Solution Sought to Pacific Ocean Water Pollution

Signs on the U.S. side of the border warn against sewage contamination in the ocean.

Signs on the U.S. side of the border warn against sewage contamination in the ocean. Francisco Arcaute/Environmental Protection Agency hide caption

itoggle caption Francisco Arcaute/Environmental Protection Agency

Untreated wastewater flows from Tijuana, Mexico, into the Pacific Ocean near the California border. Sasha Khokha of NPR station KQED says the U.S. government is expected to endorse a much-debated treatment plant.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Millions of gallons of untreated waste pollute the coastal waters off the Mexico-California border each year. So far, no one has hit on an idea that will completely solve the problem, but the federal government is expected to officially endorse one plan today. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports.

SASHA KHOKHA reporting:

Imperial Beach in San Diego is famous among surfers for its powerful waves. It's the southernmost town on the California coast, just above the border. Serge Tedina(ph) surfs here almost every day. But sometimes, he says, he finds himself paddling in water that makes him want to head right back to shore.

Mr. SERGE TEDINA (Surfer): And sometimes you go in the water and you find yourself in this brown sort of oily, sickly sort of smelling sweet water, and you get really grossed out. Like all of a sudden, you feel like you fell in a sort of pit of toxic waste.

KHOKHA: Surfers are often the first to experience the health effects from dirty water. Last year, San Diego had to close various beaches along this coastline for over 200 days because of contamination. The sewage at Imperial Beach comes from Tijuana, less than two miles away. More than a million and a half people no live in Tijuana, and the city is adding another hundred thousand residents each year.

(Soundbite of traffic)

KHOKHA: On the edge of Tijuana, just four miles south of the border, hundreds of new residents have built makeshift shacks near the top of a steep gulch known as Goat Canyon.

(Soundbite of children playing)

KHOKHA: They're not hooked up to the city's water system. Resident Alma Diaz Sandoval(ph) says her 14-year-old has suffered chronic skin infections from the lack of sanitation.

Ms. ALMA DIAZ SANDOVAL (Tijuana Resident): (Through Translator) There are many houses that don't have latrines. They take care of their business in plastic bags and then they throw them, and then when it rains, the water takes it all downhill.

KHOKHA: When it rains, dirty water from this canyon rushes down the hillside and under the metal border fence.

(Soundbite of running water)

KHOKHA: The US government has set up receptacles to try to catch the runoff and treat it, but during heavy rains the containers overflow. Eventually, the dirty water finds its way to the sea. The US government also runs a treatment plant just across the border in San Diego dedicated entirely to helping Mexico process about 25 million gallons of sewage a day. The partially treated waste is piped out three miles into the Pacific Ocean, but the sewage flowing through that pipe is still so dirty that the state of California successfully sued the federal government for violating the Clean Water Act. And there's a deadline. They have to clean up the water by 2008.

So now the US is poised, with private investors to ease the way, to build a new water treatment facility to treat the sewage. Here's the idea: Some of the water from Tijuana would continue to be piped over the border to the US treatment plant, as it is now. Then it would be pumped be back uphill and run through a second treatment plant in Mexico. Finally, the wastewater would make yet another border crossing to the San Diego pipeline, where it would be pumped out into the ocean, cleaner than it is now.

(Soundbite of sea birds)

Ms. LORI SALDANA(ph) (California State Assembly): The last thing you want to do is pump water, especially sewage, any farther than you have to.

KHOKHA: California Assembly member Lori Saldana is just one of many who says the project, known as Bahagua(ph), doesn't make sense. She's standing on the bluff overlooking the metal border fence that juts out to sea.

Ms. SALDANA: It contributes to energy costs; it contributes to breaks in pipelines and sewage spills.

KHOKHA: But the main proponent of the new plant, Congressman Bob Filner, says his plan is the only one that meets the deadline.

Representative BOB FILNER (Democrat, California): I thought that was a win, win, win situation. We could get the sewage problem solved. The facilities would be in Mexico and the Mexicans would get water out of it at the end, not only the treatment of their sewage but potable water.

KHOKHA: Eventually, US taxpayers will have to pay the bill for the plant, although private investors would front over $500 million to build it. The US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission has already identified the Bahagua project as their best option, and they're set to finalize that decision today. But even when that treatment plant is built, it still leaves millions of gallons of sewage seeping down the hillside from the Tijuana shantytowns. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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