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Spills suggest problems aren't under control

Second sewage overflow since June flows into U.S.
Originally published July 20, 2010 at 2:05 p.m., updated July 20, 2010 at 9:24 p.m.
A second major wastewater overflow in Tijuana since the start of June has sullied the Tijuana River Valley in southern San Diego County.
More than 2.7 million gallons of sewage-tainted water coursed through the dry river bed on July 7 and 8, according to state and federal reports. No health problems have been linked to the spill.
It came just over a month after more than 2.1 million gallons of sewage crossed the international border downstream at the base of a canyon known as Smuggler’s Gulch.
Both are among the largest wastewater accidents to affect San Diego County since 2000. Because both incidents started in Mexico, California regulators have little leverage to issue fines or cleanup orders like they typically would if a local city caused the problem.
Despite major improvements to Tijuana’s sewage system in recent years, the back-to-back spills during dry weather suggest that long-running problems aren’t entirely under control.
“Although this spill did not cause direct human health impact, it is evidence that there are still improvements to be made. … We need increased funding for border environmental infrastructure,” said Paloma Aguirre, a conservationist with the nonprofit group Wildcoast in Imperial Beach.
Officials at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board said Tuesday they are considering how to handle the two sewage overflows, likely with a consultation or letter requesting details about the incidents in hopes of improving reporting protocol and warding off future problems.
Senior engineer Brian Kelley at the regional board said he has seen numerous similar problems over the past three decades.
“It’s somewhat frustrating,” he said. “But it didn’t raise a huge red flag because we are used to it.”
Leaders at Tijuana’s water and wastewater agency said the incident mainly involved drinking water that was discharged into the river to clear a pipe and repair a leak.
A report from the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which manages wastewater facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border, said the problem started about 9 a.m. July 7, when a break in a drinking-water line filled a concrete channel in Mexico and mixed with treated sewage.
Public works officials in Tijuana failed to increase pumping capacity to handle the extra load, resulting in an overflow to San Diego County, according to the boundary commission.
It said the flows were largely absorbed into the dry Tijuana River bed and did not reach as far as the bridge at Dairy Mart Road in San Ysidro, roughly 1.5 miles northwest of where the river enters the United States.
The line break was repaired about 24 hours later.
A second report filed with environmental regulators in California said drinking water was not harmed and there were no known injuries related to the spill.
That incident came on the heels of a smaller spill a month earlier. On June 2 and 3, roughly 5 million gallons of wastewater from a line break in Mexico flowed through Smuggler’s Gulch to a structure in the United States that was designed to divert such flows to a treatment plant in San Ysidro.
In that case, boundary commission officials said they suffered from a pump failure and having a pipe out of service, leaving them unable to capture about 2.1 million gallons of sewage that contaminated parts of the river valley.
Staff writer Sandra Dibble contributed to this report.