As the supervisor who represents the district directly impacted by the cross-border sewage spills, I share the frustration of Port Commissioner Rafael Castellanos, and that of many others, about this ongoing problem.
That is why I have worked so hard with regional public officials to force the federal government to invest in infrastructure to handle the flow of Mexican sewage and polluted water.
The result of that effort was last week’s vote by the U.S. Senate to approve the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which provides $300 million in funding for exactly the kind of infrastructure that could divert and handle the cross-border sewage flows in our region. The USMCA is expected to be signed shortly.
We have moved the federal government to put its significant weight and dollars into addressing cross-border sewage. This is the most significant development to occur on this issue since the construction of the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant in 1997. That is no small task!
Our region is working to ensure as much of that money as possible is directed straight here to our border region. This week, I spoke to Chad McIntosh, assistant administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, about getting even more funding to address this issue.
Let’s remember that this is a complex international issue that has stubbornly resisted resolution for decades. It is one that is caused by an exploding population in our neighboring city of Tijuana, and a failure on its part to invest in their public infrastructure. It requires a federal solution by two sovereign nations.
Last year, I served as president of the National Association of Counties. In that role, I was able to forge close working relationships with federal leaders to help us move the needle on this problem. My advocacy resulted in a meeting with the White House, to which I invited the mayors of San Diego, Coronado and Imperial Beach and then-Port Chairman Garry Bonelli. This meeting provided the federal government an opportunity to hear the region united behind one solution: a treatment facility that could capture and treat sewage flows before they pollute local beaches and the environment.
Some ask why the county hasn’t joined a lawsuit against the federal government. I applaud the jurisdictions that filed suit because they have, indeed, created some pressure. Lawsuits, however, get tied up in court and often slog their way to uncertain outcomes, not to mention appeals that invariably are filed. Realistically, lawsuits can last for years.
The county has taken a route of diplomacy that allows for negotiations, a route that has already proved useful. Adding the county to a pile of plaintiffs would have shut down our critical conversations with federal authorities.
Some urge the county to declare an emergency due to the sewage spills. Cities in the region have declared such emergencies. One declared an emergency as far back as 23 years ago, and has been renewing the emergency on a regular basis ever since. Yet, the sewage flows continue. Emergency declarations are not going to stop sewage flows. Infrastructure will. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to access federal funding to build this much needed infrastructure.
I am proud to have worked with all our cities and our local agencies to speak with one voice on this issue and pressure the federal government and Mexico to come to a lasting solution. Our local congressional delegation and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have played key roles securing more funding.
And state Sen. Ben Hueso has been key in securing $15 million from the state. In addition, Hueso’s SB 507 provided $500,000 for a county study of potential solutions. The projects identified in that study were later used by the EPA in its efforts to determine final recommendations on long-term solutions. The county is the only local agency that has proposed real-world solutions to fix this problem.
Together, we have made significant strides to the point where we soon hope to announce the funding and start of construction for specific projects to handle the sewage flows.
Our county government is at the forefront of this fight and will continue to be.
Greg Cox is chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, and represents District 1.