Padilla Presses for Additional Federal Collaboration to Address Tijuana River Pollution Crisis

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife, wrote to the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to request an update on how the agencies plan to work together to address the ongoing Tijuana River transboundary sewage pollution crisis and repair the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant (SBIWTP).

In just the last five years, more than 100 billion gallons of toxic sewage, garbage, and other pollution have flowed over the United States-Mexico border, forcing mass beach closures and leading to hazardous bacteria infiltrating local waterways and becoming airborne. The Tijuana River pollution crisis has disproportionately harmed underserved communities along San Diego’s southern border for decades. U.S. military personnel, border patrol agents, and the local environment and economy have also suffered harmful impacts from waterborne and airborne transboundary sewage flows.

The letter follows Senator Padilla’s recent questioning during a Senate EPW hearing on the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2024 urging Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael Connor and USACE Chief of Engineers and Commanding General Lt. General Scott Spellmon to work with other federal agencies to urgently address the ongoing public health, national security, and environmental crises in Southern California coastal communities.

“As I said in my hearing remarks, rehabilitating and expanding [the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant] is critical to public health, national security, and environmental protection,” wrote Senator Padilla. “Beyond more federal funding, it is clear that federal agencies need to act as one in order to comprehensively address this situation as soon as possible.”

Specifically, Padilla requested the IBWC and USACE provide a written response to three questions regarding the repair, rehabilitation, and expansion of the SBIWTP:

  • What is USIBWC’s plan to implement newly appropriated FY24 construction funding and remaining US-Mexico-Canada Agreement funds?
  • What role can or will USACE play in contracting, procurement, design, and construction of the SBIWTP expansion?
  • How do USIBWC and USACE plan to leverage USACE and Corps Civil Works engineering and contracting expertise to help USIBWC make these critical infrastructure repairs and upgrades to the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant as soon as possible?

Senator Padilla has prioritized addressing the Tijuana River pollution crisis since he first arrived in the Senate. Last month, he secured over $103 million in additional funding for the U.S. IBWC in the bipartisan FY 2024 appropriations package to help repair the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant. The bill also included a provision allowing other federal agencies as well as state and local governments to contribute funds to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the IBWC plant. 

In June 2023, Padilla traveled to the U.S. IBWC Treatment Plant near the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego. Following Tropical Storm Hilary, Padilla and the late Senator Dianne Feinstein called on Senate leadership to include $310 million in the emergency supplemental bill to repair infrastructure needed to treat the wastewater flowing across the border with Mexico through the Tijuana River, which has closed local beaches for more than 800 days in a row. The Senators also successfully secured language in the FY 2023 appropriations package to eliminate red tape and allow the Environmental Protection Agency to deliver $300 million previously secured in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement to the International Boundary and Water Commission for water infrastructure projects.

Full text of the letter is available here and below:

Dear Commissioner Giner, Secretary Connor, and Lt. General Spellmon:

Thank you for your work so far to address transboundary sewage in the Tijuana River watershed and at the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant (SBIWTP). With the passage of recent appropriations and the consideration of the 2024 Water Resources Development Act, I am writing to request an update on the rehabilitation and expansion of the SBIWTP and to follow up on my questions during the February 28 Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

I am proud to have secured a $103 million increase to the Fiscal Year 2024 Construction Budget for the United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC), which in combination with $300 million secured in the US-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) Agreement in 2020 represent important steps towards addressing a decades-long public health and environmental crisis that has created airborne and waterborne hazards for local communities and our military personnel. As I said in my hearing remarks, rehabilitating and expanding SBIWTP is critical to public health, national security, and environmental protection. Beyond more federal funding, it is clear that federal agencies need to act as one in order to comprehensively address this situation as soon as possible. I am glad to see to hear that during the design-build contractor procurement process USACE has been important partner to the USIBWC, which I am told plans to award the contract later this summer to commence project design and construction.

To understand the plan to address both repair and rehabilitation, as well as the expansion of the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, I am seeking written responses to the following questions:

  • What is USIBWC’s plan to implement newly appropriated FY24 construction funding and remaining USMCA funds?
  • What role can or will USACE play in contracting, procurement, design, and construction of the SBIWTP expansion?
  • How does USIBWC and USACE plan to leverage USACE and Corps Civil Works engineering and contracting expertise to help USIBWC make these critical infrastructure repairs and upgrades to the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant as soon as possible?

I am also working with my colleagues in the House to secure new Corps authorities in the 2024 Water Resources Development Act to leverage the Corps’ environmental infrastructure and ecosystem restoration expertise to mitigate pollution in disadvantaged communities like Imperial Beach and in the Tijuana River watershed.

Thank you for attention to the rehabilitation and expansion needs of the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Administration’s focus on air and water pollution impacts within disadvantaged communities, and your continued partnership on this project.

Sincerely,

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