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2023 Year-End-Reflections on the Struggle for Clean Border Water

The Tijuana River Watershed is a strikingly beautiful and deeply meaningful place for communities on both sides of the Mexico/U.S. border.  It provides critical habitat to countless species and is the largest remaining coastal wetland in Southern California.  Yet, each year, billions of gallons of untreated sewage, toxic chemicals, and trash flow across the border through the river and enter the Pacific Ocean, causing beach closures throughout South San Diego County and widespread illnesses on both sides.  In 2023, that number reached a startling 40 billion gallons in polluted transboundary flows, up nearly 30 billion gallons from 2022.  The Clean Border Water Now program at Surfrider is a volunteer-led, staff-supported initiative that addresses this grave public health and environmental justice crisis plaguing our border-region communities and ecosystems. 


What a year it has been in the struggle for clean border water!  In 2023, we witnessed not only historic highs and alarming lows, but also a growing social movement demanding action to address the transboundary pollution crisis. 

Just last month, during the height of the holiday season for many, the Tijuana River carried another 1.6 billion gallons of contaminated wastewater across the border.  The effects of El Niño are only expected to make this problem worse as impacted communities brace for another heavy storm season and the billions of gallons of toxic pollution it is expected to bring to the region.  

Meanwhile, progress towards getting the solutions in the ground to fix busted and inadequate wastewater infrastructure is frustratingly slow and much needed funding is hindered by bureaucratic and political obstacles. 

Despite these frustrations, the many setbacks in 2023, the growing public health and safety violations, and the lack of government leadership and cooperation to get the job done, Surfrider volunteers, local groups, and community members showed up stronger than ever, took a stand, and made it known that this crisis is unacceptable and urgently needs to be resolved.

We at Clean Border Water Now are ready for a new year of collaborating with our partners, allies, and the communities we work alongside to keep the pressure on and demand new and creative solutions to this crisis.  The worse the problem gets, the louder we become!  

Read on to learn more about 2023 highs and lows and what keeps us fired up going into 2024.


2023 Revelations:

  • 40.5 billion gallons of contaminated flows were measured by the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) crossing the border through the Tijuana River - a more than 200% increase from last year. 
  • 900 million dollars is the latest price tag for repairs to the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant (ITP) and implementation of the Comprehensive Infrastructure Plan (CIS) core projects.  This does not include operations and maintenance, nor construction of the supplemental projects, all of which are critical to the success of the solution.  Thus, the price will be even higher to ultimately achieve the desired goals of reducing contaminated flows by over 75% year-round and beach closures due to water quality impairments by 95% in summer months.  
  • 700+ consecutive days and counting is how long San Diego's southernmost beach and world-class surf break at the Tijuana Slough has been closed, barring access not only to the beach but also to Border Field State Park, and Friendship Park. 
  • 2 broken wastewater treatment plants, the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant (ITP) in San Diego County operated by the International Boundary and Water Commission through the Department of State and the San Antonio de los Buenos Wastewater Treatment Plant (SABTP) at Punta Bandera (about 6 miles south of the border), combined with a host of dysfunctional pump stations and pipes - are contributing to the problem.  It was revealed this past summer that the failing infrastructure is the result of years of deferred maintenance and neglect in investing in border-region communities by elected officials and agency leaders.  The cost of repairing the ITP will use up a large chunk of the funds set aside by Congress for the Comprehensive Infrastructure Solution, making the solution even harder to achieve in the near future. 
  • 1 ground-breaking study from Scripps Institution of Oceanography demonstrated that the pollution is diminishing air quality in addition to water quality.  This means that no one was safe by simply avoiding contact with toxic water.  People sitting on the dry sand at the beach, or at a seaside restaurant, or even in their own living rooms could be at risk of developing adverse health conditions. 


2023 Community Actions:

  • Advocating for Federal Funding for the Comprehensive Infrastructure Solution Recognizing the funding shortfall as one of the largest barriers to implementing the EPA-vetted Comprehensive Infrastructure Solution, Surfrider has spent considerable effort seeking additional funding for the EPA and the International Boundary and Water Commission this past year.  CBWN volunteers from the San Diego Chapter joined Surfrider staff and volunteers from across the nation to meet with our leaders in Congress and at the EPA to advocate for higher levels of funding for the EPA US/Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Grant Program (BWIP) at Surfrider’s 2023 Coastal Recreation Hill Day in Washington, DC.  Throughout the year, Surfrider has continued to communicate and meet with federal and state leaders to brainstorm ideas and build the support necessary to secure the funding through any and all avenues possible.  This advocacy has resulted in the inclusion of a $310 million allocation for the IBWC and the Comprehensive Infrastructure Solution (CIS) in President Biden’s supplemental funding package for FY2024, as well as congressional consideration of language that would allow the CIS to receive funding from federal and state agencies outside of an act of Congress.  

We will continue to advocate for federal dollars in the FY2025 funding cycle and beyond until there is sufficient funding to implement the CIS and to regularly maintain all operations necessary to protect clean water on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. 


Photos from Surfrider, CBWN Volunteers at 2023 Coastal Recreation Hill Day, Washington DC  

  • Calling for an Emergency Declaration
    In June, Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre sent a letter to the Biden administration calling for an emergency declaration for the worsening public health crisis.  The Mayor’s request quickly grew into a widespread and well-supported effort to get the state and federal attention needed to secure immediate relief for impacted communities.  Within a week, all other 17 mayors in San Diego County had signed on.  Within three weeks, the County Board of Supervisors had declared a local emergency and requested a federal declaration.  State and federal congressional delegations quickly followed with requests to both Governor Newsom and President Biden and by July, more than 40 community organizations, including Surfrider, had signed onto letters to the governor and president making the case for an emergency declaration.   

Shortly after, Surfrider launched a national petition calling on Governor Newsom and President Biden to declare an emergency.  Within a few months, over 3,200 people had signed it.  Yet, despite the governor declaring an emergency for Tropical Storm Hilary in August, neither he nor President Biden have made that designation for the decades-old transboundary pollution and growing public health crisis in South San Diego County.

In October, the California Coastal Commission held their monthly meeting in Imperial Beach, generating much needed media and political attention on the impacts of transboundary pollution in the local community.  The Commission toured the border and heard hours of testimony from record numbers of impassioned community members on how the pollution affects them personally.  As a result, the Commission committed not only to send letters to the governor and president demanding action, but also to make this issue a top priority moving forward by adding it as a standing agenda item for future meetings and championing it at every opportunity.

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Photo from Climate Action Campaign, 7/15/23 Latino Conservation Week Kick-Off, Imperial Beach

  • Expanding Presence in Media and Agency Meetings
    The presence of this story in the media has reached new heights this year, from local news broadcasts to deep-dive t.v. specials, and even an article in the Wall Street Journal.  Those who are local know that the coverage is continual, as it should be, but there are many in the greater San Diego region, the state, and certainly the country who are oblivious to the fact that this is happening at all.  Surfrider and partners have continued the push to elevate this story at all levels, not only in the media but also at relevant agency meetings.  This has included attending and testifying at monthly California Coastal Commission meetings, San Diego Regional Water Control Board meetings, San Diego County Board of Supervisors meetings, IBWC Citizen Forum meetings, and the EPA’s Good Neighbor Environmental Board meetings, among others.  

The net outcome of these collective efforts has been very positive and we look forward to continuing to keep this crisis top-of-mind for all the various agencies that have overlapping jurisdiction and responsibility towards protecting our environment and public health along the border.  


Photos from Surfrider, 9/1/23 Rally to Stop the Sewage, Coronado

  • Resuming Water Quality Testing in Imperial Beach
    Surfrider San Diego’s Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) program provides weekly reports of water quality along the county’s coastline.  Many residents and visitors rely on this information to make informed decisions about where to enter the water.  Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, BWTF was partnering with students and faculty at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach to take water quality samples and analyze them in a school science lab.  The testing came to a halt, however, when schools were forced to close.  The San Diego Chapter was thrilled to resume testing at the Imperial Beach Pier this past summer with the help of dedicated BWTF volunteers who are collecting samples and delivering them to our Hillcrest lab.  The first sample at the IB Pier this year was collected three days after Tropical Storm Hilary and contained a bacteria count of 9,804, nearly 100 times higher than the 104 count health standard deemed safe for water recreation.  We hope to relaunch the South County BWTF lab soon, so this valuable information is easier to provide for the Tijuana Watershed moving forward.

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Photo from Veriditas Rising, 10/1/23 Paddle for Clean Water, Ocean Beach, San Diego

  • Growing Local Engagement
    One of the biggest highs this year was the coalescing of a motivated and focused coalition of community-based organizations that not only worked together to achieve many of the great success described above but also to support two well-attended rallies that received great media coverage and several sign-on letters to elected officials with more than 40 organizations represented.  Additionally, with the support of Tijuana River Action Month partners, Surfrider co-hosted an Environmental Justice Tour of the Tijuana River Valley and a Youth Art Build that both yielded great turnouts and powerful results. 

None of these achievements would have been possible without the hard work and dedication of our volunteer leads, community participants, and partners that have shown up again and again.  Every event, meeting, beach cleanup, spoken and written comment, and action have added up to bring us to where we are today.  This is truly a collective effort.  It started with a few passionate and concerned community members and it continues to be sustained by all of you.  WE THANK YOU.  

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Photos from Surfrider, 10/7/23 Youth Art Build, Tijuana River Action Month, Tijuana Estuary, Imperial Beach


Looking Ahead for Clean Border Water Now
2024 offers an abundance of opportunities to pursue new legislative and funding avenues and to grow meaningful partnerships that elevate equitable actions.  We made big strides in expanding foundational grasstops and grassroots support for transboundary pollution solutions in 2023.  We must now continue to build upon this momentum and nurture the burgeoning social movement until it reaches the critical mass needed to generate sufficient political will and action.  

At the “grasstops” level, we will continue to work on solutions for the enormous funding gap that exists to cover the building, operations, and maintenance of the CIS.  At the “grassroots” level, we will continue to build relationships and partnerships with frontline communities and ensure that impacted residents are seen, heard, and included in decision-making processes.  We also aim to elevate this issue to national consciousness as one of the largest existing public health and environmental justice emergencies in the country. 

We certainly have our work cut out for us.  Given that this is an El Niño year, we expect storm activity with increasing frequency and severity, which translates to higher volumes of toxic water flowing through the Tijuana River Watershed system and impacting surrounding communities. With the added challenge of this being an election year, we also expect less political movement on this issue as officials, dollars, and narratives will be focused on November’s election.  And as impacts from climate change and population growth in our border region continue to increase, the need for funding and sustained federal and local support will become ever more critical.

Despite these circumstances, we are ready to face these challenges head-on in the struggle for clean border water with renewed gusto and urgency.  We take our inspiration from all who continue to push forward even as the toxification of homes and health risks to communities increase at alarming rates.  We’ve developed an ambitious set of goals for 2024 and we are confident 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, including all of you.  

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Photos from Surfrider, 10/11/23 Community Candlelight Gathering, Imperial Beach

Please join us in this effort.  Learn more about Surfrider’s Clean Border Water Now program here and sign up to receive updates!  We are grateful for any way that you are able to join, support, and share our work on this crisis.