Senate candidates vow to address sewage issue at California border

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — “It’s the border crisis nobody is talking about.”

That’s how Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre described the decades-long problem of sewage flowing into her community from Mexico.

It’s a problem that worsens when it rains as was evident when severe storms recently pummeled the Tijuana-San Diego region.

The International Boundary & Water Commission has said that on Jan. 22 alone, more than 14.5 billion gallons of water tainted with sewage made its way from Tijuana into California’s Tijuana River Valley.

But the issue is nothing new, and lawmakers have long been urged to help.

On Monday, the four leading candidates vying to fill the California seat long held by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein — Democratic U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, and political newcomer Republican Steve Garvey — were asked about the sewage problem.

Border Report correspondent Salvador Rivera asked the question from the Mexico-Californa border.

“Behind me is Smuggler’s Gulch,” Rivera says. “When it rains it turns into a raging river. This is one of the areas where a lot of raw sewage from Mexico enters the Tijuana River Valley on the U.S. Side of the border. My question to you candidate is: What are you prepared to do about the situation?”

Up first was Schiff, who said there are two problems.

“One is that you have this waste coming from south of our border. But there’s another problem, which is there is a sewage plant in the United States in California that is broken that is also not doing its job,” he said. “We need to fix this problem on both sides of the border. It’s probably going to cost us about $300 million, which I’ve been urging President Biden along with the California delegation to provide to remediate this problem. And we need to take strong action because it is endangering the public, people are getting ill when they’re swimming, beaches are shut down and we need to bring urgency to this issue.”

Porter, of Orange County, called the situation a “crisis of oversight.”

“We have failed to do the work to make sure that this sewage treatment facility on the U.S. side as well as the sewage treatment facilities on the Mexico side are functioning as they are supposed to be. There are years of deferred maintenance. That’s the reason we have more of a need to put additional resources there. I have met with the mayor of Imperial Beach and other leaders both on the ground to see the problem for myself, as well as met with them in Washington. We can solve this problem
if we put the resources in place but we have to deliver the accountability to go with it.

Lee said there needs to be a focus on environmental justice.

“It is very important that we ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency, with its investments in our environmental justice funds, that the EPA invest in cleanup, first of all. And also, understand that in the Imperial Valley — and I have visited also and met with the mayor and Tijuana and saw what is taking place — and it is a huge problem because you have low-income people, you have people of color, you have Latinos, you have Mexicans on the Mexican side. All are being affected by this, and so we need to have a focus on environmental justice, also.”

Garvey started by saying that he’s the only one on the stage who’s “actually been down to the border,” to which his fellow candidate quickly said, “not true” and “incorrect.”

“Recently,” Garvey said. “You can’t just go once years ago.”

“The poor people of San Diego and Southern California, are the ones that are at the brunt of this dumping of waste that’s coming across. You see signs that say you can’t walk on the beach, you can’t swim on the beach. So we have to take great actions in terms of protecting our people by speaking to where it came from and how we’re gonna go about stopping it.”

Efforts to address the issue are underway.

In August of 2022, the United States and Mexico agreed to spend almost $500 million from the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.

The U.S. has since allocated over $300 million to upgrade the California sewage treatment plant and other sewage infrastructure on both sides of the border. President Joe Biden has also requested additional funding, but that money remains stuck in Congress.

On the Mexican side, officials last month broke ground on repairs to the Punta Bandera Wastewater Treatment Plant, which was built in 1978. The facility is located on the coast about 6 miles south of the border, and it’s supposed to treat at least 25 percent of the city’s raw sewage.

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