Clean Water Wars:
San Diego City Council approves a
"final solution" for the Tijuana River Valley

by Lori Saldaña
ith summer approaching, many San Diegans are looking forward to visiting local beaches and swimming, surfing, and diving in the ocean. But if recent events offer any indication of what the future holds, better hit the beach soon. The waters off San Diego may never be cleaner than they are today.
Just a few miles south of Pt. Loma, construction of the International Wastewater Treatment Plant (IWTP) in the Tijuana River Valley is lurching ahead. Its many problems include lawsuits, lack of funds, and a Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) issued by the city's Development and Environmental Planning Division that found significant, unmitigated impacts from industrial toxics and heavy metals. City staff reported that, without an industrial pretreatment program in Tijuana, contamination of ocean waters will likely occur once the plant goes into operation. According to the FEIR, released on May 12:
The potential impact of the expected elevated toxics/heavy metal content of the treated Mexican effluent is considered potentially significant and not mitigated at this time. Total reliance on future source control in Mexico to pretreat wastewater prior to conveyance to the IWTP is not sufficiently guaranteed to occur such that the impact can be considered mitigated.
Long-time readers of the Earth Times may remember that problems with industrial toxics and heavy metals in Tijuana's sewage were reported in these pages last spring. Since then, the peso devaluation and ongoing economic crisis has made Tijuana's ability to finance a pretreatment program even more unlikely than it was a year ago.

Rush to judgment

However, on May 22, Mayor Susan Golding and the City Councilmembers voted unanimously to authorize the city to move forward with the construction of the IWTP's outfall. The vote took place only 10 days after the FEIR was released, in violation of the city's Municipal Code, which requires a 14-day public comment period on any environmental document.
Just before the vote, City Manager Jack McGrory advised the Council that "We're asking you to make an exception to that [14-day review period], because it is a federal project, and a state of emergency exists in the Tijuana River Valley."
The legality of this vote is questionable, and McGrory failed to explain that this "state of emergency" has been in effect for years. By making the situation in the Tijuana River a "permanent" emergency, elected officials have been able to receive state and federal funds for cleanup efforts that would otherwise be their responsibility to finance.
Testimony at the council hearing was at times as toxic as the wastewater flowing from Tijuana. Councilmember Valerie Stallings asked Schlessinger to "talk to me about the currents and the flow and the distribution of whatever comes out of the pipe," apparently referring to comments made by representatives from the Sierra Club and Surfrider. (Witnesses had testified earlier that oceanographic research shows toxic wastes may return to Coronado and Imperial Beach, carried via near-shore currents.)
Schlessinger angrily replied, "This issue about the gyre [recirculating current] and the beaches being contaminated is pure BS. It's not going to happen." A few moments later, Councilmember McCarty applauded his statement, saying "Hallelujah, right on - it's the first time a city staff member has said anything direct."
McCarty then continued, "Well, you know, I think we need to hear things like that, rather than always hearing a bureaucrat never answer the question. You know, this makes it much easier for Ms. Stallings and the rest of us to understand." Apparently, if anyone understands BS, it's the City Council.
Other Councilmembers demonstrated a lack of concern for protecting ocean water quality, notably appointee Scott Harvey, who represents Ocean Beach and Pt. Loma. Rather than worrying about the ITP's projected $35 million funding shortfall for secondary treatment, Harvey announced that "It seems to me, this whole question of cost underscores the importance of getting our exemption legislation passed." He then asked Schlessinger, "Isn't it true, if that succeeds... some of the costs of secondary won't be assessed" at the International plant?
"There's currently a section in the law that would permit less than secondary treatment facilities to be built down there," replied Schlessinger. But he failed to add that the standards and potential impacts for this project, as evaluated in the federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) issued last year, were entirely based on a secondary treatment facility. City and federal officials seem to be trying to change the project in the middle of the process, and the citizens of San Diego, Imperial Beach and Coronado may wind up paying the price as partially treated wastewater flows out to sea.
At the start of the hearing, city staff members described this project as the "final solution" for sewage flows in the Tijuana River. A few people in the audience who remembered their World War II history lessons cringed at the use of the term. But given the industrial toxics and heavy metals in the wastewater, the lack of funds in Tijuana for a pretreatment program, and the lack of funds in the US for secondary treatment at the proposed plant, this term may be closer to the truth than anyone wants to see.

Add YOUR voice

Do you think the City Council jumped the gun by approving the ocean outfall project before the end of the public review period? What about the impact of the toxics from Tijuana? Let Mayor Susan Golding and Councilman Juan Vargas (District 8, including the Tijuana River Valley) know what you think about this massive ocean outfall. You can write them at: City Administration Building, 202 C Street, San Diego, CA 92101. Or, call the Mayor's office at 236-6330; fax: 236-7228. Call Juan Vargas at 236-6688; fax: 231-7918.
If you want to take a more active part in protecting San Diego's ocean, contact Craig Adams of the Sierra Club at 299-1741 to find out how you can help. Volunteers are needed to get the word out. In particular, volunteers are needed at the Ocean Beach Street Fair, June 24-25.
Many Congressional representatives are now scheduling "Town Council" meetings in their districts. These typically take place at Community Recreations Centers or shopping malls, on the weekend or weekday evenings. This is an excellent opportunity to talk with your Representatives face to face, ask questions about their votes on bills that are bad for the environment, and insist on answers then and there. (Often, replies to written questions are offered weeks after the vote has been taken.)
To find out more, contact your Congressman's office and ask if he has any meetings planned. Ask to be placed on the mailing list so you can hear about these meetings well in advance. Then, show up, speak up, and let them know what's on your mind!

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