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March 14, 2011

A Border Divide on Environmental Challenges

By Conservation Director Ben McCue and Assemblymember Ben Hueso
Image provided by Paloma Aguirre.

A Border Divide on Environmental Challenges

San Diego Union Tribune

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A large ongoing sewage spill in Playas de Tijuana contaminated beaches on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for almost three weeks before California officials learned about it Jan. 18. Why did they not know sooner about this health threat that could have put thousands of San Diego beachgoers at risk? The answer is simple: We have our backs turned on Mexico.

The estimated 31-million-gallon sewage spill should serve as a wake-up call. Our relationship with our neighbors in Mexico requires greater attention from the state of California.

Polluted beaches are nothing new to the California-Baja California border region. From January 2009 through December 2010, San Diego beaches along the border were closed for sewage contamination for a total of 351 days. The binational Tijuana River discharges into San Diego waters and is listed for 10 Clean Water Act pollutants. Local surfers regularly report health symptoms associated with contaminated water.

These are shared cross-border challenges. Yet since the 1990s, internal state policies have discouraged California agencies from collaborating with agencies in Baja California.

We have an opportunity to change this with the new Brown administration. We hope Gov. Jerry Brown appoints a secretary to the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) who understands the complexity and impact of environmental and public health issues on the border.

Cal/EPA’s mission is to restore, protect and enhance the environment, public health and economic vitality of the state. The agency includes the state and regional water boards, the air board and the Department of Toxic Substances Control. In our border region, none of these departments can fulfill its mission without the help of Mexican counterparts. Yet for years, staff has had to jump bureaucratic hurdles even to participate in important meetings in Mexico. For many Cal/EPA departments, this has created significant challenges. How can the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board clean up the Tijuana River if it cannot meet on equitable terms with those who control three-quarters of the watershed? The answer is it cannot. We must allow state employees to travel to Mexico as needed for collaborative meetings with Mexican counterparts.

Binational collaboration is the essential key to addressing shared environmental and public health challenges along our border region. To this end, Assembly member Ben Hueso has formed and is chairman of the California State Assembly Select Committee on California-Mexico Binational Affairs. We will use this select committee as one vehicle to improve our relationship and address these important challenges.

For California, building a stronger relationship with Mexico is not an issue of resources, it is an issue of will. Are we willing to come to the table on equal terms with our neighbors to come up with shared solutions? Prioritizing stronger cross-border collaboration would be a sign that California is addressing these challenges.

We urge our new governor to appoint a Cal/EPA secretary who understands the complex environmental challenges of our border region. We also encourage him to enable agency staff members to meet regularly with their counterparts in Mexico. Pollution does not have borders. Our health depends on us facing this reality.

Hueso, D-San Diego, represents the 79th Assembly District, which includes portions of San Diego, Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, National City and Coronado. McCue is conservation director at Wildcoast, a binational nonprofit.

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