A Toxic River Runs Through It: Tijuana River Valley

This is CA
Feb 16, 2018 · 13 min read


The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted in early 1994 to eliminate barriers to trade and investment between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The legislation has given way to a period of explosive growth and relative prosperity in Tijuana. In search of low cost labor in close proximity to the U.S., many large multinational corporations have taken advantage of NAFTA by setting up manufacturing plants in Baja California’s largest city. By 2015, Tijuana had a gross domestic product of $21 billion, an unemployment rate of 4% and a population of over 1.6 million people.

Today, the nicest parts of Tijuana have come of age with vibrant coffee shops, breweries, restaurants and art galleries. The city is surrounded by top notch beaches from Playa de Tijuana to Rosarito to Ensenada. To the south-east, an up-and-coming Valle de Guadalupe wine region attracts tourists year round.

But NAFTA hasn’t elevated everyone in Tijuana. Too many in the city still struggle with poverty. Many of the poor communities have fallen prey to Mexico’s notorious blackmarket drug trade. In the past, Tijuana was a strategic passthrough region to the lucrative drug markets in the United States. Today, the market has a very different dynamic. An abundance of cheap methamphetamines that sell for less than $3 a dose has created a large and growing population of homegrown addicts.

The thriving domestic market and proximity to the U.S. border make Tijuana one of the most valuable and contested territories in Mexico’s brutal drug war. 2017 was an exceptionally bloody year with a record 1,700 hundred homicides in Tijuana alone with an implied homicide rate, a measure of annual homicides per 100,000 people, nearing 100. For comparison, the global average rate is below 10 and the most dangerous cities in the United States (St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit) are are all below 60.

As with the rest of Mexico, Tijuana is teetering on the edge of a developing and developed region. There are many positive trends and yet so many concerns. It’s a city constantly struggling to allocate resources and energy between basic needs that many in the Sates take for granted, like safety, shelter and clean fresh water, and more developed issues to improve the quality of life of it’s diverse and booming population.

A Confluence of Toxic Affluent

Towards the top of the ‘developed world issues’ list is the persistent sewage spills and releases of industrial waste. In February 2017, over 143 million gallons of raw sewage loaded with pathogens and bacteria was released into the Tijuana River, much of which ended up in the Pacific Ocean and ultimately the U.S. With some estimates as high as 256 million gallons, this was one of the largest spills of its kind but, unfortunately, this was not a one-time event. Untreated sewage from municipal sources, off the grid homes, and overwhelming wet weather commonly make their way downstream. In fact, sewage spills are so frequent the beaches around the Tijuana River Estuary have been closed 50% of the time over the last 10 years due to sewage spills.

There are also large garbage patches finding their way across the border and into the U.S. These collections include mountains of plastics, contaminated sediment and tires. Much of this waste is coming from poorly managed maquiladoras, hospitals, and residents that dump waste into the ravines around the Tijuana area. The problem is growing as rapidly as the urban sprawl now infiltrating the canyons and tributaries in the region. The U.S. has built trash booms that collect a portion of this debris, however, much of it still lands and remains in the valley and in the ocean.

The U.S. Border Patrol has a constant presence in the area and has recently said the problem is worse than ever. Local Border Patrol agents are frequently suffering from respiratory problems, rashes, nausea, and chemical burns as a result of the pollution.

Tires and plastics are all over the river valley.

Imperial Beach

Imperial Beach is the most southwesterly city in the United States sitting just north of Tijuana. The area is home to miles of uncrowded beaches and a historically significant big surf break, The Tijuana Sloughs. In the 40’s and 50’s local legend Dempsey Holder and friends were re-writing what was possible in massive surf in the area. It is also home to the Tijuana River Estuary, the largest coastal wetland in Southern California with unparalleled open space teeming with wildlife. The estuary is one of the few salt marshes remaining in Southern California, where over 90% of wetland habitat has been lost to development. The site is an essential breeding, feeding, and nesting ground and key stopover point on the Pacific Flyway for over 370 species of migratory and native birds, including six endangered species. It also serves a key role as military training grounds, a patrolling area for the U.S. Border Patrol, fertile farm land with active farms, and a key recreational area that drives the local economy.

At the estuary, the Tijuana River discharges into the the Pacific Ocean and, given how the currents work around the outlet, much of the pollutants end up on the Imperial Beach shoreline. To sum it up — the pollution, the toxic odors, the tires, the plastic, the whole damn ecological disaster gets swept up the shoreline and lands on Imperial Beach’s front doorstep. They are the unfortunate final heirs to this binational ecological disaster. They are the unlucky recipients of the unfettered toxic output of the under regulated and low priced manufacturing offerings of the Tijuana industrial complex enabled, in part, by NAFTA.

It should come as no surprise the residents of Imperial Beach are mad as hell. In 2014, the city elected Serge Dedina as mayor. The residents of Imperial Beach were sending a strong message to those following along — they were sick of talk and they demanded action. Mr. Dedina moved to Imperial Beach in 1971 at the age of seven where he grew into a longtime lifeguard and an avid surfer. Today, he is the Director and founder of WILDCOAST, a non-profit environmental group that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. He’s an outspoke activist who errors towards aggressive and, at times, controversial action to protect the environment. He’s well known and respected in the city of Imperial Beach and the broader community of environmentalists in Mexico and the United States.

Since being elected, Dedina has been working tirelessly on sewage issues. Imperial Beach led the announced plans to sue the U.S. federal government over the sewage spills (more to come on this later). The list of cities and organizations joining the effort now include San Diego, Chula Vista, the Port of San Diego, and San Diego County. In an even more epic David vs. Goliath, Imperial Beach was one of the first cities in a growing list, which now includes powerhouses New York, San Francisco and Oakland, to sue 37 global oil, gas and coal companies over damages caused by climate change.

If there is one person with the passion, talents, and street cred to fight this issue on behalf of the people of Imperial Beach — it’s Serge. He’s well educated on the issues with first hand exposure and he’s fearless. However, the verdict is very much still out. Will his heavy handed tactics result in real change or is the system to hard to penetrate? Time will tell.

Fixing It

There are hundreds of people other than Mr. Dedina talking about solutions on both sides of the border, however, actions are often too slow due to a mix of political priorities and bureaucratic funding challenges.

Cleaning up the sewage is not an issue of technological feasibility. There is no debate over this. The technologies for a clean Tijuana River Valley exist and are fairly common. The solutions require major infrastructure investments, likely on both sides of the border, to: 1) improve the interception and diversion of solid waste, 2) maintain and grow the wastewater collection and treatment, and 3) upgrade water monitoring and communication.

For the most part, this is not an issue of how, it is an issue that boils down to political will. Leaders require the strength and know-how to navigate a complex web of bi-national bureaucracies. It requires us to prioritize the health of the land, wildlife and people that surround the heavily populated Tijuana River region to achieve measurable action.

Mexico’s Role

In the grand scheme of things, sewage and disposal of industrial waste are likely not at the very top of the priority list for politicians in the Tijuana region.

As it relates to water, much more top of mind is gaining access to freshwater. Supply of clean water has become a major issue due to the growing population in the Tijuana region, the United States stranglehold of the Colorado River, and the ongoing drought up and down the Pacific coast. Currently the city is working on developing a desalination plant in Rosarito, a massive infrastructure project that will leave little to invest in sewage.

At the Select Committee on California-Mexico Cooperation Informational Meeting hosted by Senator Ben Hueso on November 3, 2017, the Honorable Ernesto Ruffo, Senator Baja California, Mexico, underscored the issue, “We have a big challenge on water supply on account of growth of population. We’ve been growing at about 3.8% per year in population and the limitation of that is water. There is no more water… The Baja state has initiated the promotion of the construction of a desal plant in Rosarito to supply our local challenge… That’s why we’re having problems with the spill of sewage. We have financial problems in the local water company because we had to invest more on an additional piece of pipe due to the growth of population and that made us have less money for collectors.”

Additionally, the Mexican government is quick to point out that the collection of wastewater in Tijuana is much better than the rest of Mexico albeit not up to American standards. They claim to collect and treat 90% of wastewater compared to the 50% national average in Mexico. This stat, in my estimation, has tempered their passion for sewage solutions relative to the residents of Imperial Beach.

The geopolitical environment is also not a terrific backdrop for a massive collaborative binational solution. At a macro level, the Trump administration has taken a hard stance on issues related to immigration, border walls, and threats to pull out of NAFTA. He’s frequently made incendiary comments regarding Mexico, in the most recent he tweeted that Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world (for the record, it is not). These efforts have undoubtedly strained relations between the neighboring nations. At a local level, the United states has been diverting water from the Salton Sea for years causing it to dry up. As a result, toxic dust from the dry lake bed is blowing south into Mexicali, among other places, where asthma and cancer rates have grown above normal levels presumably due to this dust.

To be fair, the officials from Mexico have shown up. They are interested in working with the U.S. to improve the situation as a good neighbor and self interest — these problems impact their coastline after all. However, a complicated backdrop and the always challenging question of who is going to pay make this a challenging environment for the necessary and significant infrastructure investments.

United State’s Role

Mexican sewage, Mexican problem? Not so fast. Whether we approve or not, the sewage in the Mexican region is being collected and treated at a rate that exceeds the underwhelming Mexican national average. The pollutants ultimately land on U.S. soil at a rate that is unacceptable to most Americans. If Americans want better results, Americans need to be leaders in the solution.

Additionally, much of the sewage is a direct output of U.S. firms manufacturing at lower costs relative to what would be incurred domestically. A portion of these lower costs are related to much lower standards for environmental regulations and stewardship. These manufacturing practices are underpriced if the cost of producing a widget does not include sustainable safeguards for the environment. It’s relatively easy to hide these practices offshore in areas like China, it’s not so easy when the waste products wash up on American soil. The blind eye of globalization is not so blind in Tijuana. If we want nontoxic beaches, there’s a residual bill that someone needs to pick up.

Historically, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has played a key role in infrastructure projects along the border. The EPA’s U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Program was created under a side agreement of NAFTA to address infrastructure needs and related environmental impacts from the expected trade increase. This program spent an average of $66 million annually on the region from 1998 to 2012. In recent years, that budget has been closer to $10 million. In the 2018 budget, the Trump administration has completely eliminated the budget all together.

The U.S. side of the International Boundary & Water Commission (IBWC) is an arm of the Federal government that provides binational solutions to issues that arise regarding sanitation and water quality in the border regions. Among other responsibilities, the IBWC owns and operates the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant (SBIWTP) which sits at the border and treats up to 25 million gallons of Mexican sewage to U.S. standards daily, which is mostly adequate during dry periods but overwhelmed with wet weather. They are also working on better detect controls with sewage monitoring and communication mechanisms.

In late 2017, the cities of San Diego, Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, the Port of San Diego, and San Diego County announced they plan to sue the IBWC over the continued spills and alleged violations of the federal Clean Water and Resource Conservation and Recovery acts. It is estimated that repairs exceeding $500 million are required for adequate sewage pipes and collectors.

There are also state and local government agencies at work alongside nonprofits, like the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, WILDCOAST, and the San Diego chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. These groups are doing their best to educate, mobilize on smaller projects and organize at a local level. These local efforts go a long way but much of this issue comes down to big investments that will need to come from the federal level.


With the exception of 2017, Southern California and the Baja Peninsula have been in a well documented dry period. The positive — less rain means less sewage has flowed into the Pacific. The negative — the dry period allowed the Tijuana population to balloon with a decaying and undermanned infrastructure. It has also forced the Mexican government to divert their focus towards the supply of fresh water rather than the treatment of sewage. At the Federal level in the U.S., we find ourselves in an era of deregulation, science denying, a general disdain for the environment and the people working to protect it, and a never seen before hard nose diplomacy strategy (if you can call diplomacy at all). The timing for this confluence of complication could not be worse for the Tijuana River Valley, or humanity for that matter.

Although 2018 appears to be another dry year, it’s safe to assume if we reached rain levels seen in 2017 again, the result would likely be the same if not worse. Not much has been done to mitigate the risks of another massive sewage spill. On the current course, this problem is likely get worse before it gets better.

The silver lining? There are countless passionate people, like Mr. Dedina, who are in search of a better way. They are passionate and seeking solutions and holding the powers that be responsible. Through their efforts, this issue will not get swept under the rug.

What Can You Do?

Visit the Park

This is not a story of a dump that needs to be rehabilitated. To the contrary, the Tijuana Valley is a great recreational day trip with 100s of miles of trails, picture perfect beaches, and loads of wildlife. Visit the valley. You’ll fall in love with it.

Tijuana River Valley Regional Park
Tijuana River Valley Community Garden
Border Field State Park
Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve

Support Wildcoast

WILDCOAST is probably the most active nonprofit in the area. They do great things to protect the area.

Contact Your Representative

Want to take action from your own home? Write a letter or call your state reprensetatives:

Sen. Kamala Harris
600 B Street, Suite 2240
San Diego, CA 92101
Phone (619) 239–3884
Fax (202) 228–3863

Sen. Dianne Feinstein
880 Front Street, Suite 4236
San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619) 231–9712
Fax: (619) 231–1108

Rep. Juan Vargas
333 F Street, Suite A
Chula Vista, CA 91910
Phone: 619–422–5963
Fax: 619–422–7290

Rep. Scott Peters
4350 Executive Drive, Suite 105
San Diego, CA 92121
phone: 858–455–5550

Tell them that we demand:

  • Federal investigation into recent spills.
  • New NADB (North American Development Bank) plan for Tijuana upgrading sewage system a funding priority.
  • Fixing water quality problems and not desal as a priority on the border.

It is critical that government agencies work with Mexico to reduce unnecessary sewage flows in the Tijuana River and improve management of infrastructure that helps prevent beach closures due to hazardous pollutants in South San Diego. This has been a recurring problem in the Tijuana River Valley.

Remember, it’s important to include your name and address in your letter and tell them why having your beaches clean is important to you!

This is CA

Written by

This is CA is inspired by the 1,500 mile stretch between the giant redwoods of Crescent City and lands end in Cabo San Lucas. www.thisisca.com

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