Contact with contaminated water can lead to human illnesses ranging from skin rashes and hepatitis A to intestinal parasites and salmonellosis. As if that weren’t bad enough, industrial waste—including heavy metals, chemical solvents, and even DDT—often flows into the mix; Border Patrol agents working in the Tijuana wildlife refuge often suffer chemical burns from wading through the muck.
This intractable situation has sparked community efforts to address the contamination—and protect the health of surfers and other beachgoers. In November 2017, the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation joined several other groups, including Imperial Beach–based Wildcoast and Tijuana’s Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, to undertake systematic testing of the water. Students of Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach set up one of these “Blue Water Task Force” labs with the help of their marine biology teacher, acting as volunteer monitors and publishing weekly results on Surfrider’s website.
At the same time, the students’ mayor, Dedina, along with other local and state leaders, are demanding action from the IBWC. The response has not been encouraging. On March 1, the U.S. Department of Justice responded with a letter claiming that the 1944 treaty does not hold the IBWC responsible “for managing transboundary trash, sewage, and sediment discharges” from Mexico.
The next day, says Dedina, Imperial Beach joined neighboring Chula Vista in filing a lawsuit against the IBWC. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a similar suit in September. “It’s just a little bit disconcerting that the U.S. government is telling a local city that they have no jurisdiction over the United States–Mexico border,” Dedina says. “My city has a population of 28,000 and a poverty rate of 25 percent. But apparently we’re supposed to now spend the money we don’t have to clean up the border.”
Adding insult, Mayor Dedina says, is the cold shoulder he got in a meeting with U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials. “I told them, if you’re going to build a border fence, why don’t you help us fix our sewage problem? The message from them was to drop dead.”
If Dedina sees this as a case of misguided priorities, he’s not alone. Eric Holler spent more than 30 years with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, retiring as southern Arizona program manager in 2014. He calls the Trump administration “shortsighted in how they look at the relationship with Mexico, shortsighted in not funding more of these things on the border and solving them.” After all, fixing broken sewage infrastructure is in the best interest of American public health and security. “But this administration is going in the wrong direction,” Holler says.
Others say that Tijuana’s ongoing crisis reveals an international process that has simply stopped working. Among them is Vicente Sanchez Munguia, a research professor of public administration at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. In an email, Sanchez Munguia describes the binational sanitation relationship as a conversation going nowhere, with the United States constantly demanding that Mexico fix its own problems and Mexico steadily arguing that it lacks the money to do so. In the middle is the cumbersome, heavily bureaucratic Boundary and Water Commission. “If the IBWC was effective, this type of problem would not be so recurrent,” he notes. “When the same types of problems are detected in different border cities, it is a sign that something is not right in the responsible institutions. And that includes the IBWC, because it is in charge.”
Ranchers and Residents Fight an Unwieldy System
Sometimes it seems as if no one is in charge. Six hundred miles east of Imperial Beach, Arizona rancher John Ladd watches backed-up sewage from Naco, Sonora, stream north onto his property. The source of these routine spills (exacerbated by the low elevation of the Arizona lands) stems from a breach in a conveyance line carrying raw sewage from two treatment ponds on either side of the Sonoran city. Last summer the water poisoned 10 of Ladd’s calves, prompting him to move his entire herd, at a cost of $27,000. “When I asked the county about getting reimbursed,” he recalls, “they said, ‘Who are you going to ask for money?’ I said the EPA and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. They just laughed.”
Attempts to solve the problem have fallen far short. In the 1990s, for example, the EPA spent $1 million upgrading Naco’s sewage system. For the current crisis, in conjunction with NADBank, it has set aside $10,000. The IBWC also loaned the Sonoran city a sewage pump. But the refuse continues to flow, prompting county supervisors to declare a state of emergency.