Murky Waters: Imperial Beach Water Goes Fecal

(Jan. 9, 2005) – Imperial Beach (I.B.), the last California coastal town sits sandwiched between San Diego to the north and the low grade urban sprawl of Tijuana to the south. Big name fast food chains share street corners with authentic Mexican eateries, and the latest offerings from Ford and Chevy share the road with dilapidated Baja war wagons and caballeros on horseback. The juxtaposition gives the impression that I.B. is neither the U.S. nor Mexico, but instead, an outpost with a unique international flavor all its own.

Lately however, I.B. has been treated to an international flavoring from the south considerably less charming than horse-mounted cowboys and exponentially more repulsive than a bad fish taco, in the form of approximately 600 million gallons of contaminated sewage water. Flushed by recent rains out of the Tijuana River and churned into the I.B. lineup, the sewage has created an enormous chocolate-milk hued slick, which at its largest, extended from Imperial Beach to Coronado, and continues to cover roughly 10-20 square miles of ocean.

"This is the worst we've seen it since the El Nino winter of 1983-84," says Serge Dedina, a local surfer, and Executive Director of the environmental conservation organization Wildcoast. "Tijuana is the fourth largest city in Mexico with a population of roughly 1.5 million, and only about half of that population has proper sewage hookups. For the other half which doesn't, their waste ends up in the Tijuana River, and when it rains like this, it flushes a sewage river out to sea."

By monitoring readings from a flow gauge installed in the river by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Dedina says he, and other authorities, such as the International Boundary and Water Commission, have a very clear idea of how much sewage is flowing seaward each day, and is calling the recent deluge an eco-disaster. Samples collected from the ocean between Imperial Beach and Coronado by the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health on January 5th showed bacterial levels exceeding state standards for multiple indicators at several magnitudes above the standards in all locations. Translation: the seawater just offshore is and will continue to be a potent cocktail of sewage and bacteria.

Dedina cites the poorly regulated industrial zones of Tijuana as a further contributor of contamination. "Besides human waste, we have oil, kerosene, fluids from auto shops, trash, even medical waste, going into the river and flowing out to sea. It's just awful. It’s way worse here than anywhere else in Southern California, but guys are still going in, still going out to surf."

In response to these biological and environmental threats, Dedina urges the surf community to take a stand. "We need to accept ownership of this issue and define how it gets solved. We're talking about our waves, our beach, and our ocean. We can't allow politicians who don't even get wet to tell us how to fix this. We were trying to get the government to fix it twenty years ago and the result is a five hundred million dollar waste treatment plant on the boarder that doesn't work because the pipes and the diverter channels get clogged and nobody goes down there to clean the grates. What we need is a full time ocean lawyer, a surfer who works eight hours every day to make sure the system is running properly, and to get on the case of those responsible when it’s not."

With more rain in the forecast, Dedina and other I.B. locals don't expect conditions to improve anytime soon, and murky waters polluted with waste should render the ocean unsafe for days and perhaps longer, as Southern California continues to be drenched with rain. The only solution, according to Dedina, is a higher level of surfer involvement through the support of conservation organizations like Wildcoast and Surfrider, and a commitment by the surf community to be more vigilant of governmental organizations that seem disinterested in properly addressing the problem. "I spoke with a politician yesterday about this and they accused me of exaggerating," said Dedina. "But when I asked them to come down here and join me for a surf, they declined. Then, I spoke with someone from the EPA, and you know what their answer was? They told me I should move. That's when it really became clear to me that it's up to us."

For more information on how to get involved visit:
SD Surfrider

To sign up for automatic updates on ocean pollution conditions visit:
Wilcoast Oceanlist