Tommy SVCC Protest EPA Joe Orellana 091121

Remarks from the Tijuana River Campground March

My name is Tommy Hough. I’d like to thank Victoria and the Spring Valley Cleanup Crew for the opportunity to speak today.

I’m the co-founder and first president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. I used to serve with Surfrider, and I’m currently the coordinator for the ReWild Mission Bay campaign through the San Diego Audubon Society. I’m here today of my own volition.

For many years I was an on-air host at FM 94/9 radio, where I hosted mornings and afternoons, and also an environmental program called Treehuggers International. Later I was on the air at KPRI, and you might’ve heard me most recently as the morning host at 91X just a few years ago.

I serve as a county planning commissioner, and as I mentioned to some of you here today I’m a candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in Mira Mesa, Sorrento Valley, and Miramar.

Back in 2012, during my time with Surfrider, I wrote an op/ed in the Union-Tribune about the challenges faced in reporting cross-border sewage spills. In the nine years since that piece was published, it’s clear little has improved.

There once was, many years ago, a simple-minded mayor of Imperial Beach who proposed filling in the mouth of the Tijuana River with a bulldozer. And however cathartic that solution might’ve felt to I.B. residents at that time, it was no solution, and continues to be no solution.

The Tijuana River Valley has become one of the great, durable problems that San Diego never seems to be able to solve. But we’re never going to solve it if we don’t demand that our elected officials and agencies work together and make it our county’s highest environmental priority.

Today we have some very good leaders in the City of Imperial Beach, but too often they have been left on their own, with little support, to wage a fight to undo, correct, and restore the largest ongoing environmental calamity in the United States.

Too often they have been left on their own to work with the EPA, various presidential administrations, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), the city government of Tijuana, the state government of Baja California, and the nation of Mexico, with occasional help, photo opps, and platitudes from other regional elected officials.

This is a crisis that cannot be sugar-coated, and it shouldn’t.

No other area of the U.S. deals with what our southwestern-most residents in this county, and many of the related agencies located there, including California State Parks and the U.S. Navy, deal with every single day: weekday or weekend, holiday or regular day.

Everyone knows this is a two-way street and Mexico must play a role in a solution. But along with our federal government, and our state and this county, the city of San Diego MUST also play a larger role in highlighting, addressing, and solving this ongoing environmental calamity that affects every San Diegan – not just in Imperial Beach, or Coronado, or in the river valley from the border with Mexico.

And part of the reason I’m running for a San Diego City Council seat is to be in place to lead, and vote on, the most critical environmental crises our region faces. Climate change, retaining our open space, wildfire, and sea level rise are all incredibly compelling. There is no time to waste on any of these concerns.

But NONE is more compelling, or more immediate, with tens of thousands neighbors desperate for relief, than the environmental crisis in the Tijuana River Valley.

This affects each of us, for it is not just an issue of ongoing poisons and pollution fouling our communities and natural spaces, it is a matter of environmental justice affecting many of our poorest and most vulnerable communities, forcing them to breathe in polluted, rank air each day, and exposing them to a myriad of toxins and dangerous chemicals that would be considered a war crime to otherwise expose human beings to.

Back in 2018, San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, Surfrider, the South Bay Clean Water Movement, Citizens Against Sewage, and the National Border Patrol Council joined together to oppose the construction of a campground at Tijuana River Valley Regional Park.

The reasons for opposing the construction of a campground at that spot, three years ago, were as evident then as they are now. No one would let their children come in contact with the water there – which to the eye, may be one of the clearest, most enticing attractions of that campground. Shouldn’t there be a sign that details the ongoing environmental crisis and hazard to health? Maybe a sign to post current water quality?

We all agree the Tijuana River Valley is gorgeous to the eye. In the days before sewage and international borders this area was a godsend of wildlife and native species and Indigenous influence that respected the lengthier patterns and processes of our natural world. It is a resource that may someday become the binational ecological attraction and wonder it deserves to be.

In many ways the Tijuana River Valley remains stunning habitat. But we know it has been fouled by decades of sewage, pollution, an ongoing avalanche of litter of everything from plastic to tires to bodies – often caught in the massive sediment basins at Border Field State Park – that makes for a toxic disaster whenever it rains, every time there is a high tide, and every time more sewage leaks from across the border, often at hundreds of thousands of gallons at a time.

If the state or the EPA fails to act, the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park Campground site must list details of the public health crisis affecting the region so visitors are not harmed – and not surprised.

Photos of Tommy by Joe Orellana.