The new United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement reached Tuesday commits the federal government to provide $300 million for the Border Water Infrastructure Program to address pollution on the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Tijuana River Valley region, where millions of gallons of raw sewage, heavy metals and other contaminants regularly flow from Tijuana to San Diego.
The funding likely represents the most significant federal commitment to the problem in decades, elected officials said.
"The fact that we have $300 million gives us real hope that we can solve this problem once and for all," said Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, by phone. "It is a really important investment."
Toxic water pollution from Mexico has closed beaches in the San Diego area more than 500 days over the last three years, despite Baja California operating a set of pumps on the Tijuana River to divert flows out to the Pacific, according to a lawsuit California filed last year against the federal government.
Despite the health hazards and environmental issues associated with the sewage flow, the current trade deal — called the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA — failed to include a specific chapter focusing on the environment.
The new trade deal, dubbed USMCA, includes a portion for environmental issues, and it will supply funding for the Environmental Protection Agency's Border Wastewater Infrastructure Program, which focuses on wetland areas 62 miles north and south across the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Tijuana River Valley.
While it's still up in the air exactly how much money will go toward addressing cross-border sewage in San Diego, the funds represent a big win for the region, San Diego elected officials said.
Peters said other members of Congress are starting to understand the urgency of the sewage issue in San Diego.
"I don't think there's doubt in anyone's mind that the crisis right now is in the San Diego area," Peters said, noting other Border communities had issues in the past. "... We have every reason to expect the funding, in large part, will be invested here."
Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, praised the deal despite wishing it also included some meaningful action on climate change and stricter environmental standards.
"Ultimately, I believe that the USMCA — with committed resources to address (Tijuana River Valley) — will improve the quality of life for workers and businesses in my district and I look forward to supporting the agreement in the House," he said in a statement.
Outside of Washington, the deal drew praise from local leaders, several of whom met with Trump administration officials in September to emphasize the need for action on cross-border sewage.
A San Diego delegation asked for federal funding for a $400-million plan to beef up the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, to better capture and treat the cross-border pollution. Local leaders estimated that project could reduce the number of days impacted by water pollution a year from 138 days to 12.
Four members of San Diego's congressional delegation — Peters, Levin, and Reps. Susan Davis and Juan Vargas — also introduced a legislative package in July that would allocate up to $2 billion in funding for infrastructure projects along the U.S.-Mexico border, including projects targeting wastewater from Tijuana to the Pacific Ocean.
San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, whose South Bay district has long been plagued by cross-border pollution, said the new trade agreement was a "giant leap" and could be a catalyst for a long-term workable solution.
He added that the collaboration of many San Diego communities — including several that recently passed resolutions on the issue — helped the federal government be part of the solution, even if all the funds are not focused on the San Diego-Tijuana region.
"It is an issue that none of us at the local or state level can address without direct federal government participation or funding," Cox said. "With the funding there may be an opportunity to put together a financial package that would allow us to do that, irrespective of what happens in Mexico."
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said the "modernized trade agreement" sets San Diego up to "win big."
"More free trade and less pollution at the border — it's what San Diego needs and it looks like it's what San Diego is going to get," Faulconer said in a news release.
The House is expected to vote on USMCA next week; the Senate is likely to take it up after completing the impeachment trial in January, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY.
The agreement is expected to be ratified in the House in a bipartisan fashion and has garnered support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
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