Tijuana River Named Among America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2024

April 16, 2024

San Diego, CA – The Tijuana River Watershed, the ancestral and current homeland of the Kumeyaay People and a vital lifeline for millions on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, faces a mounting threat as pollution chokes its waters, endangering public health and undermining local economies. 

Decades of neglect and inadequate wastewater infrastructure have led to grave violations of the Clean Water Act, resulting in ecosystem degradation, beach closures, and widespread illnesses. Despite community efforts and recent progress, significant obstacles persist. American Rivers and partners called on President Biden and Congress to immediately invest in infrastructure to clean up the river and address one of the most significant environmental justice issues in the United States. 

“Clean water is a universal need and a shared value. But pollution in the Tijuana River is making people sick. No families should have to worry about getting sick from polluted water, and no children should grow up on polluted beaches. It is long past time for action,” said Kristan Culbert with American Rivers. 

For over a century, the Tijuana River Valley has borne the brunt of toxic waste and raw sewage, polluting waterways and imperiling both humans and wildlife. Daily transboundary flows, exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure and seasonal rains, carry untreated wastewater, industrial toxins, and urban debris downstream, contaminating coastal waters and endangering communities on both sides of the border. 

“For too long, the sewage in the Tijuana River Valley has harmed public health, our local economies, and our ecosystems. This designation reaffirms what our communities already know too well – toxic pollution is flowing into the Tijuana River every day and we need the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant to be expanded as quickly as possible. Recently, the San Diego Congressional delegation secured significant funding that can be used to make improvements to the treatment plant, and we’re continuing to push for additional resources. Our work is far from over. We’ll keep fighting for the health of our communities and waterways,” said California Congressman Juan Vargas. 

Mario Ordoñez-Calderón, Executive Director of Un Mar de Colores, speaks passionately about the impact of coastal pollution on communities: “Our mission is tied hand in hand with the youth and residents of the South Bay as our work is deeply rooted in providing youth from underserved communities with access to the healing that clean coastal environments and blue spaces offer. It’s heartbreaking to witness the health risks posed by pollution, affecting our children’s ability to safely enjoy the outdoors. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to connect with the rivers, oceans, and nature without compromising their health. I hope this designation supports the relentless and decades-long community-led efforts and presents a crucial opportunity to restore and protect our coast, watershed, and communities for generations to come.” 

“It’s no longer a matter of avoiding the water to stay safe. The pollution has become so inundated that it’s now in the air, it’s in people’s homes, schools, and places of work.  It’s impacting every aspect of community life.  Residents should not have to risk their own health and futures by stepping outside their door, opening their windows at night, or introducing their children to the wonder of the river or ocean where they live.  This designation, combined with the many collective efforts of community members and leaders to address this crisis, offers a powerful opportunity to come together to heal our coast, watershed, and communities.”  – Sarah Davidson, Surfrider Foundation 

“By definition, ‘endangered’ designates a serious risk. The Tijuana River has impacted the lives of countless community members from Mexico, the United States, and Indigenous Peoples for decades.” said Courtney Baltiyskyy of YMCA of San Diego County. “It is not just the river that is endangered, but also cultures, livelihoods, family homes, and the unique identity of the region. In working together to convey what is possible to address the pollution crisis, we may envision a vibrant future where children, families, and visitors can splash and play safely again.” 

The Comprehensive Infrastructure Solution (CIS), vetted by the EPA and impacted communities, offers a viable path forward. However, the project remains underfunded, with the International Wastewater Treatment Plant (ITP) requiring significant investment to address deferred maintenance and prevent future crises. Congress and the Biden Administration must prioritize border water infrastructure, fully fund the CIS, and explore additional avenues to secure lasting solutions. Without decisive action, border communities will continue to suffer, ecosystems will degrade, and vital industries will falter. 

“While it gives me no pride that the Tijuana River is receiving this unfortunate distinction, it will help bring critical attention to this environmental catastrophe and public health threat,” said Congressman Scott Peters. “The sewage crisis has plagued the river for far too long — harming the environment, public health, tourism, our national security, and residents’ quality of life. We are finally beginning to turn the page on this crisis, thanks to advocacy efforts like this, and soon, the story of the Tijuana River will hopefully be one of triumph, not tragedy.” 

The Tijuana River winds 120 miles through northwest Baja California and the Tijuana Estuary in southern California, serving as a critical corridor for over 2.8 million residents across the border. While the U.S. portion remains largely undeveloped, extensive development characterizes much of its Mexican counterpart. The Tijuana Estuary, a National Estuarine Research Reserve, boasts diverse and delicate ecosystems. As one of southern California’s last natural coastal wetlands, it hosts over 370 bird species and numerous endangered animals. 

“The health of the Tijuana River is a direct reflection of the health of the U.S.-Mexico border communities and a reminder that our shared environment has no borders. It is sick in every conceivable way: channelized in concrete, choked by trash, and polluted with sewage and toxic waste. Despite these impairments, the Tijuana River inspires a vision for a better future that is supported by the Most Endangered Rivers designation. A vision for working hand in hand across borders to bring back what has been lost and forgotten: A healthy river that connects and supports vibrant communities.” – Ben McCue, Outdoor Outreach. 

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.    

Other rivers in the region listed as Most Endangered in past years include the Los Angeles River (2022), Colorado River (2017) and San Joaquin River (2016) where the biggest threats to river health are outdated water management plans.

American Rivers reviews nominations for America’s Most Endangered Rivers® from local groups and individuals across the country, and selects rivers based on three criteria:  

  1. The river’s significance to people and wildlife 
  2. The magnitude of the threat to the river and communities, especially in light of climate change and environmental injustice 
  3. A decision in the next 12 months that the public can influence 

America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2024 

#1: Rivers of New Mexico   
Threat: Loss of federal clean water protections  

#2: Big Sunflower and Yazoo Rivers (MS) 
Threat: Yazoo Pumps project threatens wetlands  

#3: Duck River (TN)  
Threat: Excessive water use   

#4: Santa Cruz River (AZ, Mexico)  
Threat: Water scarcity, climate change  

#5 Little Pee Dee River (NC, SC) 
Threat: Harmful development, highway construction  

#6 Farmington River (CT, MA) 
Threat: Hydro dam  

#7: Trinity River (CA)  
Threat: Outdated water management  

#8: Kobuk River (AK) 
Threat: Road construction, mining  

#9 Tijuana River (CA, Mexico) 
Threat: Pollution  

#10: Blackwater River (WV) 
Threat: Highway development  

About American Rivers 
American Rivers is championing a national effort to protect and restore all rivers, from remote mountain streams to urban waterways. Healthy rivers provide people and nature with clean, abundant water and natural habitat. For 50 years, American Rivers staff, supporters, and partners have shared a common belief: Life Depends on RiversSM.  www.AmericanRivers.org