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Environmentalists call for binational solution to clean up Tijuana River

Jay Novak used to ignore the pollution warning signs in Imperial Beach and go surf the dreamy, if dirty, break.

No more.

"I used to go out in the water even when it was polluted," he said. "I ruptured both of my eardrums from ear infections. Obviously, I don't do that anymore."

Toxic chemicals and fecal matter have lined the Tijuana River Valley for decades, making it one of America's most polluted rivers. But there may be a glimmer of new hope. Even as the condition of the valley has continued to deteriorate, collaborative new efforts among U.S. and Mexican environmental groups have brought forth new attention and some positive momentum.

The binational river enters the United States behind the Plaza de las Americas mall in San Ysidro, and empties into the Tijuana Estuary, just south of Imperial Beach. In addition to being a primary habitat for hundreds of species of animals, the estuary channels water from the Tijuana River into the Pacific Ocean.

Novak, founder of the Tijuana River Valley Citizen's Council (TRCC), has witnessed the pollution firsthand.

"Any day during or after a rain you can see the water coming out," he said. "It's not a pleasant sight. The water is usually brown and sudsy, and it's usually littered with lots of plastics and debris."

The amount of pollution that flows out of the river, often in excess of 225 million gallons of contaminated water per minute, swamps the small filtering facility in the riverbed on the American side. Novak said the plant can only treat 25 to 30 million gallons per day.

"When the plant is overwhelmed by the amount of water during and following rainy days all that polluted water simply bypasses the system and flows straight into the estuary and then into the Pacific Ocean," he said.

Oscar Romo, Watershed Coordinator for the Tijuana River National Estuary Research Reserve, said that sediments in the water pose a threat to the environment and public health.

Paloma Aguirre, coastal conservation program coordinator at WiLDCOAST, said a study conducted by SDSU found strands of Hepatitis A and other diseases in the river.

All parties acknowledge that the crisis has amplified in recent years.

"The problem has a direct correlation to the population of Tijuana and the lack of proper sewage and trash facilities," said Novak. "As Tijuana has grown, so too has the pollution and dirty water issue."

Aguirre said that the local government is simply unable to keep pace with the rate at which Tijuana has grown. She said that although it might be easy to blame Tijuana and the Mexican government, that it is not fair and unproductive.

"There is absolutely no blame to be placed anywhere," she said.

Romo shared the same sentiments.

"It is so easy to point the finger at a community like Tijuana," he said. "But that is plain ignorance. Mexican officials are taking this problem very seriously. It is not as if they don't care or don't want to do anything to help, it is just the means by which to implement a project that are unavailable to them. Mexico has simply not had the financial resources to have taken care of the issue by themselves."

Dan Murphy, campaign manager of the "No BS" campaign for the Surfrider Foundation, agreed.

"They are trying on their side of the border," he said. "They want to know and are willing to learn what they need to do to prevent their sewage from winding up in the river."

The organizations agreed that their biggest challenge was the issue of bi-nationality.

"Because it is a binational issue, there are different levels of involvement on a local, regional, and national scale on both sides of the border," said Aguirre.

Prior administrations have made attempts, Romo said, but those efforts have been hasty and foolish.

"The Reagan administration was the first to shed light on the issue," he said. "But it acted quickly and irrationally. Now we are paying the consequences for that botched attempt."

Murphy said that the government on our side is slowly becoming more involved.

"Senator Denise Ducheney introduced a bill to allocate a certain amount of funds to starting a tire recycling program in Mexico," he said. "Not only that, the EPA has been doing a great job lately of working with the water agencies down there. So we're really seeing a lot of progress."

Aguirre said the most important step was to keep open lines of communication between environmentalist coalitions and government officials from each side.

Politics may prevent those lines from opening.

"By the time we even begin to establish a good relationship and social network with their officials, it is re-election time," said Romo. "It is difficult to maintain the type of communication we need with so much turnover."

With constant communication being the key, local nonprofits, such as TRCC, the Surfrider Foundation and WiLDCOAST have stepped up their levels of involvement and are making an impact by keeping communication lines open and bustling.

Kelly Keniston, steering committee member at TRCC, said the joint efforts of such organizations are new and leading the issue in the right direction, despite previous conflicting views between the groups.

"We are all working together to keep the issue on the forefront of the elected officials' minds," she said.

Murphy agreed.

"We've made a lot of progress," he said. "Every time we come together and have these meetings, there is more getting done, and even more on the horizon."

The organizations, which now convene under the recently formed Tijuana River Recovery Team, are cautiously optimistic about its prospects of garnering national attention.

"It's a local problem," said Romo. "We'd like it to be solved by locals on each side of the border, but we know that is not possible. To us it is a huge issue, but to officials in Mexico City and Washington D.C, it's not yet."

These organizations are focused on raising awareness locally and regionally, which they hope will translate into bringing national recognition.

"There are a ton of people here in our community that don't realize the severity of the situation," said Novak. "If people living here don't know about it, I doubt people living in Sacramento or outside of the state are any more informed."

A priority of the groups is to start small and let local efforts snowball into much larger future efforts.

"A big focus is getting volunteers down here," said Murphy. "They need to see the issue first hand. From there, the community can put a huge amount of pressure on politicians, letting them know that we are tired of swimming in pollution. We are tired of having to get Hepatitis shots all the time, and getting our ears drilled from the sewage. We're not going to just stand there and watch these beautiful waves breaking from the beach. We are tired of this issue."

By: Anthony Dacong