A group of IB locals who have organized opposition to Surfrider's plan to manage sewage and toxic flows from TIjuana's failed infrastructure have received a letter threatening them with legal action if they don't stop taking the Surfrider Foundation name in vain. Leon Benham, the executive director of Citizens for Coastal Conservancy, received the letter in mid-October, telling him that his public statements about their proposed plan to clean up the storm water and sewage flows from the Tijuana River into the US are libelous to the group.
The letter, signed by Surfrider Foundation chief operations officer Michelle Kremer, was sent to three officers of the grassroots Citizens group – including two past candidates for Imperial Beach city government. Asked for clarification, Surfrider lawyer Angela Howe provided only a written statement: “Surfrider Foundation sent one Cease and Desist letter to an individual regarding inaccurate statements that have been made. Our legal team will take action to maintain the integrity of our organization and protect the ability of our chapters to do important work in the community.”
Surfrider objects to Benham’s statements that the group is “planning a 400 percent increase in Mexican sewage dumped off Imperial Beach.” In opinion pieces published in the Coronado Times and the Coronado Eagle & Journal, Benham does warn that the plan ‘’could result in the quadrupling of the amount of treated sewage being dumped off Imperial Beach from the current 25 million gallons a day to more than 100 million gallons a day.”
Dane Crosby, a long-time IB resident, received the letter – as did Valerie Acevez and Mitch McKay.
“It’s a scare tactic,” Crosby says. “We responded with questions of verifying what we’re exactly supposed to cease and desist and got no response. The real reason was that Leon put out a letter that detailed how sewage dumped off IB would triple with the blessing of Surfrider and Wildcoast.”
Wildcoast, a nonprofit run by IB Mayor Serge Dedina, did not sign off on the letters threatening legal action. Surfrider has been campaigning against border sewage since at least 2009.
Benham and his group have opposed Surfrider’s plan to construct large concrete basins in the area between Las Americas Premium Outlets and the Tijuana River Valley Open Space park, just north of the border and east of the South Bay Plant and the International Sewage Treatment Plant. San Ysidro residents, who learned of the plans via the Citizens group, call the basins sewage ponds and objected strongly.
The basins – similar to those constructed a decade earlier by state parks in Goat Canyon – would capture river flows and catch the tremendous amount of trash that also comes into the US during storms and when pipes break or the pumping station fails.
According to a menu of possible projects, the flows would be diverted to the either or both the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, which would be expanded from treating 25 million gallons per day to 100 gallons per day or to the city’s South Bay Wastewater Reclamation Plant, which will also need to be expanded. In the International Treatment Plant scenario, the nasty water is treated to primary – but not secondary – levels and is pumped to the South Bay Ocean Outfall, shared with the city. The outfall currently disperses about 25 million gallons of modestly treated sewage from the international plant and 15 million gallons from the city plant each day, and would see an increase to 100 million gallons a day under the proposed scenarios.
All of the options cost in the deep tens of millions of dollars, with ongoing maintenance costs of no less than $2.5 million a year. Area residents have been trying to deal with storm water and sewage from Tijuana since at least 1927.
Benham, a senior project manager, has worked on environmental and restoration projects, including projects where the sediment from the Tijuana River was tested and found to be safe before it was used for trails in the county park.
The Citizens plan addresses two IB concerns: the polluted flows and protecting beach sand to protect city homes against sea level rise. The plan is simple: allow the river "water" to make its way to the ocean through channelization of the flood plain as natural filters and spill into the ocean. Since the flows now leave behind mountains of sediment, in theory, the beach would be naturally replenished with sand.
It would require amounts of money similar to the Surfrider plan and the political will to keep the river valley channels dredged and cleared. Experts are skeptical of the costs and whether or not it would work.
Those in the San Ysidro neighborhood just north of the basins proposed by Surfrider were informed of the plan long after Surfrider began presenting it to select ‘stakeholders’ that did not include the nearby residents or Citizens members.
The U.S. Border Patrol, whose agents work in the areas where the flooding and other spills occur, remains opposed to installing more basins in the river valley, because the basins end up being a hiding place for people illegally crossing the border away from the ports of entry. Border Patrol agents sign waivers agreeing that they do not have to enter the river.
But they have been included in the stakeholder meetings, an agent confirmed. The Citizens says their group of IB residents continue to be left out. Benham will be presenting their plan at the next International Boundary and Water Commission Citizens Forum.
“It’s kinda funny the hypocrisy of two nonprofits not wanting input from a local group that actually represents people of IB and how they call themselves stakeholders while limiting who can come to their meetings,” Crosby said. “These groups are really about stolen stakeholdership while promoting ideas from state policy-makers or the California Coastal Commission for doing so.”