Cross-Border Sewage Crisis Plagues San Diego County

Published: May 23, 2024

San Diego County has formally called for an investigation from both state and federal public health agencies into the impact of cross-border pollution in the area.

Public health director for San Diego County, Dr. Wilma Wooten, has submitted to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) an official public health request.

Spillage from Tijuana

The directive comes at the behest of Nora Vargas, county Chairperson, who has reported that communities in her district have been suffering from sewage and toxic chemicals from Tijuana.

Playas de Tijuana, there are many people on the beach

Wikimedia Commons user Cbjorquez

CDC Director Mandy Cohen was the recipient of a letter from Vargas herself in her attempts to direct attention to the matter.


Vargas’ Pertinent Letter

In the letter Vargas submitted to Cohen she urged the CDC “to examine the prevalence of contaminants in the air, water and soil of these communities”.

Nora Vargas petitioning to stop the sewage and declare a federal emergency now, she is in the middle of two women.

X user supnoravargus

Vargas went on to ask for an investigation into “their connection to community-reported increases in gastrointestinal issues and other symptoms.”

Rising Concern in the Area

In appealing to the CDC the issue has escalated to a new level following calls from Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre as well as members of the San Diego Congress for public health agencies to look into the matter.

Paloma Aguirre surrounded by members of the public.

X user paloma4ib

These requests to investigate the contamination in the border area have so far been brushed aside by national public health agencies.

Local Public Health Authorities Causing Delays

According to the CDC, the local public health authorities must invite the agency in cooperation with state authorities to provide epidemiological assistance (Epi-Aid).

This image depicts the exterior of CDC's “Tom Harkin Global Communications Center” located on the organization's Roybal Campus in Atlanta, Georgia.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As per the CDC’s website an Epi-Aid investigation would “assist partners in making rapid, practical decisions for actions to control and prevent the public health problem.”

Lack of Concrete Evidence

The county has so far kept its action to just surveillance as they claim they have not observed a rise in documented cases of infection from interaction with polluted water.

A small fence separates densely-populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol's San Diego Sector. Construction is underway to extend a secondary fence over the top of this hill and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.

Department of Defense

Epi-Aid, if permitted, would allow for “rapid, short term (1-3 weeks), generally onsite, technical assistance by (Epidemic Intelligence Service) officers and other CDC subject matter experts”.


San Diego Taskforce

As it is not a requirement for all infections to be logged to the relevant public health authorities, the numbers of those exposed to polluted water are unclear.

San Diego County Administration Building, 1600 N Harbor Drive, San Diego. The city has had a separate City Hall since 1964

Wikimedia Commons user Adbar

Researchers and physicians in San Diego have formed a task force in order to find out if there are any links between water and air contamination and symptoms of illness in the population.


Aguirre Expresses Frustrations

Leading the task force is Aguirre who submitted a statement saying “The people of South Bay have been suffering appalling conditions for the better part of the last two years.”

Paloma Aguirre with members of the CDC, they are all wearing suits and smart casual wear.

X user paloma4ib

She went on to say “We hope the CDC, CDPH and the office of the Governor give this emergency the serious level of attention it merits.”


Affected Communities Experiencing Illness

In South County, those living in Imperial Beach, Nestor, the Tijuana River Valley, and San Ysidro have been among those reporting illness as a result of water contamination.

The Tijuana River Estuary — an estuary and wetlands at the mouth of the Tijuana River at the Pacific Ocean.

Flickr user Osbomb

Their symptoms include headaches, chronic coughs, vomiting, and diarrhea amongst other ailments. These were reported at their highest levels following heavy rains and on hotter days.


Connection Between Sewage Pollution and Illness

Physicians in the area have found links between the sewage pollution plaguing the area and respiratory as well as gastrointestinal problems.

Air pollution by brick factory in Mahalaxmi Municipality Ward no. 4, Lalitpur, Nepal. The sun is setting behind the smoke coming from the chimney

Wikimedia Commons user Janak Bhatta

In a broader context, public and environmental health researchers have pointed to evidence of health endangerment for those exposed to water and air contamination.


Lack of Upkeep in Treatment Plants

Following years of neglect and underfunding, treatment plants on both the U.S. and Mexican sides of the border have caused partially treated wastewater to cause issues for residents of Tijuana and south San Diego County.

Panoramic view of Tijuana skyline, there is greenery in the foreground with some skyscrapers in the midground and many residences in the background.

Wikimedia Commons user Cristiano Tomás

Cross-border efforts to improve the standard of maintenance in these plants have been limited by a lack of funding which is spread across a large number of initiatives.


Urge for Increase in Budget

The International Boundary and Water Commission has appealed for an increase to its annual budget in order for repairs to take place and to tackle the contamination issue.

IBWC cleanup initiative, sprinklers are seen spraying the grass next to a road.


Governor Gavin Newsom and President Joe Biden are now under pressure to declare an emergency regarding the cross-border pollution in order to secure additional resources.

With limitations as to how public health agencies can intervene in tackling the issue of contamination in these communities, it may be some time before we see improvements to this problem unless a state of emergency is called.