As the Wastewater Flows: an update

by Lori Saldaña
Regular readers of the Earth Times will be familiar with the controversy surrounding the construction of a wastewater treatment plant in the Tijuana River estuary. On the plus side, the plant would handle the sewage overflows from Mexico that regularly pollute one of the few remaining native wetlands and force beach closures.
On the minus side is the discharge issue: the plant is scheduled to begin operation before the ocean outfall that will carry the treated waste to the Pacific Ocean. There is no coherent plan for handling the effluent during this period. There is also a question of how effectively the proposed plant will handle the highly toxic chemicals in these renegade flows. Finally, several groups strongly contend that a "ponding system," in which the waste is treated via natural biological decomposition, would be more effective, cheaper and environmentally friendly than the "mechanical" system now approved.
In July, the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Chaparral Greens and Lori Saldaña filed a lawsuit to compel consideration of the ponding system alternative. Here's the latest on this ongoing saga.
special meeting of the Coronado city council was held on November 17. Participants met in a workshop setting to discuss the construction of the International Wastewater Treatment Plant and ocean outfall in the Tijuana River Valley, and its potential impact on the ocean water quality off Coronado's shores. Nineteen people participated in the meeting, including Rick Odiore from the City of Coronado's Engineering Department, and Ann Sasaki, Larry Monserrate and John Kovac from the City of San Diego's Development Services Department (Environmental Analysis Section). Other participants who testified at the workshop included Tom Penfield and Gary Sirota (attorneys representing the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation in a lawsuit which seeks to modify the proposed treatment plant), and Carolyn Powers and Rolland Grey of Imperial Beach, who support the current design of the treatment plant and outfall.
The International Boundary and Water Commission declined to participate in the workshop, citing concerns over the lawsuit filed earlier this year by the Sierra Club. They refuse to comment publicly on the case, except to state that the project is proceeding as described in the Record of Decision issued in May.
The City of San Diego has been granted the contract to construct the ocean outfall. They are preparing a focussed Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to reevaluate some aspects of the project that were not sufficiently analyzed by the federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) issued earlier this year.
The city will pay approximately 40% of the $150 million total cost of the outfall. This arrangement will give San Diego access to 40% of the outfall's estimated 335 million gallons a day (MGD) capacity. In comparison, the rated capacity of the Point Loma Treatment Plant is 240 MGD. Part of the EIR will evaluate the growth inducing aspects of this large outfall in the South Bay.

Trick or pretreat

Also in attendance at the workshop were several Coronado residents, and an attorney representing the Hotel Del Coronado. These speakers voiced concerns over the industrial wastes generated by Tijuana, which does not have a pretreatment or source control program in place.
At a hearing on November 1, Dave Schlessinger (Director of the San Diego Metropolitan Wastewater District) explained to the Coronado city council that while San Diego has had a pretreatment program in place for 11 years, only 47% of the industries are participating. It is not known when Tijuana's program will be established, who will enforce it or how it will be financed. Without pretreatment, Coronado resident's are worried that the plant will not be able to remove the toxins - including heavy metals, pesticides and PCBs - from the wastewater. Oceanographic studies have indicated that the effluent from the ocean outfall will drift northward towards Coronado beaches.

Outfall fallout

Also unanswered is the question of what will happen to the effluent produced at the plant during the approximately two year gap between the time the treatment plant is constructed and the outfall is complete.
At a Regional Water Quality Control Board hearing in Encinitas on November 11, four possible options were discussed: 1) Surf discharge, approximately 1000 yards offshore of Imperial beach; 2) Groundwater recharge into the aquifer in the Tijuana River Valley; 3) Live-stream discharge into the Tijuana River; 4) No operation of the treatment plant until the outfall is complete.
The first three options are opposed by Imperial Beach and Coronado residents because of the possible contamination of river, aquifer and/or ocean. The effluent will only be treated to advanced primary levels. Because of the highly concentrated levels of the wastewater, the treated wastewater leaving the International Plant is no better than the untreated wastewater going into the Point Loma Treatment Plant. The final option (no operation) would protect water quality, but brings into question the "emergency status" of this project.

The flow slows

Average flows through the emergency connector from Tijuana's Pump Station 1 to the Point Loma Treatment Plant have declined to 1-2 MGD, indicating that the Tijuana wastewater conveyance system is not as overburdened as was previously believed. Before an inspection by the State Water Resources Control Board in December 1993, average flows through the connector were 13 MGD. The inspection uncovered the fact that Mexican officials were shutting down the pump station to save on electrical costs. Since then, officials have been "encouraged" them to leave the pumps running.
Attorneys for the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation are continuing to review the nearly 50,000 pages of documents that relate to the case and that were made available by the Environmental Protection Agency and IBWC.
A hearing scheduled to take place in Federal Court on December 5, when Judge Gordon Thompson was to consider the federal government's motion for dismissal, has been postponed. As we go to press, there is word of a pending settlement hearing. Stay tuned.

Lori Saldaña , a regular contributor to the Earth Times, is a writer, public speaker and photographer who specializes in conservation and environmental issues.