A delegation of San Diego area politicians and agency members traveled to Washington, D.C. for a meeting Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, with representatives of the Trump Administration. The session was an attempt to gain funding to treat sewage emanating from Tijuana, which severely and negatively impacts the South Bay. An estimated 110 million gallons of untreated sewage have entered the Tijuana River Valley in the month of September 2019 alone.

Included in the delegation to the Nation’s Capital were San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, Port of San Diego Board Chairman Garry Bonelli, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey and Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina.

According to Bonelli, Cox by virtue of his role as the Past President of the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the CEO/Executive Director of NACo Matthew D. Chase, both worked to create the meeting. Representing the Trump Administration were William Crozer, Special Assistant to the President, Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs; W.C. (Chad) McIntosh, P.E., Esq., Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of International & Tribal Affairs; and James Akin, Associate Director, Officer of Intergovernmental Affairs. Chase also attended the meeting.

Bonelli said of the tone and substance of the meeting, “The meeting lasted a little less than an hour, and it was originally scheduled to last 30 minutes. I think our delegation did a very good job laying out the details of the sewage problem that has been chronic for decades. We also talked about how the problem has gotten worse and that we really have seen a spike (of sewage flows). We have mentioned several times that we have a problem during the rainy season, but now the flows are occurring during the dry season. One of the problems is there are now four million people on the other side of the border in the Tijuana area, which is growing much faster than San Diego and the South Bay Area. The speakers in order were Cox, Dedina, Bailey and me. Greg did a good job of laying out the (sewage treatment) components on our side of the border, on federal land, and that if $404 million can be put into an infrastructure system, that would probably relieve the problem by more than 90 percent. We would go from 120 days of beach closures down to a handful.”

The legal elephant in the room was that the Port of San Diego, and the cities of Imperial Beach and Chula Vista have filed a lawsuit against a federal agency, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) in an attempt to force action to correct the sewage flows. The City and County of San Diego and the City of Coronado are pursuing a diplomatic approach.

“My sense was the people on the federal side were being a little more circumspect because there was pending litigation out there,” Bonelli said. “I didn’t hear a commitment from the federal side. They said they would look into the problem and Chad McIntosh of the EPA said it might be good to get the engineers together to look at the list of projects, cost that out and check the facts. For me, this is a chronic problem, we’ve been doing this for years and years. But, it’s worth the effort. It’s a public safety issue, with national security implications, including the Border protection and for the Navy with sailors in the water. It’s worth the effort to try and get the problem solved. It’s doable. It all boils down to money and political will.”

On a lighter note, RADM Bonelli (USN-Ret.), who served as the SEAL Force Commander during his Navy career said, “One indicator of how severe the sewage problem is that weekly the Mayor of Imperial Beach who is a surfer and a former frogman are swimming in adjacent lanes at the Coronado Municipal Pool. When you see that, you know you have a problem.”

As for defining the problem, the San Diego delegation showed the federal representatives evidence of the problem. “We had pictures for the people in the White House which showed sores on the bodies of Border Patrol Agents and we showed photos of their boots where the toxins found in sewage are melting the soles of their boots. We gave them pictures of that in this meeting to drive home the point. I tried to make the case from a retired Navy perspective, that the government has a $1 billion plus investment in the Naval Base Coronado Coastal Campus. When the Navy SEALS can’t get in the ocean, it hurts their readiness. BUDS training is tough enough, and when they can’t test (the SEAL candidates) in the water, it holds up the training pipeline.”

As you might guess, you can’t tell the federal and regional government players who have a role in this project without a scorecard. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the head honcho and enforcer of the Clean Water Act,” Bonelli explained. “They are in the position of saying, ‘You guys figure it out.’ Name a government agency and they are involved, including the Army Corps of Engineers and locally, the California Coastal Commission. And this is a bi-national deal which includes Mexico and the IBWC.”

The current focus is for an upgrade to the existing South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant and the construction of a new plant, which is estimated to come in at the $404 million figure noted above. Bonelli described the process he thought was most likely to occur. “Surely a number of federal agencies would have to weigh in on the project before construction could begin. I’m assuming, and this is my interpretation, we would get increments of the $404 million over three to five years, which would build the infrastructure to treat the vast majority of the sewage.”

As for the future, Bonelli said the lawsuit which includes the Port, Imperial Beach and Chula Vista vs. the IBWC hasn’t been assigned a court date as yet. Also, there was no formal follow-up meeting set between the San Diego Delegation and the federal representatives from the Trump Administration who met Sept. 24.

However, Bonelli isn’t deterred. “It would be good to hear back sooner rather than later from the current administration. People throw their hands up over this issue but trying to find a solution is absolutely worth doing. The problem is only going to get worse. When I was a young frogman 50 years ago, there were dead spots in the San Diego Bay. We have that documented. Then there were maybe 600,000 people living in the region, and now we have 3.3 million. And the Bay has never been cleaner. That is a success story that took collaboration to make happen. We can do that in the Tijuana River. That’s what I told them.”

Bonelli said of possible roles for the public in this campaign, “One suggestion would be to stay aware of the public health issues and pay attention to the signs posted along the beaches. Another would be to use your direct voice and go to your local Congressman and let them know this issue is important to you. Or you could go to the President of the United States. There are problems like this throughout the United States. The Clean Water Act is important, and we do need dollars to make sure the water stays clean. We need to be constantly diligent and it will take a constant effort to make and keep the water clean.”

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