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2022 Year-End-Review: Turning the Tide on Cross-Border Water Pollution

Each year, billions of gallons of untreated sewage, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and trash flow across the Mexico/U.S. border and into the Pacific Ocean, causing beach closures throughout South San Diego County and widespread water quality illnesses on both sides of the border.  In 2022, that number reached an alarming 12.38 billion gallons in polluted transboundary flows.  The Clean Border Water Now program at Surfrider is a volunteer-led, staff-supported initiative to address this grave public health issue that plagues our border-region communities and ecosystems.  


As we reflect on 2022 and all that it brought for the health of communities that span the San Diego/Tijuana border region and the Clean Border Water Now (CBWN) program, we are encouraged by the progress made, the voices raised, the collaborations forged, and the possibilities that lie ahead in 2023.  

The decades-long work that San Diego area volunteers and Surfrider staff have put into meaningful change on the public health crisis at our border is finally starting to pay off.  In 2022, we experienced a major lawsuit victory years in the making, precedent-setting binational agreements, and a thorough environmental analysis and public process to vet solutions.  Despite ever increasing toxic transboundary flows, we have seen the tide turn when it comes to federal commitments from Mexico and the U.S. on a level not previously witnessed for this issue. 

We are left feeling motivated to continue the hard work of moving the needle towards meaningful, holistic, and equitable solutions in the border region.  Read on to learn about 2022 highs and lows and what brings us hope for continued progress in 2023.   

Groundbreaking Lawsuit Settlement
Last spring, after 4 long years, Surfrider successfully settled our
lawsuit against the US International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) for egregious violations to the Clean Water Act at the Tijuana River border region.  The settlement will: improve overall water quality; 2) strengthen monitoring, communications, and reporting efforts; and 3) advance infrastructure improvements and pollution response efforts.  This success was due to the hard work of many passionate and dedicated people and the support of volunteers and community members like all of you.  Thank you for helping us reach this point!  We are now actively monitoring the USIBWC’s public notifications of contaminated cross-border flows, to ensure they are upholding their responsibility to promptly post any flows on their Twitter feed.  We will include this contaminated flow information in each monthly newsletter and spread widely on Surfrider San Diego’s social media channels. 

Precedent-Setting Binational Agreements
Two binational agreements have been signed this year to address the public health crisis at our border, setting into motion a series of high-level negotiations, contracts, processes, and infrastructure projects. 
The Statement of Intent (framework for joint implementation of the Comprehensive Infrastructure Solution) and Minute 328 (first step in binational implementation of the Statement of Intent framework), both of which came out of the Tijuana Binational Wastewater Technical Working Group were signed in July by Mexican and U.S. federal agencies.  The agreements commit the two countries to reducing transboundary wastewater in the Pacific Ocean and Tijuana River Water by building a network of infrastructure projects on both sides of the border, known as the Comprehensive Infrastructure Solution (CIS).  

Strong Financial Commitments from Mexico and US towards a Solution
In early August, Mexico announced that it will contribute $144 million towards the CIS.  The U.S. has also committed roughly $350 million towards this suite of infrastructure projects.  We are grateful for this additional investment from the Mexican Government toward a solution to this enormous public health crisis and will continue to work collaboratively to seek the remaining funding needed to implement the CIS. 

Robust Public Process from the EPA’s NEPA Analysis
Surfrider submitted comments throughout the public comment process that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) underwent during 2022 in their environmental analysis of the most comprehensive package of projects ever proposed to combat sewage issues at the Mexico/U.S. border.⁣⁠⁣⁠  

In partnership with local nonprofit Outdoor Outreach, we commended the selection of the most protective infrastructure plan option (Alternative 2), and advocated for additional supplemental projects and swift implementation.  We are encouraged by the steps taken by the EPA and USIBWC and will remain as watchdogs to ensure the strongest project components are implemented as quickly as possible.

The EPA will now review public comments and issue a Record of Decision (ROD) in the coming weeks.  If they hold true to their timeline, construction of the Core Projects could begin as early as this year.⁣⁠

Federal Funding Increase
Included in the 2023 federal budget, the legislature provided $36.386 million for the US/Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Grant Program (BWIP), that directs funds toward much needed border infrastructure projects in the Tijuana Watershed and across the Mexico/US border.  This is an increase of $4.386 million from the previous year and indicates that our leaders have heard the call from local community members and water advocates. 
We are encouraged by this upward trend in BWIP funding and will continue to advocate for the full $100 million available to BWIP in the next federal budget. 

Tijuana River Action Month Return
Tijuana River Action Month (TRAM) returned to in-person events following a 2 year hiatus due to the Pandemic.  

The annual month-long event, from mid-Sept to mid Oct,, brought together a wide range of participants from both sides of the border to participate in events such as community cleanups and restoration projects, interactive educational activities and water-related markets and festivals.  Hundreds of people came together to learn about the public health issues impacting our border region and contribute to solutions. 

New Water Quality Testing Method
Last May, San Diego County became the first county in the nation to introduce a
new water quality testing method called Digital Droplet PCR (ddPCR).  It differs from the previous method in that it uses a genetic/DNA-based method to detect and measure fecal contamination in coastal waters.  It can provide test results in as little as 3 hours after samples arrive at the lab, as opposed to the 24 hours required by the conventional methods.  Health officials are now able to make same day decisions to open or close a beach with test results available within hours of sampling.  This has resulted in more beach closures in South County than normally seen throughout the spring, summer, and fall months.

Transboundary Flows and Beach Closures
An alarmingly high annual total of 12.38 billion gallons of toxic cross-border flows were recorded in 2022, thanks to wet weather caused by increased storms and growing demand on  failing water treatment infrastructure.  Beach closures also reached a record high with the Tijuana Slough being closed every single day last year.  

Continued Local Engagement
We’ve had much to celebrate this year and none of it would be possible without the hard work and dedication of our volunteer leads and community participants that have shown up again and again.  Every event, meeting, beach cleanup, comment letter, and action have added up to bring us to where we are today.  This is truly a team effort.  It started with passionate and concerned community members and it continues to be sustained by all of you.

Looking Ahead
2023 offers a slew of new opportunities for the CBWN program, from a new legislature and federal budget to meaningful partnerships and equitable actions.  Locally, people are starting to re-engage after Covid isolation and re-prioritize what really matters to them.  Now is the time to get creative and carry that momentum forward.  

At the “grasstops” level, we aim to fill the very large funding gap that still exists (roughly $300-$500 million) to cover the building, operations, and maintenance of the enormous CIS.  This will require not only savvy policy work, but strong voices and a firm foundation at the grassroots level, where the CBWN team has identified a gap in our historic and present community engagement efforts.  While many of the most impacted community members are Latinx-identifying, few of our CBWN participants and volunteers reflect this.  This is problematic and a high priority to address for the CBWN program moving forward.  

To address these needs, we’ve developed an ambitious set of goals for 2023 meant to continue to push the needle on this effort in both proven and new ways.  We do not want to miss the opportunity in which we find ourselves at this critical juncture to make lasting change on transboundary water pollution and protect the health, wellbeing, and livelihood of communities living in this diverse and beautiful region 

As impacts from climate change and population growth to our border region continue to increase, the need for funding and sustained federal and local support will become ever more critical.  We are hopeful that these goals can be met this year with the strong leadership of our local, state, and federal officials and agencies and with the voices of impacted and concerned community members throughout San Diego County and beyond.  

Please join us in this effort.  


Photo: William Bay

Learn more about Surfrider’s Clean Border Water Now program here and sign up to receive updates!