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MacKenzie Elmer's biweekly environmental news roundup (Mondays)
Barges are sexy, Mexican officials want credit for fixing Tijuana’s wastewater system and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.
So the city of San Diego has this list of actions it wants to take as the planet warms and survival becomes more complicated in Southern California. But as it turns out, the city isn’t doing all that much to hold itself accountable for what’s actually laid out in the Climate Action Plan inked back in 2015.
That was city auditor Andy Hanau’s conclusion in an audit released last week. The city’s Sustainability Department, in charge of the plan and its rollout, “does not currently have the authority” to make sure all the other city departments achieve the plan’s five big strategies: energy and water efficiency, clean and renewable energy, better bicycling/walking/transit and land use, zero waste and planting trees.
San Diego’s politicos tend to celebrate cuts to planet-warming gases in the city, which are mostly thanks to state mandates. And the Climate Action Campaign, the think tank and advocacy organization behind San Diego’s original plan, keeps harping on the city for failing to do what it said it’d do.
It’s not as if the Sustainability Department doesn’t have the authority to make sure the other departments up their game. The City Council wrote an actual ordinance that put the Sustainability Department in charge of holding the city accountable.
Hanau said the Sustainability Department is mostly focused on following the city’s progress. He’s less interested in working on the back end — to light a fire under some bums, so to speak.
And the reason, the auditor discovered, is that city departments haven’t created positions for or dubbed staff charged with driving climate action. In other words, there’s not a lot of “action” going on in San Diego’s climate action world.
Climate Action Campaign wrote a letter Feb. 25 to the mayor and City Council agreeing with everything Hanau said, and added that the city needs to estimate how much it’ll cost to do the whole plan.
“The audit was pretty gentle. It doesn’t say how far behind the city is,” said Maleeka Marsden, co-director of policy at the Climate Action Campaign.
The Sustainability Department wrote that it’s “working to fully implement all recommendations via the forthcoming update to the Climate Action Plan and annual budget process.”
This all feeds up to the City Council — which is ultimately in charge of approving the mayor’s budget — but seems to have a poor understanding of how well San Diego’s meeting this goal.
Don’t forget. The Climate Action Plan is supposed to be legally enforceable, meaning environmental advocacy groups could sue the city for not following it. Though that’s debatable, the fact that San Diego is behind in carrying out its plan in a real way could jeopardize its strength entirely.
Harken back to what City Attorney Mara Elliott told us back in 2016: “The entire policy right now is, frankly, a dream until they find ways to implement it.”
The city is already supposed to be working on a second and more ambitious version of the five-year Climate Action Plan, even though it appears it hasn’t really completed its first. We’ll see what happens.
San Diego wants to build a highway to Oregon they say will be more efficient and help reduce pollution in blighted neighborhoods already choking on diesel truck traffic.
Did I mention it’s a highway through the ocean? Not one of concrete and asphalt, but a designated route for barges to take big cargo shipments all along the western coast of the United States. One barge can take 70 large semis worth of goods to and fro.
San Diego as well as ports in Washington and Oregon applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation to help pay for infrastructure it would need to support such water traffic. And while it’s being pitched by the Port of San Diego as an air quality project, it’s also a huge business opportunity for expanded trade along ocean routes between North and South America.
It remains to be seen whether increased barge traffic — on a monthly to weekly basis along San Diego’s horizon — actually leads to an air pollution reduction or simply a shift in where the pollution is produced.
Mexican officials often complain the country doesn’t get enough credit for work it’s doing to fix Tijuana’s wastewater system, which keeps breaking or getting over-taxed and causing sewage spills into the United States via the Tijuana River. So I crossed the border with collaborator Vicente Calderón to take a harder look.
We discovered Mexico’s State Public Services Commission had indeed replaced an old, faulty pump that’s an important part of getting water to a wastewater treatment plant on the U.S. side of the border. And it’s working on some other stuff too.
But there are still significant sewage spills into the river and subsequently the ocean, and the beaches of Imperial Beach are still closed due to high levels of bacteria discovered by monitors along the coast.
It’s also important to note that fixing the Tijuana River is a political muscle flexed on both sides of the border. Baja California Gov. Jaime Bonilla, who also served over a decade on the Otay Water District board, is calling himself the “water governor” and holding Facebook Live events where he boasts the country’s success in stopping sewage spills.
That only further enrages Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, who is no stranger to battles with Bonilla.
He told me, “If the governor of Baja wants to get into a fight with a mayor of a small city on the U.S.-Mexico border, that’s a fight I’m willing to engage in. But it’s really about getting our water clean.”
Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled Maleeka Marsden’s name.