A massive spill of sewage into the Tijuana River a month ago has prompted a binational investigation after contaminated water found its way on to beaches in Mexico and the United States.
During the first four days of February a ruptured sewer line resulted in the discharge at least 300 litres per second of wastewater into the river at a time when heavy rains had put additional pressure on the sewer system.
The polluted water turned up on beaches in Baja California and California, triggering an official complaint by the California city of Imperial Beach and an angry response from affected residents.
The director of the Tijuana office of the state Public Services Commission (CESPT) said the International Boundaries Water Commission (IBWC) will investigate.
Miguel Lemus Zendejas pledged to cooperate with the Mexico and United States sections of the IBWC “to determine pollution levels in real terms.”
In order to fix the broken pipe, treated wastewater had to be diverted into the river while the work took place. But he said that diversion was not the source of the beach pollution. The river was already carrying contaminated water that had overflowed from other sources, Lemus said.
“All that drifted to the Pacific Ocean . . . [but CESPT] is only responsible for the water that had to be diverted for four days,” he said.
“Beaches have to be closed during the rainy season because naturally flowing waters carry many pollutants . . . it happens every year. This year we had those additional four days of spillage, but that wasn’t the cause of the [current] pollution.”
But north of the border the perception was that the broken line was indeed the problem.
An IBWC meeting Thursday in Imperial Beach drew a crowd of angry residents, concerned not only about health risks and inconvenience but the fact they had only just heard about the spill.
“If it hadn’t gotten worse and worse they would have just gotten away with it if they could have,” one resident said as her daughter stood nearby with a sign that read “Mexico must Pay!”
“So how often is this happening?” she added in the report by NBC San Diego. “I feel like I have to go test the water every time my kids go swimming now.”
The commission decided at the meeting to carry out the binational investigation into what U.S. authorities believe was a spill of at least 540 million liters. However, Mexican authorities have disputed that figure.
San Diego water official Dave Gibson said that given modern advances the spill should not have happened.
“Two-hundred years ago this might have been the state of the science but there’s absolutely no question whatsoever that the state of the science is you capture the sewage and you keep it in the system,” Gibson told NBC.
Back in Tijuana, Lemus explained that CESPT is considering issuing an emergency declaration to obtain funds for system upgrades.
It would give the CESPT about 70 million pesos (close to US $360,00) in extraordinary federal and state funding to “repair and replace four sewer lines that have been damaged . . . the one affected last month already has shown signs of damage two kilometers away from the repaired section, and needs replacing,” explained Lemus.