Sewage History of Tijuana

IT’S TIME FOR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA to wake up and acknowledge a hard reality. For all intents and purposes, the region is a desert, and reclaimed water—the pejoratively termed toilet-to-tap—is a looming necessity. Demand for water from the Colorado River is nearing capacity and will exhaust sustainable water supply sometime in the next two decades. The city of Las Vegas and a number of other municipalities already dump treated sewage (cleaned to EPA standards) back into the Colorado River. The fact is, San Diegans have been drinking other cities’ toilet water for years.

Tijuana’s water authority, the Comisión Estatal de Servicios Públicos de Tijuana (CESPT), says that, given its choice, it would treat the city’s wastewater to secondary standards—a level that cleans out roughly 85 percent of contaminants—and dump it back into the Tijuana River for discharge into the Pacific. That idea didn’t go over with officials from the California Water Quality Control Board or the U.S. EPA, who worried that potential raw sewage overflows and the less stringent demands of Mexican environmental laws would result in continued pollution of the Tijuana Estuary.

That estuary acts as a giant sponge for the massive Tijuana River basin, a 1,730-mile catch, on both sides of the border, that has funneled rain flows into the ocean for eons. Tijuana sits higher, topographically, than the estuary and southern San Diego County, and so anything it doesn’t catch and treat becomes an environmental problem for the United States—particularly Imperial Beach, which has been subjected to beach closings since testing began.

As early as the beginning of the 20th century, pollution was a problem in the estuary, since Tijuana and parts of San Ysidro (particularly the old Customs House) faced limited wastewater treatment capacities and at many points simply dumped sewage into the Tijuana River for outfall into the Pacific. The situation was exacerbated as Tijuana’s population began a steep growth curve, beginning in the 1970s. For years, Tijuana—perpetually short of funding—relied on San Diego’s wastewater system. Then, in the 1980s, the International Boundary and Water Commission signed a minute with Mexico (minutes are accords between the two countries that carry the power of law) that would use binational funds to turn the southernmost 3 miles of Mexico’s portion of the Tijuana River into concrete.

By the time that project was completed, it was evident Tijuana needed a new treatment plant. It planned to build one on its side of the border, across from the current South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant in San Ysidro. U.S. officials, concerned with the proximity of the plant and the plan to dump treated water back into the Tijuana River, prevailed on Mexico to build a plant 7 miles south of the border at Punta Bandera, the San Antonio de los Buenos plant. That plant (which was built at a costly and inconvenient location, at the request of the United States) treats 25 million gallons per day and was already at maximum capacity the day the facility went online.

Mexico began plans for a new plant to be located east of Tijuana at the Alamar River. The Rio Alamar plant was designed to treat water to Mexican standards and dump the effluent back into the Tijuana River. U.S. officials, again worried about the quality of the water that would be coursing through the estuary on the U.S. side (and likely worried about Mexican design and operation abilities), proposed a new solution: The IBWC would build an international treatment plant on U.S. soil, so effluent would then be subject to more rigid EPA standards, and discharge treated water through a planned ocean outfall that would empty 3.5 miles west of the Tijuana River opening.

The proposal satisfied U.S. officials—Tijuana’s sewage would be treated to U.S. standards with U.S. oversight—and Mexico was content to get 25 million gallons a day of treatment for $16 million (the price it would have paid to build the Rio Alamar facility) plus a $1.1 million yearly fee. The IBWC wrote Minute 283, both countries signed, and the IWTP at San Ysidro began operations in 1997. But it was plagued with bureaucratic woes from the outset. The plant was to be built in two phases, and it was designed to operate to secondary treatment levels, which would meet environmental standards established by the Clean Water Act. But because of a lawsuit and lack of funding, the secondary stage has never been built.

Edit Module Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module