beaches for nearly all of 2023, told Axios last year that repairs could reduce beach closures by 65%.

  • "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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