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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.