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!








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.