Leaky border

by Rob Davis

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA

Just beyond the U.S.-Mexico border fence, three black tanks loom over a weedy Tijuana hillside. Each day, they fill with sewage from the stucco and red-tiled townhouses above them. Each night, they empty into the canyon below, a notorious illegal border crossing known as Smuggler's Gulch.

That sort of dumping is typical throughout Tijuana, says 60-year-old Oscar Romo. When heavy winter rains batter the Pacific coast, the pollution floods into the U.S., choking the Tijuana River Reserve, where Romo works as the coastal training program coordinator. Ultimately, it winds up in the Pacific Ocean, closing San Diego-area beaches for months at a time.

Twenty-five years ago this August, President Ronald Reagan and Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid promised to cooperate on solving cross-border pollution problems like this one. Under the La Paz agreement, the two countries have reduced air pollution in El Paso and Ciudad Ju√°rez. They built  -- and plan to upgrade  -- a plant in Nogales, Ariz., that treats sewage from nearby Nogales, Sonora. The U.S. helped finance the removal of hazardous waste from an abandoned Tijuana factory that extracted lead from U.S. car batteries. But when the federal government turned to a private U.S. company to fix the San Diego-Tijuana sewage pollution problem, disaster ensued.

Now, after eight years of missed deadlines and infighting between activists and politicians, the feds have jettisoned the effort, leaving San Diego back at square one. "Lots of money has been spent," Romo says, "but lots of mistakes have been made."

Tijuana quadrupled in population between 1970 and 2000, thanks in part to a boost from the thousands of Mexican border city jobs created by the 1994 North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. Infrastructure has not kept pace. A 2000 Mexican census estimated that 17 percent of Tijuana's more than 1.4 million citizens are without indoor plumbing. Romo puts the number closer to 50 percent, noting that many homes dump wastewater directly into the streets.

The resulting pollution  -- hundreds of millions of gallons filled with heavy metals, viruses, litter, human feces and sediment  -- is slowly killing the Tijuana River estuary in the United States' far Southwestern corner. Sediment is filling the lush, green 2,500-acre salt marsh, destroying habitat that helps sustain several threatened and endangered bird species.

From the beginning, the federal government has bungled attempts to stem the pollution. In 1997, in a move hailed as a diplomatic triumph, the U.S. opened a sewage treatment plant just across the border from Tijuana in San Ysidro, Calif. Though the plant eliminated the steady trickle of sewage, it couldn't handle the massive pulses caused by heavy rain. It also violated Clean Water Act standards because it didn't clean the waste sufficiently before pumping it offshore. Despite a court order, the federal government failed to resolve the problem. So, in 2000, Congress awarded a more than $500 million no-bid contract to the Bajagua Project LLC to build another sewage plant, this time in Mexico. The plant would have doubled Tijuana's sewage capacity, improved treatment levels to meet requirements and provided a source of reclaimed water to boost the parched city's supply. But despite those benefits, Bajagua still wouldn't have stopped the area's months-long winter beach closures because it ignored the thousands of Tijuana homes that lack sewer connections.

The project divided San Diego's environmental community. Opponents fought it at every step, decrying the no-bid nature of the contract and the company's campaign donations to the politicians who became some of the project's loudest advocates. The project, not the pollution, became the focus. Activists exhausted themselves attacking each other, instead of working on steps forward. "It stopped being about public health," says Cory Briggs, a San Diego attorney who studied the issue for a local foundation. "It just fell apart. We all look bad for it."

It became clear that Bajagua would miss a September 2008 deadline to start operating. The U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, a State Department agency, finally abandoned the project in May, citing its cost as well as uncertainties over permits. The federal government now plans to retrofit the existing plant. Meanwhile, continued infighting, lack of money and bureaucratic hurdles have hampered San Diego's efforts to find a new solution to the winter pulses of pollution.

Romo, for his part, has tackled the problem at its root, at least on a small scale. In Los Laureles Canyon, one of Tijuana's cross-border conduits, he worked with residents to line the streets with permeable pavers  -- blocks of stone cut by local women, which, unlike asphalt, allow rainwater to soak into the soil and help slow pollution runoff.

But even this small-scale effort has run into problems. A succession of Tijuana mayors  -- some supportive, some not  -- hampered the project. Romo had hoped to work around the city's sluggish bureaucracy; now he will have to work through it to obtain the permits he needs.

On a sunny Saturday in May, Romo drives to Border Field State Park, where the rusty border fence juts out into the Pacific Ocean. His van rolls through week-old puddles of sewage before Romo stops to talk to a man and two women on the other side of the fence. They're transplants from Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, who have come to Tijuana, like thousands of others, in search of manufacturing jobs.

"We're moving backwards," Romo says. "The city is growing really, really fast, and there's a gap between what the city can do and the amount of development. It's scary."

On the other side of the fence, the Chiapas natives and other Tijuana residents enjoy their day at the beach. But in the U.S., only the Border Patrol is out. The beaches, still posted with yellow signs warning of the winter's sewage contamination, are empty for miles.

Rob Davis lives in San Diego, California, where he covers environmental issues for the nonprofit online daily voiceofsandiego.org. © High Country News