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Tijuana’s illegal sewer hookups linked to cross-border pollution

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

Parque Baja California should be the ideal community park. Mature trees provide shade and benches give visitors a comfortable place to sit and feel the ocean breeze.

But running through the middle of the park is a drainage culvert with water flowing year round.

Martin Acosta recalls seeing a couple of kids jump into the water to retrieve a soccer ball there earlier this year. One of the kids said the water “smelled like doo-doo,” said Acosta, who is an architect and environmental activist.

“The kid was right, because that’s exactly what it is,” he said.

The sewer water in Parque Baja California is a microcosm of Tijuana’s failing infrastructure — an ongoing crisis with grave impacts on economies, quality of life and public health on both sides of the border.

Cross-border sewage is among the most critical issues facing the Tijuana-San Diego region. On the U.S. side, the problem is particularly acute in San Diego’s South Bay. The Environmental Protection Agency has a $630 million blueprint for eliminating 95% of the contaminated cross-border flows.

While funding remains a question mark, the federal appropriations bill signed last December cleared the way for the EPA to transfer $300 million to the International Boundary and Water Commission for infrastructure projects.

The main sources of cross-border sewage are overburdened sewage treatment facilities prone to leaks and runoff from the Tijuana River after heavy rains.

Then there’s the type of contamination found at Parque Baja California. It doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as the other two, but it is in many respects the most difficult to control.

“People connect their sewer lines to the storm drain and we end up with wastewater running through those storm drain pipes,” said Carmen Romo, an environmental activist with the group Tijuana Calidad de Vida.

A problem in plain sight

It’s common to see — and smell — brown liquid coming from the city’s storm drain pipes. Even when it isn’t raining, Romo said. Much of that waste from homes and businesses flows directly into the Pacific Ocean and has contributed to Imperial Beach’s coastline being closed for 500 consecutive days over the past two years.

The problem is in plain sight in the Playas de Tijuana neighborhood, where dozens of storm drain pipes empty into the ocean. These pipes should be dry when it isn’t raining, but flow year-round.

“This is something that happens on a regular basis,” Romo said. “And through the coast, if you walk along, you’ll see several storm drains just pouring out sewage.”

Within the city, it is the poorest residents who are most impacted. In the Los Laureles neighborhood of Tijuana, trash and other debris block storm drain pipes leading to the Tijuana River. The result is pools of wastewater in the middle of residential neighborhoods.

This contamination exposes residents to a host of health problems, according to Rosario Zagarai, an activist with WildCoast. “They get skin infections, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal viruses,” she said.

Zagarai, Romo and other activists blame the lax regulatory environment. Part of the reason nothing gets done, they said, is that Tijuana runs the storm drain system while the state of Baja California manages the sewage system.

Whenever someone complains, the two governments point fingers at each other and nothing gets done, Romo said.

“It gets kind of complicated,” she said.

Consider that the state will only connect homes to the sewage system if property owners have official deeds. However, an estimated 40% of new construction in Tijuana is built without permits, which means the flow of sewage will continue to increase into the foreseeable future.

The Baja California state agency tasked with managing the wastewater system did not respond to questions. Tijuana officials, meanwhile, told KPBS they’re doing their part.

“We report each instance to the state agency and they inspect them,” said Juan Enrique Bautista Corona, director of Tijuana’s Urban Development Department.

Trash and other debris blog storm drain pipes that carry contaminated water to the Tijuana River.

Charlotte Radulovich

Trash and other debris blog storm drain pipes that carry contaminated water to the Tijuana River.

Drains packed with trash

Bautista Corona said city workers have collected 6,000 tons of trash from storm drains over the last three years through a program that specifically targets big items like couches and refrigerators, he said.

The city has also launched public awareness campaigns to stop the public from dumping trash into the drains.

Conflicts between state and local governments are an old story in Mexico, according to Juan Manuel Rodriguez Esteves, a professor at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

“Both sides say the other isn’t doing enough,” he said.

He agrees lack of government action contributes to the problem, but Rodriguez Esteves believes some of the responsibility also falls on Tijuana’s residents. They have to take some responsibility for the illegal construction and trash dumping, he said.

“I don’t have a magical solution for this,” Rodriguez Esteves said. “There has to be communication between the city and state, communities have to organize themselves.”

A long-term solution requires sustained investment of millions of dollars into identifying every illegal connection and correcting it; as well as public awareness campaigns preventing new illegal connections, he said.

But Baja California’s political environment is a major obstacle to long-term plans because incoming mayoral and gubernatorial administrations rarely complete their predecessor’s projects.

“We start over every three years,” he said.

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