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Shocking facts and horrifying history of Tijuana sewage

What San Diego will do next

Water is the lifeblood of sewage. People may produce the waste but it takes water to carry the waste away.
  • Water is the lifeblood of sewage. People may produce the waste but it takes water to carry the waste away.
  • Image by Tuko Fujisaki

The good news about Tijuana sewage - ta da!!!!! - is that it probably won’t ever reach Ocean Beach. If the experts’ most pessimistic predictions come true and just 15 or 20 years from now we have 100 million gallons a day of raw sewage flowing across the border, then we’ll lose the use of Imperial Beach and the Silver Strand (for sure) and Coronado (almost certainly).

In the hilly area near the ocean, sewage has flowed through Goat Canyon and Smuggler’s Gulch.

In the hilly area near the ocean, sewage has flowed through Goat Canyon and Smuggler’s Gulch.

There’s some debate over whether the Mexican waste water could swing around the bulge of North Island and invade San Diego Bay. Some people say no; others, maybe. But flushing action (no pun intended) from the bay probably would act as a barrier keeping the contaminants from befouling our sandy playgrounds north of Point Loma. So if worse comes to worst, we’ll still have someplace left for swimming and surfing. Rest assured.

In Tijuana maybe 50 percent of the houses have sewer connections.

In Tijuana maybe 50 percent of the houses have sewer connections.

Of course, the permanent loss of even half the county’s beachland would constitute a fairly, er, large-scale ecological disaster. And the bad news about Tijuana sewage is that anyone who knows the history of this mucky problem knows that — incredible as it seems — it is more than just possible, it’s fully conceivable nothing will happen to avert more catastrophe.

The reservoir behind Rodriguez Dam is down to just about three percent of its capacity.

The reservoir behind Rodriguez Dam is down to just about three percent of its capacity.

Very few people do know the history. And almost no one in his right mind would want to hear the whole interminable chronicle. At the same time, it is a saga that exemplifies the chaos and paralysis and absurdity that can erupt when the First and Third Worlds intersect, when Mananaland Meets the Culture of Mr. Clean. So we’ve taken the liberty of distilling this monstrous subject into Three Easy Lessons. (Two trick questions follow.)

100 percent of the homes in Point Loma are connected to sewers.

100 percent of the homes in Point Loma are connected to sewers.

Anyone vaguely aware that Tijuana sewage streams across the border but unfamiliar with the geography where this happens may wonder: Are the Mexicans doing this to us on purpose? Is this some Latin idea of a joke? The answer is no, though God must have had a mischievous twinkle in his eye if and when he thought out the conjunction of the two nations.

Timeline 1928 —1980s

Timeline 1928 —1980s

From the Coronado Bridge southward, most of the American terrain west of Highway 5 is so flat and even that it rises only a few feet above the bay waters; in the Tijuana River estuary, the land and sea levels merge. This topography continues most of the way to the border, but in Border Field State Park the ground begins to climb in the last yards before one reaches the tattered boundary fence.

Timeline 1980s

Timeline 1980s

For a while, these highlands erupt into the American side of the border, but as you move eastward they retreat farther and farther to the south until finally they cross the border. That is, the hills rise up on the Tijuana side, leaving the great South Bay plain to genuflect before them. Water from those Mexican hills runs down (see above) and enters the land of the free. And when it’s not raining, all of that water is sewage.

Where does it come from? you ask. We have hills in Point Loma, but you don’t see sewage flowing down them daily. That’s because 100 percent of the homes in Point Loma are connected to sewers, those handy pipes through which flow our urine. our feces, the pulp masticated by our garbage disposals, our laundry suds — and all the water that we use to move this and other assorted glop along. In Tijuana, on the other hand, maybe 50 percent of the houses have sewer connections. In those that don’t, the residents use outhouses or primitive septic tanks or they relieve themselves in the canyons. They buy their water from water trucks, and when they finish cooking or washing with it, they empty the dirty residue into the street. You can enter many neighborhoods of Tijuana and even in the most arid depths of summer find brown streams trickling down the sides of most byways. (Subtract two points if you assume this comes from people washing their cars.) Even in neighborhoods that are connected to plumbing, the sordid rivulets sometimes flow. That’s because the sewer system in Tijuana commonly malfunctions (see Lesson Three, below). Pumps break; sewer lines plug up. And when that happens, the manholes regurgitate their malodorous swill.

One more point about water in descent: it tends to seek out common pathways. Along the San Diego-Tijuana border, six major routes have taken shape over the years. In the hilly area near the ocean, sewage has flowed through inlets known as Goat Canyon and Smuggler’s Gulch. Farther east, where the ground is more level, it has trickled through Silva Drain, Canyon del Sol, and Stewart’s Drain. The biggest watercourse, however, has been the Tijuana River bed. The river arcs in a northwesterly diagonal across the eastern expanses of the Mexican city, reaching the international boundary just west of the San Ysidro border crossing station. (From there it continues northwest for a mile or so, then meanders west, emptying into the sea just south of Imperial Beach.) Two dramatic events have transformed the river in the past fifteen years. The first dates back to 1973, when the Mexican government began work on a concrete lining for the three-mile portion of the river that flows through eastern and central Tijuana. This was done to help prevent flooding, but almost immediately it also began expediting the drainage of sewage north to San Diego.

The other significant change in the river came in 1983. Prior to that year, flows throughout recorded history had always been seasonal. In the summer the river dried up, coming to life only with the advent of rain. But in 1983, the river began flowing year round. The climate hadn’t changed; instead Tijuana’s sewage production had skyrocketed. In the summer months, “That’s not a river contaminated by sewage,” one American official says. “It is a river of sewage.”

It may seem logical to conclude that Tijuana’s sewage production has increased because its population has exploded. But that’s not a directly causal relationship.

From 1950 to 1970, the population of Tijuana jumped from 65,364 to 340,583, according to Mexican census figures. Yet during roughly that same period, sewage production in the border city only doubled, climbing from about two and a half million gallons a day tc about five million gallons a day (according to a 1983 history of Tijuana’s sewerage facilities produced by the San Diego office of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board).

That same report states that by 1971, Tijuana was suddenly producing some 10.5 million gallons of sewage a day. The cause of that abrupt climb was obvious: in the late Sixties, the Mexicans had completed the Rosarito Beach desalination plant, and a lot more water began flowing to the border city from it. In 1972, Tijuana began receiving even more water from another source: a temporary pipeline from San Diego that give the Mexicans some of their allotment of Colorado River water. “As a direct result, the City of Tijuana’s sewage flows increased rapidly,” the water board report says. “By 1975, sewage production was estimated to be as high as 20 million gallons a day.”

Water, then, is the lifeblood of sewage. People may produce the waste but it takes water to carry thai waste away, to spread it far and wide, to transform it into sewage. The consequence of this lesson is that Tijuana sewage is something of a time bomb. Since water supplies have lagged far behind population growth, the Mexican city could produce vastly more sewage virtually overnight, if only it had the water to do it. Anyone who doubts this should consider that fewer than two million San Diego County residents currently produce some 180 million gallons a day of sewage, while Tijuana’s one million inhabitants create only 25 to 30 million gallons a day. And anyone who yawns and points to Tijuana’s historically limited water supplies (as a source of comfort that no sewage flood is coming) doesn’t know very much about the gigantic new water project being built across the border right now.

That project got the green light back in March of 1985, when a 44-nation organization called the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) agreed to lend Mexico $46.4 million. At the time, Mexico promised to match the loan with at least that much money from its federal government. All the funds were to be used to expand Tijuana’s water and sewage system dramatically. Although an aqueduct from Morelos Dam on the Colorado River to the El Carrizo Reservoir southwest of Tecate had been completed in 1984, the Mexicans lacked a system for bringing about two-thirds of the aqueduct water to the majority of Tijuana residents’ homes; in 1987 officials estimated that only about 40 percent of Tijuana’s homes were plumbed. With the $92 million, the Mexicans planned to expand that number to between 75 and 80 percent of the population.

Construction began two years ago.

Although a significant amount of American money is funding the project (about a third of the IDB’s funds are supplied by the United States), information about the water project’s progress is sketchy. One source is Dion McMicheaux, the resident engineer assigned to the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) office in San Ysidro. McMicheaux says one thing that’s clear is that Tijuana currently is experiencing an extremely severe water shortage. The Rosarito Beach desalination plant stopped supplying the city with water several years ago, and Tijuana no longer gets any water directly from San Diego. The city’s principal water supply instead has been the reservoir behind Rodriguez Dam. and as a result of several dry winters, that supply has been steadily declining. McMicheaux says IBWC figures reveal that in December of 1985 the reservoir was 41 percent full, compared with 26.6 percent in December of 1986, and just 11.8 percent in October of 1987. Today, McMicheaux says the reservoir is down to just about three percent of its capacity.

In response to that crisis, McMicheaux says the Mexicans began using some of the water from the Carrizo Reservoir. The IBWC engineer says he’s heard “various dates” for when that supply was tapped, though his impression is that it was sometime this past February. McMicheaux says his Mexican sources inform him that Tijuana is now getting between 27 and 41 million gallons a day through the new water supply system, though McMicheaux doesn’t understand exactly how this water is being routed. “They don’t really give good reports to us,” he says. However, he says he’s been told that the Mexicans have now spent about half the water project money, while only about 30 to 40 percent of the work has been completed. “They should be a little bit further along,” McMicheaux comments.

McMicheaux’s office has the responsibility for monitoring just how much sewage is flowing through the Tijuana River at the point where it crosses into San Diego; every day IBWC workers check a gauge installed in the bottom of the channel. And McMicheaux says the water shortage clearly seems to have had an effect on the renegade sewage flows in the river; whereas the sewage this past spring reached a high of 12 million gallons a day, recent readings have shown only about four to five million gallons a day. Since, according to McMicheaux, the Mexicans are processing up to 22 million gallons a day of sewage at their new treatment plant located down the coast (see Lesson Three, below), that means Tijuana today is currently producing at least 25 million gallons a day of sewage. Dick Reavis, the border coordinator for the EPA’s California region, says that “quite honestly is an amazingly small amount for a city of a million people.” But Reavis says the EPA has estimated that by the year 2007, Tijuana will be producing roughly 100 million gallons a day of sewage. And he says within the next two or three years he fully expects to see flows of 20 to 30 million gallons a day running into the United States.

SEWAGE LESSON THREE

THIS PROBLEM IS OLDER THAN YOU ARE!

Okay, okay. We exaggerate — if you’re over sixty. According to the California Regional Water Control Board’s history of Tijuana sewage, the city of Tijuana back in 1928 had a small sewage system and a community septic tank that served about 500 people, apparently satisfactorily. By the mid-1930s, however, Tijuana’s population had grown significantly “with no concurrent increase in sewage treatment and no change in discharge location,” the report says. As a result — you guessed it — “relatively untreated sewage flowed into the Tijuana River bed.... (and] enough sewage was discharged to contaminate and thereby prohibit the sale of truck crops grown in the San Ysidro area of the U.S.” Water wells owned by the San Ysidro Irrigation District also were contaminated.

We’ve arrived — at the much-dreaded History of the Problem. It helps to think of this in terms of three different eras: The Turbulent Early Years, The Deceptive Middle Ages, and Recent Confusion. As promised, we offer only a quick, highly condensed tour through this smelly thicket, pausing for amplification only at the highlights.

THE EARLY TURBULENT YEARS: 1935-1965

1935 — Tijuana builds a new community septic tank designed to accommodate the wastes of 5000 people. Interestingly, this project comes five years after Mexican federal census figures have revealed the Tijuana population to be 11,271. Consequently...

Almost Immediately — The new septic tank becomes grossly overloaded. Relatively untreated sewage once again contaminates American crops and ground waters.

1938-39 — Mexican and American officials decide it would be better to dump septic tank effluent from Tijuana directly into the ocean (rather than letting it first flow through the Tijuana River estuary). So they build pipes leading to a point seven-tenths of a mile north of the border, where an outfall extends 140 feet beyond the mean lower low tide line. The County of San Diego agrees to operate the U.S. facilities as long as the Mexicans promise not to send untreated sewage into the outfall.

1948 — Tijuana has almost 60,000 residents and no sewage treatment other than the septic tank built for 5000. Americans complain about poorly treated flows coming through the outfall.

1952 — A county report recommends connecting Tijuana and San Ysidro to the treatment/disposal system proposed for the San Diego metropolitan area.

December 1953 — About 3.5 million gallons a day of poorly treated sewage is flowing through the international outfall. A government report concludes that the value of Imperial Beach has been impaired and recreational use of the beach is threatened.

June 1954 — A bond issue for construction of the San Diego Metropolitan Sewage System (including a Tijuana connection) fails because of controversy over the proposed location.

July 1954 — The governor of California asks the U.S. State Department to file a formal protest with the Mexican government over the sewage issue.

1954 — The county’s public health department starts chlorinating the discharge at the outfall.

May 1955 — The IBWC and its Mexican counterpart are authorized to investigate the problem.

September 1956 — Both American and Mexican sections of the IBWC say they’re still investigating.

Summer 1957 —

Chlorination at the outfall isn’t sufficient to stop contaminated waters from reaching the beaches north of Imperial Beach.

Early 1958 — Tijuana agrees to remove solid wastes and scum from the septic tank, while the San Diego County Health Department plans an intensified chlorination program. It functions from May 29 through September 14, when the county runs out of money. One week later, water quality along the beaches has reached unsatisfactory levels again.

March 1958 - The California governor again asks the State Department for emergency action. The State Department talks to the Mexicans, who say they’re studying the problem.

November 1958 — A design for the San Diego metro sewer system (including a Tijuana connection) is presented to the San Diego City Council and wins swift approval.

April 1959 — The California legislature asks the U.S. government for help in correcting the pollution problem.

August 20, 1959 — The county health department finds that the Mexicans are not removing sludge and scum from the septic tank, per their promise. The county closes all beaches from the border to the north end of Imperial Beach.

September 1959 — The Mexicans announce they don’t want to be connected to San Diego’s new sewer system. They say instead they will build oxidation ponds and reclamation facilities in Tijuana. They say this project will cost only half a million dollars and can be completed in nine months.

October 1959 — The Mexican federal government assumes responsibility for operating Tijuana’s septic tank, at the same time cleaning it and installing new sludge pumps. Mexico also informs U.S. officials that it has begun work on a pump station and a force main (a big pipe through which the sewage is moved under pressure). These will be used to pump Tijuana’s sewage west to the top of the mesa overlooking the river basin. From the mesa, the sewage will flow by gravity seven miles south; where the water will be processed in oxidation ponds. The Mexicans say this will cost $1.2 million and will take no longer than their original plan.

December 1959 — Mexico starts talking about revising its sewage treatment plans.

February 1960 — The Mexicans further revise their plans. Among the revisions is talk of a twelve-mile open canal that will terminate near Rosarito Beach. There the sewage is to be treated and used for irrigation.

December 1, 1961 — Mexican officials begin running their new pump station, which transports sewage to the partially finished southbound canal.

December 3, 1961 — Minor rains wash out part of the open canal.

January 1962 — The Mexicans run out of money to complete the open canal.

Work on the canal stops at a point about 5.5 miles south of the border. Here the raw sewage flows down an arroyo, across the beach, and into the ocean.

Spring 1962 — The Tijuana pump station fails, and all of the city’s raw sewage flows across the border. Talk of an “emergency connection” to the San Diego metropolitan system begins.

Late 1963 — The San Diego Metropolitan Sewerage system is completed. But there’s not enough money left to build the San Ysidro/Tijuana connection.

April 1965 — Storm run-off severs Tijuana’s force main, and raw sewage flows north again.

December 1965 — San Diego and the Mexican federal government reach agreement to build an emergency bypass system, to divert Mexican sewage to Point Loma for treatment and disposal when the Mexican pump station foils. Each country agrees to build, operate, and maintain all the necessary facilities on its side. San Diego promises to let Tijuana use excess capacity in its Point Loma plant for twenty years on an as-needed, emergency basis. Mexico agrees to pay for this on a fixed-rate basis.

THE DECEPTIVE MIDDLE AGES: 1966-1980

Early October 1966 — Work on the emergency bypass is completed.

October 10, 1966 — Heavy rains cause a rupture in the Mexican force main that carries Tijuana sewage toward the coast. The emergency bypass to Point Loma is used. It continues to be used, twice a month on average, through the end of the Sixties.

1971 — The emergency bypass is being used several times a day. (Tijuana’s sewage flows have increased, fueled by the new water supply from the Rosarito Beach desalination plant, and the city’s disposal facilities consequently break more often.) Throughout 1971, roughly eight percent of Tijuana’s sewage is being treated in San Diego.

March 1972 — The Mexicans install new pumps at their pumping stations and announce plans for improving the open canal. They also talk about building new treatment facilities three miles south of the international boundary, but because of a shortage of money, no work on these plans begins.

January 1973 — The Mexicans announce plans for an elaborate treatment plant to be located fifteen miles southeast of Tijuana, at a cost of between four and eight million dollars. Construction is scheduled to begin later that year, but lack of funding causes an indefinite postponement.

April 30, 1975 — The Mexican press reports that a new sewage treatment plant is under construction a few miles south of Tijuana. But once again, lack of funding causes this plan to be abandoned, and the septic tank built in 1935 remains the city’s only sewage treatment facility.

February 1978 — Failure of a pipeline causes raw sewage to spill into Smuggler’s Gulch.

May 1979 — Tijuana’s main pumping station experiences a major failure, and the open canal washes out 3.2 miles south of the border. From this time on, 70 percent of Tijuana’s sewage is routed to the emergency bypass and the remainder flows across the border in a number of places.

RECENT CONFUSION: 1980-1988

Looking back on the events of the Seventies, Pete Siltfa, a former IBWC engineer who now works on sewage issues for the City of San Diego, notes, “The emergency connection was sort of hiding the problem. It was taking all the load from Tijuana so the problems were minor.” An act of nature was to shake up that complacency rather abruptly.

Late January 1980 — Storms bring heavy run-off and water from Rodriguez Dam coursing through the Tijuana River, and the force of that tide breaks the thirty-inch pipe that has been transporting the majority of Tijuana’s sewage to Point Loma. More than 15 million gallons a day of Mexican sewage stream through the Tijuana estuary and out to sea, where unusually strong northbound currents created by the El Nino condition sweep the contaminants up the coast.

The San Diego county health department quarantines four miles of beach, from the border up to the naval amphibious base. Because of possible contamination to farm crops in the area, those crops cannot be sold, prompting a group of farmers to sue the city. (A jury eventually awards about $600,000 to about a half-dozen of them.) Flows in the river water are so heavy that the emergency connection cannot be repaired until March. And excess raw sewage from Tijuana continues spilling into the U.S. until midsummer of 1980, requiring the continued closure of nearby beaches.

1981-1983 — Unusually rainy winters persist bringing many more sewage spills and quarantines. Dead farm animals washed up from Mexico are among the refuse found on beaches just south of Coronado.

April 14, 1982 — A “blue ribbon committee’’ is formed, consisting of representatives from a half-dozen American government agencies. They vow to abandon short-range thinking and come up with a permanent answer to the problem of Tijuana sewage spills. This leads to the commissioning of a major study in which the Lowry and Associates engineering firm is told to devise the ultimate solution to the problem.

November 1983 — The Lowry group’s report is released. It concludes that the ultimate solution is for someone to build a treatment plant near the border that will process up to 130 million gallons a day of sewage — and cost some three-quarters of a billion dollars. Officials on both sides of the border are stunned by this figure. The Americans hastily revise their thinking about “long-term, permanent” solutions and order the Lowry engineers to come up with another report on short-term, interim alternatives.

July 1984 — The report on short-term and interim measures is completed. From among its offerings, the San Diego City Council endorses the idea of a 60-million-gallon-a-day, “bare bones” plant near the border that would cost an estimated $55 million.

Summer 1984 — The California legislature approves more than five million dollars to go toward construction of the bare-bones plant. But the federal government grants only five million dollars with the promise of only $27 million more to come. Talk in San Diego shifts to building an even smaller facility, one that would process some 30 million gallons a day.

Late 1984 — As Mexico’s application for the $46.4 million IDB loan approaches fruition, various American officials see this as a great opportunity to pressure the Mexicans into doing something about sewage treatment. EPA officials lobby the IDB against granting Mexico any loan that doesn’t have sewage-cleaning strings attached to it.

At the same time, American officials present Mexico with plans for a $30 million, 30-million-gallon-a day international plant (to be built on the U.S. side). The Americans announce that the Mexicans will have to contribute half the money for this project in cash, up front. They also offer no provisions for Mexican labor or material to be used in the proposed facility.

February 4, 1985 — The Mexicans say thanks, but no thanks to the proposed binational plant. Instead, they formally announce they will build their own sewage treatment facilities in Tijuana, which they say will meet their needs at least up to the year 2000.

This ambitious plan will involve two separate sites, according to the Mexicans. They’ll begin with a 17- to 25-million-gallon-a-day facility featuring three large settling basins on a hilltop about four miles south of the border (just east of the Ensenada toll road). Later this plant will be doubled, raising the design capacity to between 34 and 50 million gallons a day. Raw sewage will flow into the basins here through the existing open canal. The sewage then will be held in the basins for five to seven days, where it is to be aerated and chlorinated. Finally, the plan calls for pumping the effluent into the southern extension of the open canal and either reclaiming it for agricultural use or discharging it into the surf about 5.6 miles south of the border (right next to the seaside community of San Antonio del Mar).

The Mexicans say this first phase should be completed by early 1986. The second phase, to be begun about 1989, will place a similar plant at the confluence of the Tijuana and Alamar rivers in southeastern Tijuana. One variation of this plant would discharge the treated effluent into the rivers (where it would flow through the channel, cross the border, then run through the Tijuana River estuary, and finally dump into the ocean). Right from the start, the Americans particularly hate this idea, since they claim it will destroy the estuary (and still cause contamination problems at the beach).

The Americans don’t like very much about any part of the Mexican plans, in fact; they really wanted to build that “binational” plant in the South Bay. They also don’t believe that the Mexican coastal plant will work very well. But at meetings held in Mexico City in mid-February, the U.S. negotiators fail to budge the Mexicans from their announced course. So the Americans immediately begin talking about building “defensive” measures to protect South Bay residents against sewage spills that may occur in spite of the optimistic Mexican plans.

April 1985 — Lowry and Associates releases yet another study, this one of possible defensive measures, from which San Diego officials approve two ideas. The first $3.8 million project would rig a system to catch the renegade flows that come through the five border basins and canyons and then pump this sewage to Point Loma for treatment, until the second $31.6 million phase could be completed.

This latter project would place a 66-inch pipeline extending from the San Ysidro border west to the ocean near Border Field State Park. Any and all runaway Mexican sewage would be captured by this pipe and then pumped up and over the border to the Mexicans’ southbound open canal, for treatment and disposal at the coastal treatment plant. This latter idea comes to be known as “the Big Pipe.”

August 1985 - The IBWC goes ahead and builds some scaled-down “surface interceptors.” For about $350,000, the boundary commission concocts a way to catch renegade sewage streams at the Stewart’s and Silva drains and Canyon del Sol. (Instead of sending the stuff to Point Loma, the commission project simply pumps it the short distance across the border to the Tijuana pumping station that stands next to the highway leading to Las Playas.) Plans soon develop for a similarly scaled-down catchment scheme at Smuggler’s Gulch at a cost of about $500,000. (This eventually is completed in May of 1988.)

January 28, 1987 — With enormous fanfare, the Mexicans finally “inaugurate” the first phase of the coastal treatment plant at Punta Bandera. Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid arrives by helicopter to preside over the ceremony, and his secretary of ecology, Manuel Camacho Solis, promises American reporters that San Diego beaches will never be closed again because of Mexican sewage.

Despite the hoopla, the Mexicans still must undertake eight months of testing the new plant. Full-scale operations at Punta Bandera do not begin until September 17, 1987.

October 26, 1987 — The Punta Bandera plant breaks down, as two of three large holding ponds develop leaks. While the ponds are relined with clay and asphalt, the entire facility must be shut down, and raw sewage is dumped directly into the ocean at the discharge point five and a half miles south of the border.

March 8, 1988 — The San Diego City Council gives “conceptual approval” to revised plans for the so-called Big Pipe. The concept for the pipe has now ballooned to a twelve-foot-wide conduit that could carry more than 600 million gallons per day. Though backers still describe the pipe as a “return-to-sender” device that would be used to send errant Mexican sewage back over the border, some South Bay residents voice concern that the pipe later will become the justification for building a major sewage treatment plant in their neighborhood.

Talk also begins to surface that perhaps instead of one pipe, a dual pipe system (costing around $42 million) should be built.

May 1988 — The Mexican sewage treatment plant at Punta Bandera returns to full operations.

The Mexicans also have quietly announced that they will not build the second phase, which was to have doubled the capacity at Punta Bandera (even though they promised this construction in a 1985 treaty with the United States). According to American officials, the Mexicans have already spent an estimated $30 million on the first phase alone — five times more than they had initially estimated. Instead of building on the problem-plagued coastal site, the Mexicans indicate they plan to proceed with the proposed plant on the Rio Alamar.

Spring and summer, 1988 — Elected officials from San Diego fly to Washington to lobby intensively for federal funds to build the Big Pipe(s).

August 2, 1988 — Congress approves $20 million for the retum-to-sender device. The city also seems certain to win some $12.5 million in Clean Water Act money. But up to $12 million more will be needed to build the Big Pipe(s), and this money would have to come from a city wide increase in water rates.

September 9, 1988 — Like Lazarus returning from the dead, the idea of a binational sewage treatment plant — funded by both Mexico and the U.S. but operated by Americans on the north side of the border — comes to life again. It arises at a commission meeting in El Paso when the American representative to the IBWC suggests a 25-million-gallon-a-day plant.

The Americans appear to have changed their tactics since the last time they took a run at a binational plant, four years ago. This time the boundary commissioner asks the Mexicans to contribute only the amount of money that they would have spent on their proposed Rio Alamar plant.

He also broaches the idea of the plant being built in a “free zone” in which Mexican labor and materials commensurate with the Mexicans’ financial contribution could be used.

According to the Americans, the Mexicans respond with interest, asking for more details and promising temporarily to put plans for their Rfo Alamar plant on hold.

Late October, 1988 — Officials from San Diego city and county, the IBWC, the EPA, and other water agencies meet to discuss preliminary indications that Congress and the Office of Management and Budget initially may only be willing to put up enough money to launch a 15-million-gallon-a-day plant. Those attending concur that a 25-million-gallon-a-day plant is really needed. But “if it’s 15 or nothing, we don’t want nothing,” one participant at the meeting sums up the consensus. So the group decides it will continue to push for a 25-million-gallon-a-day plant but live with a 15-million-gallon-a-day one, if necessary. Plans for an engineering study of the 25-million-gallon-a-day idea (to begin around December 1) start to take shape.

November 16, 1988 — A San Diego City Council committee recommends that the city make a definite commitment to the Big Pipe(s) and the water rate increases that will be necessary to finance the city’s share of the project. The council members make this recommendation knowing that if the pipe is built, it initially won’t be connected to anything (since plans for the connections lag several months behind those for the pipe). The press continues to refer to the pipe as a “return-to-sender” project. But the Mexican treatment plant to which the pipe will supposedly direct the sewage already is operating at or over capacity. Big Pipe supporters argue that if the pipe only succeeds at redirecting the sewage (so that it flows into the ocean, raw, five miles into Mexico), that would be better than having that sewage flow into the ocean at Imperial Beach. But even the open canal (which would carry the sewage down the coast) is currently carrying just eight to ten million gallons of sewage per day less than its capacity.

So there you have it Not the entire grisly story; but surely enough to dazzle your friends with your knowledge of the current international sanitation scene. And now for our trick questions:

Question Number One: If This Sewage Is So Noxious and Disgusting, Why Aren’t San Diego County Residents Dropping Like Flies?

(a) Mexican sewage isn’t really that noxious and disgusting.

(b) It is, and we are already dropping like flies.

(c) No one knows.

Answer (a) is wrong. But the question of just how noxious and disgusting Mexican sewage is remains a subject of some debate. One view comes from the EPA’s border coordinator, Dick Reavis, who’s been working on border sewage issues for more than 20 years.

Reavis looks as though he’s repressing a shudder when he talks about Mexican sewage, which he sees as a “cocktail containing untold pathogens.” He says, “There is, I’m sure, every virus that one could find in that water.” There’s cholera, diptheria, typhoid, hepatitis, “all the things that ought to scare us to death.” Besides these familiar, if sinister, germs. Reavis also believes that the influx of Tijuana sewage is “broadening our areas in terms of pathogens. I’m sure there are pathogens in that sewage that can produce diseases that are not even contemplated in North America.”

A somewhat less frightening perspective comes from county public health engineer John Melbourn. He says the county very rarely tests the Mexican sewage to see precisely what pathogens are in it because, “It’s generally known by public health officials that when you have sewage you have disease potential, and there’s not a lot of sense in consuming laboratory time by testing on an ongoing basis.” On the few occasions when the Tijuana sewage has been analyzed, Melbourn says, ‘‘We find everything that you would expect, especially from a wide-ranging population.” But Melbourn says he can’t say the Tijuana sewage contains any more pathogens than one would find in San Diego sewage, for example. ‘‘We’re a cosmopolitan area here,” he explains.

“Remember, you’re talking about [finding in any sewage] literally hundreds of different species of everything that you deal with. And when you start saying, ‘Is there more of this?’ you find that basically the concentration of pathogens in Tijuana sewage is the same as it is in U.S. sewage.”

Melbourn acknowledges that certain diseases, say polio, almost certainly are more common in Tijuana than here. But he says, “You still don’t have an explosive epidemic condition.” In other words, you don’t have enough more cases to make the presence of polio in their sewage look drastically different than that found in ours.

Melbourn hastens to add that he’s not complacent about the raw sewage flowing across the border. “The sewage is dreadful, but that's because it’s unconfined. This disease-carrying material is out in the environment where people can come in contact with it. So the potential [for the disease to spread] is much higher in the border area than it is in La Jolla, for example.”

Of course, some factors do restrict human contact with the errant Tijuana sewage. For one thing, the county health department every week samples the water at seven locations ranging from the border to Avenida de las Arenas in Coronado and then tests to determine the concentration of fecal material in the water. If the bacteria counts are above a certain level, the county puts up signs forbidding public contact with the water. (At the moment. Border Field State Park is still quarantined, as it has been for the most part since 1980. Melbourn also points out that, compared to the rest of the county, the Tijuana River Valley is still fairly lightly populated (though some new development has occurred there recently).

Even with the quarantines and the scarcity of nearby residents, Melbourn says people still come in contact with the sewage. Some foolhardy swimmers doubtless ignore the quarantine signs. And “We do have a tremendous number of illegals going through that estuary on a daily basis,” Melbourn says. Despite this contact, however, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that answer (b) above is correct either.

Dr. William Townsend almost sounds surprised when he reviews how little evidence there is that the sewage is making anyone sick.

Townsend is in charge of communicable disease control for the county, and he mentions that “even though we’re a border city next to Mexico,” the incidence of both tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases in San Diego County is “very modest” compared to other American cities and counties with more than 200,000 residents. “In general, it would seem that Tijuana is not a major source of communicable diseases in San Diego County,” Townsend says.

A few years ago, the doctor also took a close look at a specific disease, in an attempt to see if a 1984 rise in reported cases of hepatitis A in Imperial Beach could be scientifically linked to the Tijuana sewage spills. When he analyzed the number of hepatitis cases reported among residents of the census tract that includes the mouth of the Tijuana River, he found that from 1980 through October of 1984, that area averaged nine cases per 10,000 residents per year — compared to only two cases per 10,000 residents per year in the county overall. Sounds pretty sinister, eh? Townsend, however, also looked at the mouth of the San Diego River and found that residents around it averaged seven cases per 10,000 per year in the same time period — and no one has suggested that Tijuana sewage is making its way up to the San Diego River estuary. To attribute the extra South Bay cases to the Tijuana sewage alone is a “very risky thing,” Townsend concludes. “It’s suggestive, but it’s really not a very strong bit of evidence.”

Besides people actually touching the sewage or ingesting it, there is one other major way the sewage spills can abet the spread of disease: by fostering disease-bearing mosquitoes. Moise Mizrahi, chief of the county’s “vector control” division, says the Tijuana River Valley is an excellent habitat for about 12 of the 24 species of mosquitoes found in the county, including one {Anopheles freebornii) known to be a transmitter of a malaria parasite. Furthermore, San Diego has seen two serious malaria outbreaks recently. A 1986 incident, involving 27 cases, was the largest reported in the United States since 1953, according to Mizrahi. And this past summer, at least 30 people broke the 1986 record.

Both outbreaks, however, occurred at the opposite end of the county from the Mexican sewage problem (both involved migrant farm workers and one or two North County residents). Mizrahi says in each case the disease was almost certainly imported by one of the migrant workers from southern Mexico or Central America, where malaria reportedly is endemic. Mizrahi adds that it’s possible an infected migrant could have passed through the Tijuana River estuary and been bitten by a mosquito, which in turn spread the disease to other migrants bound for the North County fields. However, it is more likely that the infected carrier arrived in the North County before being bitten — since Anopheles freebomii mosquitoes are found all over the county, under given conditions. (They like standing water located where there are willows, grasses, and algae, Mizrahi says.)

In fact, Mizrahi says the malaria-bearing mosquitos don’t even particularly like sewage water. In the Tijuana River Valley, the malarial species tends to live in ponds fed by water that has already gone underground and has been cleansed somewhat in transit. A different type of mosquito that thrives in water with a high organic content does infest the eastern portion of the river valley — and is known to carry the virus that causes encephalitis, a disease of the brain and spinal cord that can lead to paralysis and even death. But although San Diego County has seen a handful of scattered encephalitis cases in the past few years, no clusters have been associated with the Tijuana River Valley.

That by no means makes Mizrahi sanguine about the disease potential in the valley. He stresses that the Tijuana River Valley currently has one of the highest mosquito counts found in the county, and the sewage is one of the elements that causes that population to boom, since the sewage discourages the presence of mosquito-eating fish and promotes dense vegetation growth. “The concerns [about mosquitos in the valley causing disease] are real,” Mizrahi says. “The fact that we haven’t had more is just fortunate.”

That leads us to the final brain-tickler: Question Number Two: Who Knows What’s Going to Happen?

Stumped? Don’t feel bad. People who have worked on this issue for years shake their heads and throw up their hands when you ask precisely what the future holds.

One such person, for instance, is Susan de Treville, a biologist who began studying the problem more than five years ago when she was hired by the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association. That group of Tijuana River estuary advocates had gotten a state Coastal Conservancy grant, and they commissioned de Treville to write a report evaluating different ways to clean up the Tijuana River estuary. De Treville came to the task armed with some preconceptions against the traditional American approach to sewage treatment. She believed that typical plants — huge, centralized, and staggeringly costly — certainly have benefited the engineering and construction companies that have worked on them. But de Treville questioned whether such complex and expensive technology is really necessary, and she also deplored the standard assumption that treated sewage water should be discarded rather than reused, particularly in parched areas like the Southwest.

When de Treville and a team of Mexican and American engineers thus turned their minds to alternative approaches, they came up with a simple, passive, low-tech design that they envisioned being duplicated at relatively low cost in neighborhoods all over Tijuana. If this system were coupled with a distribution system, the water could be reused for everything from fire fighting to watering vegetation to cooling power plants, they figured. Using an additional $97,500 Coastal Conservancy grant, de Treville and her team in 1985 built a pilot plant on IBWC property in the Tijuana River Valley. They tapped Mexican sewage, which then was flowing through the emergency connection, and operated the plant for nine months. “We had excellent results,” de Treville asserts. “We beat the pants off Point Loma in terms of their performance.”

De Treville then won a further $239,000 grant to expand the pilot project, and for complex reasons she had to locate this larger test facility in Tijuana. By the summer of 1987, however, just when work on it should have been gearing up, a series of heartbreaking misfortunes sabotaged the entire enterprise. First, de Treville discovered she had a cancerous brain tumor and would have to undergo surgery and lengthy follow-up treatment. At the same time, the Mexican engineer who took control of the project during her illness decided to depart drastically from the original plans and soon encountered problems. In March of this year, he finally ran out of money, and all work stopped on the half-finished pilot.

Today de Treville is convinced that that project could have been built for the budgeted amount, and she still thinks a full-blown system of small, passive plants could completely solve the problem of Mexican sewage for an initial investment of only $30 million to $40 million. “And the neat thing about this idea is it could keep pace with future growth,” she adds, since additional modules could be added at low cost as Tijuana grows. De Treville says she still has some powerful supporters of her proposal, but she’s also aware that the sorry experience with the expanded pilot program has given detractors much cause for snickering. At the same time, de Treville knows that plans for the Big Pipe and probably some kind of traditional treatment plant appear to be proceeding, but she says wearily, “I’ve just heard about that for so long that I can’t really believe it’s going to happen.”

A different perspective comes from county supervisor Brian Bilbray who grew op with the sewage issue. “The Tijuana Valley was my playground when I was a kid ” he says. “I lived next to the estuary.”

Years later, when Bilbray became mayor of Imperial Beach, his flamboyant response to dealing with the putrid influxes thrust him into the spotlight county wide; most renowned was Bilbray’s unauthorized attempt in 1980 to bulldoze a makeshift dam (on City of San Diego property) that would stop the sewage from entering the country. Today Bilbray still describes the sewage problem as “a very, very personal issue. This is one that I don’t want to play politics with. This is reality. This could be little kids dying in the street.”

Bilbray sees many factors as explaining both the obstinacy and the absurdity of the problem. “You’ve got to understand that this is such a unique situation in world affairs. This is the only place in the world where the First and the Third World meet. And so you have major, major technological and cultural differences.”

Mexico has “a chronically centralized system” run by Mexico City bureaucrats who haven’t cared about the border city, Bilbray states. “And our bureaucratic structure is totally naive about the frontera.” As an example of that naivety, the supervisor mentions one California bureaucrat who in 1981 reported that Mexican sewage treatment was going to be ready in 24 months. “I confronted him with the fact that there wasn’t any treatment anywhere on the books and that what he was talking about was just a sewage transport system, not a treatment system. His comment was, ‘You can’t just dump sewage in the ocean. That’s illegal.’ He just could not picture a Third World approach to handling sewage problems.”

Bilbray sees the Mexicans as having profoundly different attitudes toward raw sewage. “Their children play in raw sewage. That’s just part of life. Sewage is not a problem to them. Sewage is just a slight nuisance, but it goes away. It flows downstream and becomes somebody else’s problem. They care more about a loaf of bread for their peasants than a sewer system. They’re trying to get water to their neighborhoods. Who cares about what happens after the water’s used?”

Bilbray says in the past when American officials could be made aware of the problem, another stumbling block consistently thwarted any constructive action. “All the bureaucrats were basically saying, ‘It’s not my department.’ The state and local agencies were saying, ‘It’s a federal issue.’ But you’d go to EPA or Fish and Wildlife and they were saying, ‘No, it’s a local problem.’ Because the State Department was saying, ‘We’re not here to handle environmental problems.’ The IBWC said, ‘We’re here to identify problems, but not to cure them.’ ”

Bilbray credits his 1980 “Operation Beaver” as finally jolting that bureaucratic paralysis; the big summit meeting in the spring of 1982 that drew a spectrum of American agencies together to work on the problem was a welcome change. But out of the meeting the first big Lowry and Associates study resulted, and “it came in with a typical American answer to a Mexican problem,” Bilbray says. “It came up with the ultimate solution, but the trouble is, this is not an ultimate situation. Most people that handle pollution [in this country] go to the source and shut it down or make the source pay for the cleanup. But you can’t do that in this situation. The only way we could do that is go shut down the border and use the economic pressure like we do with private business; treat Mexico like we would a polluter in our country. And nobody’s willing to do that. So you just eliminated your own modus operandi, your vehicle that you use all the time. Now you’ve got to find answers to the problem rather than find blame for the problem. And I think that’s why environmental agencies, environmental groups, and government bureaucracies overall are very uncomfortable with this situation. Because everyone knows who’s to blame. But that’s not an answer."

The supervisor says that when thinking on this side of the border finally shifted to defensive measures, “that was a real landmark move, because it started this mentality of ‘Do what you can, where you can, when you can. And just because you can’t solve the whole issue is no excuse not to do what you can.’ A good example is the [surface] interceptors [which were installed in the canyons and drainage basins]. I mean, where do you find an engineer who is trained at how to catch sewage off the surface flow and put it into a pipe? You don’t do that in this country! You require them to hook up to the house. So it was a whole new technology, a whole new system. It’s kind of fly-by-night technology; it’s very primitive in certain ways. Just it has to be.”

Bilbray says the Big Pipe is he next phase in the defensive trategy, and so he fully upports its construction, even hough he’s more equivocal ibout whether the pipe should imply dump raw sewage back into Mexico or be connected to some treatment plant. “My current position is they both stink. Both of them are crummy answers, but this is a crummy problem.” He puts the current chances of a new border treatment plant getting built at about 40 percent — odds he characterizes as “pretty high.” He predicts that “the issue is going to come to a head in the next 12 to 20 months. I’m already seeing giant leaps in the bureaucracy.

They’re starting to get to the point of finding answers rather ' than just finding excuses not to find answers.”

At the same time, Bilbray says things could very well grind to a halt again. “This problem with this issue is it’s been around and there’s been so much talk about it for so long, everybody just says, ‘Well, nothing will ever be done.’ And so that gives an excuse for elected officials and bureaucracies to walk away from it.”

He mentions one other grim fact of life. “One of the biggest problems we have here is this is a poor person’s problem, not the rich people’s. And it’s so hypocritical! If this were La Jolla, they’d be coming out the woodwork!” He contrasts the uproar that resulted when North County beaches were closed for a few days with the interminable closures Imperial Beach has suffered in relative silence. “You’re talking about people that aren’t wealthy, that don’t have the attorneys, and don’t have the political sophistication. Imperial Beach is a working-class community. But when it gets to Coronado, then you’ll start seeing the difference. Or San Diego harbor will be closed. It could happen in 20 years. We either address this issue or we’re going to have to live with it right in the middle of our city.”

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