A study of international wastewater challenges and policy in the Tijuana River Watershed

Gloria Ann Villaverde, University of Texas at El Paso


Since the 1930s, untreated and undertreated sewage from Tijuana, Baja California, México has been released into the Tijuana River Watershed causing contamination of the water supply, crops, the Tijuana Estuary and California beaches. Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has exacerbated the problem by causing population and industrial growth explosions for which there have been insufficient services to meet the needs of the people. The waters of the Tijuana River flow (from México) north over the International Border, into the Tijuana Estuary, discharge out to the Pacific Ocean and often flow north, up the California Coast; therefore, the river's contents are of great concern to the US. In the early 1990s, the U.S. and México sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) reached an agreement, in Minute 283, to co-fund a secondary wastewater treatment plant to be placed on the U.S. side of the border, the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant (SBIWTP). The first phase of the facility opened in 1997 with the capacity to treat up to 25 mgd of México's wastewater to an advanced primary process, which is not in compliance with water quality standards established by either federal government. Through vigorous lobbying, the funding for the secondary treatment phase at SBIWTP was delayed. Instead, a new IBWC minute was adopted and two public laws were passed in favor of a treatment proposal by an upstart U.S. company with no previous wastewater treatment experience. Through a no-bid process, the US IBWC agreed to enter into a public-private partnership agreement with Agua Clara, LLP whose job was to design, construct, operate, and maintain a wastewater treatment plant in México, called Bajagua. This dissertation reviews the history of water pollution problems in the Tijuana Watershed and the process that resulted in the selection of an anorexic proposal that squandered more than ten years of legitimate action, thus resulting in billions of gallons of undertreated wastewater being discharged into U.S. waters. This study finds that the protracted process seriously jeopardized water quality and public health in the region, placing both in the back seat to politics and patronage. Mexican authorities have been working to upgrade and expand their treatment systems. México's projects consist of a network of decentralized treatment works as opposed to a large centralized facility. Simulations of decentralized and centralized facilities for the area propound that México's decentralized network is a better strategy to meet the wastewater treatment needs of the basin.

Subject Area

Environmental Law|Environmental engineering

Recommended Citation

Villaverde, Gloria Ann, "A study of international wastewater challenges and policy in the Tijuana River Watershed" (2012). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI3552264.