By | Blog, Health, Media Releases, News, Water Protection

Environmental Groups Sue Federal Government to Spur Action in Tijuana Sewage Crisis

South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, in San Diego at the border with Mexico,  routinely discharges extremely high levels of sewage and toxic chemicals into the Tijuana River and Pacific Ocean in violation of its Clean Water Act permit, leading to years of public health impacts, beach closures and degradation of the Tijuana River Estuary.

 SAN DIEGO –– San Diego Coastkeeper (Coastkeeper) and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) filed suit in federal court Thursday against the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and Veolia Water North America-West (Veolia) for violations of the South Bay facility’s Clean Water Act discharge permit. The lawsuit documents hundreds of violations of permit limits for discharges of sewage bacteria and hazardous chemicals over the past five years that have overwhelmed the Tijuana River and coastal ocean waters in San Diego with raw sewage and toxic chemicals. IBWC’s complete failure to operate the South Bay facility properly is a major cause of the ongoing public health and environmental catastrophe in the Tijuana River Valley that has led to years of beach closures, severe economic impacts and growing evidence of grave public health risks to residents of Imperial Beach, San Ysidro and other South County communities.

Coastkeeper and CERF’s suit seeks a court order requiring IBWC and Veolia to take immediate action to stop these illegal discharges. They also seek the imposition of civil penalties against Veolia for its negligent operation of the South Bay facility. Veolia is a private company contracted by IBWC to operate the South Bay Treatment Plant. Coastkeeper and CERF’s Complaint was filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of California.

IBWC is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of State charged with operating infrastructure along the U.S./Mexico border. Since its construction in 1990, the IBWC’s South Bay treatment plant has suffered from operational and maintenance failures resulting in chronic, severe pollution of coastal waters and the Tijuana River estuary. The City of Imperial Beach has borne the brunt of this impact, with its public beach closed for over two consecutive years due to polluted discharges from the facility and related discharges of raw sewage from Tijuana.

The Clean Water Act violations documented in the lawsuit include:

  • Over 500 violations of permit limits for discharges into the Pacific Ocean, including 130 violations involving extremely hazardous chemicals such as DDT and PCBs at levels thousands of times the limit. PCBs and DDT were banned in the U.S. decades ago.
  • Numerous violations from spills and discharges of bacterial pathogens, trash, and heavy metals, including lead, from canyon collectors funneling waste directly into the Tijuana River Estuary.
  • Violations of receiving water limits for bacteria in the Pacific Ocean at hundreds of times the allowable limit, in areas designated for water recreation and shellfish harvesting.
  • Failure to submit self-monitoring reports, depriving the public of meaningful access to information about the treatment plant’s discharges.

 “We are bringing this lawsuit on behalf of the people in our South Bay communities that continue to suffer the effects of IBWC’s incompetence, and the coastal and marine wildlife and natural resources severely degraded by this relentless flow of pollution,” said Phillip Musegaas, Executive Director of Coastkeeper. “We will use the power of the law to hold IBWC accountable and compel action to solve the Tijuana sewage crisis once and for all.”

“We need a holistic, fully funded solution to this public health and environmental catastrophe,” said Marco Gonzalez, Executive Director and lead counsel for CERF. “The historical patchwork of funding and planning clearly hasn’t worked. The government needs to act with the sense of urgency demanded by this situation.”


Settlement of a previous lawsuit against IBWC in 2022 for its previous pollution of the Tijuana Estuary and Pacific Ocean resulted in $300 million in funding from EPA to modernize and expand the South Bay Treatment Plant. However, IBWC was forced to acknowledge in 2023 that the plant needed at least $150 million in repairs just to bring it back to a basic operating condition, and the expansion of the plant to accommodate future needs would cost nearly $1 billion dollars. In March 2024, IBWC received an additional $103 million in federal funding to fix its decrepit facilities. Despite these infusions of funding, the South Bay Treatment Plant’s permit violations continue unabated, and huge volumes of sewage and hazardous chemicals continue to contaminate the Tijuana River Valley and local communities.


 About San Diego Coastkeeper

Founded in 1995, San Diego Coastkeeper protects and restores San Diego County’s bays, beaches, watersheds, and ocean for the people and wildlife that depend on them. Coastkeeper balances community outreach, education, science, advocacy, and legal enforcement to promote clean water stewardship and a healthy coastal ecosystem.

For more information, visit

 About Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation

CERF is an environmental nonprofit founded in 2008 by surfers in Encinitas, CA. CERF is dedicated to the preservation, protection, and defense of the environment, the wildlife, and the natural resources of the California Coast. To learn more, visit CERF is represented by Coast Law Group, LLP.

CERF’s lead attorney is Marco Gonzalez

In Loving Memory of Our Dear Friend, Dave Grubb

By | Blog

We recently lost a tireless advocate for the environment and friend, Dave Grubb. Those who worked with him (or against him) knew he was thoughtful, hardworking, committed, and persistent. He actively participated in many organizations and was routinely the one keeping us organized. Dave refused to suffer laziness or euphemism – his focus was laser sharp. Yet he was involved in virtually every environmental issue in San Diego County: climate, wildlife, land preservation, water supply and quality, coastal resources, and transportation. On a personal note, I’ll miss Dave’s laugh, the way he fell asleep during late meetings, and his ability to call B.S. I’m grateful for the nearly two decades I worked alongside Dave. He will not soon be forgotten.

Dave’s Friend, Colleague, and Admirer,


Beyond the Bang: Exploring Greener Options for Coastal Firework Shows

By | Blog

Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) has spent countless hours dedicated to the fight against fireworks. Fireworks have been shown to cause harm to our environment, causing pollution, poor water and air quality, and negative impacts on our health. In San Diego, Sea World has nightly fireworks shows throughout May into the first week of September, totaling 83 shows. Many of these shows are six minutes long, with the Fourth of July being 16 minutes in duration. That is approximately 8.4 hours of Fireworks this season. While temporary, these events have lasting effects on animals, the environment, and humans.

Domesticated animals and wildlife are both distressed by the effects of fireworks. Dogs and cats become upset and start pacing, shaking, and seeking shelter. As a former vet tech, I have seen first-hand the devastating impact fireworks have on our furry friends. Fireworks can have devastating effects on our wildlife too. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The shock of fireworks can cause wildlife to flee, ending up in unexpected areas or roadways, flying into buildings and other obstacles, and even abandoning nests, leaving young vulnerable to predators. The threat to wildlife doesn’t stop at startling lights and sounds; fireworks also have the potential of starting wildfires, directly affecting wildlife and destroying essential habitats. Litter from firecrackers, bottle rockets, and other explosives can be choking hazards for wildlife and may be toxic if ingested.”

The debris from fireworks includes cardboard, plastic, chemicals, paper, and wire. Recently, CERF had firework debris from another local show tested by an EPA-certified laboratory. As expected, this excess paper trash and exploded plastics included various toxic metals and chemicals such as zinc, iron, lead, phosphorus, chromium, and copper. While many of these occur naturally in nature, at higher concentrations, they can lead to health effects and negative impacts on aquatic and marine life. All plastic is non-biodegradable and remains in our environment indefinitely.

These colorful explosives also significantly impact our health and air quality. Firework smoke is filled with microscopic particulate matter, also called PM2.5. A 2019 study  found that PM pollutant concentrations are up to eight times higher than average after a firework show. The World Health Organization states, “PM2.5 can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.”

It’s no surprise that fireworks also result in significant ozone and greenhouse gas emissions.

For our veterans living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, fireworks can be a source of stress instead of celebration. These events can cause panic attacks, heart palpitations, and other emotional responses. The sensory overload of war-like sounds, sights, and smells is a reminder of the trauma they endured for our country.

In addition to CERF members, Residents of Ocean Beach have been fighting tirelessly to get Sea World to opt for less impactful forms of entertainment as Ocean Beach faces the brunt of these disruptions. Many residents are unhappy with the constant nightly disturbances. This year, the community (with the help of IBEW Local 569) has opted to replace its Fourth of July show on the pier with an inaugural drone light show by LUMINOSITY. It is time for Sea World to do the same.

It is 2023; it’s clear more than ever we need to make a change. Laser light or drone shows can be used instead of traditional fireworks, creating a fantastic show. We can simultaneously celebrate, be entertained, and protect our coastal waters, marine life, neighbors, and wildlife affected by fireworks’ visual, auditorial, and environmental impacts.




Top: April 2022 Sea World Fireworks, Bottom: April 2023 Sea World Fireworks demonstrating the discharge of debris and pollutants.


Kristen Northrop is Policy Advocate for Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation. She lives in Clairemont with her dog, Lambeau, and three cats, Marley, Saxa, and Tito. San Diego has become her home after living on the East Coast for much of her life. She is passionate about the environment, wildlife, and enjoys being by the water. In her spare time, you can find her either making pottery, reading, or attending concerts.  

A Message From the Field

By | Blog

Hi, my name is Gemma Luther and I am interning for CERF this summer monitoring water quality. This past week I took a walk along the Escondido Creek bike path to find a monitoring access point and get a sense of this part of the Creek and its tributaries. While there was little to no trash in the Creek, I was appalled by the green layer of algae that seemed to coat the bottom of the concrete-lined channel and the amount of sediment build-up along the sides. Both of these are strong visual indicators that the Creek receives excess nutrients and sediment, likely from prohibited discharges. The excess nutrients can trigger sudden and rapid blooms of plants, bacteria, and algae that are harmful to the aquatic environment. While this is not uncommon, it’s also not acceptable. Nutrients occur naturally, but an influx of nutrients into water bodies such as Escondido Creek comes from human activities and sources. Two of the major sources of nutrients are fertilizers and soaps which enter water bodies as runoff from storm drains due to over irrigation. Along Escondido Creek, storm drains were flowing into the Creek, indicating potential over irrigation upstream since it hadn’t rained recently. The Clean Water Act (CWA) prohibits these types of non-storm (rain) water flows.

So what can we do to fix this? First and foremost, the quality of impaired water bodies in San Diego needs to be more closely monitored so that the CWA can be properly enforced in order to protect our clean drinking water supplies, water recreational activities, and wildlife. In addition to programmatic changes, as individuals we can take small steps that make a big difference. At home, minimize use of fertilizers and check for outdoor leaks and overwatering. Better yet, replace lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping. Instead of washing your car at home, take it to a car wash where the soapy water can be conserved, recycled, and contained onsite. These small changes limit the amount of nutrients and other pollutants entering water bodies.

This summer, I will be doing my part to try to fill in water quality monitoring gaps in order to help inform CWA enforcement and policies. Check back soon for updates!

Along Escondido Creek (33.1316396147047, -117.06768748883388)


About Gemma: I am an incoming Senior at the University of Miami majoring in Marine Science and Biology with a minor in Ecosystem Science and Policy. I was born and raised in San Diego and grew up with a large appreciation for the ocean. I hope by doing water monitoring I am able to help fill gaps in data so the Clean Water Act goals of fishable, swimmable waters can be attained.

Fun Fact: My favorite marine mammal is the vaquita and is the reason I am interested in going into environmental policy!








Environmental Groups Call on County of San Diego to Account for Years of Stormwater and Urban Runoff Pollution Failures

By | Media Releases
  • County of San Diego’s own data shows a persistent pattern of releasing polluted runoff into the region’s waterways
  • Coastkeeper and CERF are hopeful the lawsuit will motivate the County to clean up their act

SAN DIEGO, September 28, 2020 – Local non-profit environmental organizations San Diego Coastkeeper (Coastkeeper) and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) have filed a notice of intent to sue the County of San Diego over the agency’s long history of violations of the Clean Water Act. For decades, the County has acknowledged that untreated urban runoff presents the greatest threat to water quality in the San Diego region, yet has consistently failed to take required action to comply with Clean Water Act obligations. Water quality data collected by Coastkeeper – along with the County’s own self-reported data – shows the County has repeatedly, persistently, and systemically failed to protect the region’s waterways and communities from the impacts of pollution.

Stormwater from the County’s outfalls routinely contains pathogens, excessive nutrients, and toxic metals. Individually and combined, these pollutants threaten human health, degrade ecosystems, and harm fish and wildlife.

The groups’ notice also points to evidence that the region’s stormwater contains human fecal matter after every rainfall. New studies from San Diego State University suggest this is caused by sewage leaking from failing infrastructure into nearby rivers, streams, and stormwater channels. High bacteria levels lead to beach closures and advisories after rainfall, and San Diegans are warned away from surfing and swimming until water quality improves. The County’s failure to adequately maintain its aging sewage infrastructure is partly to blame.

“The County and its leadership have demonstrated many years of neglect toward our rivers, streams, and waterways, which are grossly polluted due to their failure to comply with the Clean Water Act and laws meant to protect human and environmental health,” said Coastkeeper Executive Director and Managing Attorney Matt O’Malley. “We are hopeful we can work with the County to bring about solutions that will improve the health of our environment and better protect communities that depend on clean water.”

“Growing up in San Diego County, we were told to stay out of the water for 72 hours after each rainfall without fully understanding why. More than 30 years later, I’m telling my kids they can’t surf for three days after it rains. All the while, the County has been more inclined to push back on regulators than work towards any measure of real progress. At some point, government needs to be held accountable for its failure of leadership,” said Marco Gonzalez, CERF’s Executive Director.

The goal of the groups’ notice is to motivate the County to make real investments in water management solutions that reduce pollution, protect communities, and improve water quality around the region. Coastkeeper and CERF are hopeful County leadership will see this lawsuit threat as a wake-up call and an opportunity to invest in the health of its natural resources and emerge as a leader among governmental entities when it comes to clean water protections.


About San Diego Coastkeeper
Founded in 1995, San Diego Coastkeeper protects the region’s bays, beaches, watersheds and ocean for the people and wildlife that depend on them. Coastkeeper uses community outreach, education, and advocacy to promote stewardship of clean water and healthy coastal ecosystems. For more information, visit San Diego Coastkeeper online at

About Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF)
CERF is a nonprofit environmental organization founded in 2008 by surfers in North San Diego County and active throughout California’s coastal communities. CERF was established to aggressively advocate, including through litigation, for the protection and enhancement of coastal natural resources and the quality of life for coastal residents. For more information visit CERF online at

CNFF and CERF Sue County of San Diego Over SB 743 Transportation Guidelines

By | Media Releases

For Immediate Release – September 9, 2020


Duncan McFetridge, Cleveland National Forest Foundation, Tel:  (619) 445-9638    Email: [email protected]

Sara Kent, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, Tel: (619) 494-1025    Email: [email protected]

Kevin Bundy, Shute Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, Tel: (415) 625-4709    Email: [email protected]


SAN DIEGO, CA – Cleveland National Forest Foundation (“CNFF”) and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (“CERF”) filed a lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court on September 4, 2020 challenging San Diego County’s plan for addressing the climate and environmental impacts of vehicle travel as required by Senate Bill 743 (“SB 743”). Instead of adopting a plan to reduce vehicle trips caused by new development, the County chose to exempt the vast majority of potential new developments under the County’s General Plan from even examining, much less addressing, driving-related impacts.

“San Diego County keeps doubling down on sprawling, car-centered development and thumbing its nose at the law. We need a paradigm shift that unites alternative transportation and affordable housing, not the same-old-same-old backcountry sprawl, ecological destruction, and endless, dangerous commutes,” said Duncan McFetridge, Director of CNFF.

“Once again, county leadership has failed to follow data-driven laws designed to protect our region on climate. Responsible developers can, have, and will adapt to standards that will protect our shared future,” said Sara Kent, Programs Director at CERF. “We don’t need shortsighted politicians to keep outdated and polluting planning policies in place. We need them to follow the law and give us urban-centered alternatives to meet the affordable housing crisis.”

The Legislature enacted Senate Bill 743 in 2013 in order to change the way the transportation impacts of development are addressed under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). After SB 743, rather than focusing on measures of traffic congestion and delay, agencies must address vehicle miles traveled (“VMT”) or other measures that more accurately reveal and more effectively reduce the climate, air quality, and other impacts of vehicle travel.

SB 743 supports California’s broader climate goals by ensuring that analysis and mitigation of environmental impacts under CEQA will aid in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, the state’s largest source of climate pollution. Indeed, the California Air Resources Board has found that without significant reductions in VMT at the local planning level, achieving California’s climate goals will be impossible.

The lawsuit challenges San Diego County’s SB 743 plan as directly counter to the state legislation it purports to implement. Rather than require analysis of future projects’ contribution to VMT in accordance with SB 743, the County’s plan will exempt the vast majority of General Plan developments from any requirement to reduce VMT, and will facilitate increased greenhouse gas emissions from future development projects without any disclosure, analysis, or mitigation.

The lawsuit follows on the heels of a recent Court of Appeal decision that vacated the County’s Climate Action Plan. In that case, the court zeroed in on the County’s strategy to allow massive sprawl developments to offset hundreds of thousands of tons of climate pollutants by buying carbon credits. But these offsets at best would address pollution primarily in other parts of the country or even the world, doing nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution generated in San Diego County.

“The County keeps taking legal shortcuts, and it keeps losing in court,” said McFetridge. “We’re running out of precious time to start solving our housing and transportation problems in San Diego. We need to stop playing legal games that profit a few at the expense of the many.”

CNFF and CERF are represented in the litigation by Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP and Coast Law Group LLP. A copy of the petition and complaint can be found here: Petition-Complaint – 9-4-20

Suit Filed Against City of San Clemente in Effort to Halt Unlawful Zoning Regs

By | Cities

On Nov. 26, 2018, Coast Law Group LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of Plaintiffs San Clemente Coastal Access Alliance and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation against the City of San Clemente. The groups challenge the City’s enforcement of its short-term lodging unit restrictions within San Clemente’s coastal zone.

Plaintiffs challenge the City’s unlawful enforcement of its Short-Term Lodging Unit (STLU) Zoning Regulations without the required approval from the Coastal Commission. Not only is the City’s enforcement of the regulations unlawful, it negatively impacts the public’s access to vacation rentals, which are often used by visitors seeking low cost accommodations. According to a recent statewide study conducted by Probolsky Research for the California Coastal Conservancy, while 51 percent of white California residents say they stay overnight when they visit the beach, 74 percent of Latinos, 70 percent of Asians and 64 percent of African-Americans say they do not, with price being the main reason.

The City declined Plaintiffs’ settlement offer at its December 18th meeting, opting instead to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on attorney fees. Plaintiffs will seek a preliminary injunction to stop the City from enforcing its regulations until the Coastal Commission has a chance to review and approve them.

Plaintiffs’ Petition for Writ of Mandate can be accessed here. 

Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to the enforcement of environmental laws, raising public awareness about coastal environmental issues, encouraging environmental and political activism, and defending natural resources in coastal areas.

San Clemente Coastal Access Alliance is a community group that was organized for the purpose of representing the interests of the public in assuring compliance with the State’s environmental and land use laws and the Coastal Act.

Environmental Groups Reach Agreement With City of San Diego to Make Local Waters Safer for San Diegans

By | Media Releases

November 26, 2018

For Immediate Release


San Diego Coastkeeper – Matt O’Malley, [email protected], 619-758-7743 ext 119

Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation – Marco Gonzalez, [email protected], 760-942-8505

November 26 – Environmental Groups Reach Agreement With City of San Diego to Make Local Waters Safer for San Diegans

  • City of San Diego to address sources of pollution harming Mission Bay, Rose Creek, and Tijuana River
  • Pollution from Miramar Landfill, wastewater treatments plants, and sludge treatment plants focus of improvement efforts

SAN DIEGO, November 26, 2018 – Local non-profit environmental organizations San Diego Coastkeeper (Coastkeeper) and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) have reached agreement with the City of San Diego (the City) regarding major stormwater infrastructure projects to improve water quality in several critical water bodies including Mission Bay, Rose Creek, San Clemente Creek, and the Tijuana River. In addition to improving local water quality, the required attention and spending will help to bring the City into compliance with federal and state clean water legal requirements.

Polluted urban runoff represents the San Diego region’s primary threat to water quality. Once water from rain, irrigation flows, leaks, or other surface waters begins to flow over hard city surfaces, it picks up accumulated urban pollutants, such as oil, grease, pesticides, particulate metals, pet waste, toxins, bacteria, and viruses. The resulting polluted runoff flows untreated through San Diego’s stormwater system and into local rivers, bays, and coastal waters, where it poses a serious risk to human health and wildlife alike.

Under the agreement, the City will upgrade practices for handling stormwater, as well as human and solid waste, at five major City-owned facilities: Miramar Landfill, Metro Biosolids Center, North City Reclamation Plant, Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, and South Bay Water Reclamation Plant. Additionally, Coastkeeper and CERF negotiated for the City to contribute $35,000 to San Diego Audubon Society, which will use the funds to improve water quality and restore habitats in and around Mission Bay.

“The City’s own recent audit of its stormwater department revealed a long history of failing to prioritize stormwater infrastructure and management practices needed to protect clean water, public health, and our beaches and streams,” said Coastkeeper Executive Director and Managing Attorney Matt O’Malley. “These failures were also evident in the City’s handling of its own facilities, which for years have been polluting Mission Bay and other local waterways where children, families, and wildlife depend on clean water.”

Early last year, Coastkeeper and CERF observed that the City was discharging stormwater laden with toxic pollutants, including bacteria from human waste, dissolved metals, and excess nutrients directly into local waters during rainstorms. The investigations identified possible impacts to Rose Creek, San Clemente Creek, Mission Bay, Tijuana River, and ultimately, the Pacific Ocean. The groups noted to City officials that pollutant levels leaving the Miramar Landfill and entering into Mission Bay were the highest they had seen from any single facility in the county.

Regarding the negotiation process and settlement ultimately achieved, Marco Gonzalez, CERF’s Executive Director and attorney with Coast Law Group LLP noted, “We have a longstanding working relationship with the City’s stormwater and public utilities departments, so we were confident they would take our concerns seriously and allow us to achieve environmental benefits without having to engage in expensive litigation.”

Actions taken by the City under the agreement will ensure any water discharged at the five facilities subject to the agreement meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act, standards designed to protect human and environmental health.

All three parties jointly agreed on settlement terms, which were approved by the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. The City plans to make all necessary improvements and modifications to its practices at these facilities by November 2023.


About San Diego Coastkeeper

Founded in 1995, San Diego Coastkeeper protects the region’s bays, beaches, watersheds and ocean for the people and wildlife that depend on them. Coastkeeper uses community outreach, education, and advocacy to promote stewardship of clean water and healthy coastal ecosystems. For more information, visit San Diego Coastkeeper online at

About Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF)

CERF is a nonprofit environmental organization founded in 2008 by surfers in North San Diego County and active throughout California’s coastal communities. CERF was established to aggressively advocate, including through litigation, for the protection and enhancement of coastal natural resources and the quality of life for coastal residents. For more information visit CERF online at