Blue Water Task Force, Water Quality, Illness
November 22 2017

Surfers Sick from Tijuana Sewage Spill, Surfrider San Diego to Start Water Testing Program

by Scott Ridout

On the weekend of October 28, 2017, residents and beach goers in south county San Diego reported a foul stench and discolored ocean water from Imperial Beach to Coronado. Local residents are coming to know these typical signs of sewage discharging from the Tijuana River all too well. 

Since February 2017, there have been at least 15 sewage spills in the Tijuana River and coastline, which flow directly north to San Diego County beaches. One of those spills took two weeks to contain, and dumped an estimated 143 million gallons of raw sewage into the Tijuana River.

When the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) reached out to their Mexican counterpart, the Comision Internacional de Limites y Aguas (CILA), regarding the most recent report, CILA denied that any sewage spill had occurred. However, the Tijuana-based environmental group Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental did independent water testing on Friday, October 27, and reported “extremely high” levels of fecal indicator bacteria in neighboring Playas de Tijuana. Although Mexican officials deny a spill occurred, Proyecto Fronterizo's data indicated that Tijuana’s deteriorating San Antonio de Los Buenos sewage treatment plant was likely the source.

The impact - miles of coastline in south county San Diego were polluted with sewage and assumingly high levels of fecal bacteria. What’s worse - we don’t actually know how much fecal bacteria traveled to our coastal waters and beaches, which remained open throughout the weekend.

The San Diego Department of Health, tasked with protecting the health of beach goers and regulating recreational water, was notified about the suspected spill, but only performed a visual inspection of the beach. No sampling took place, no beaches were closed, and no notices were posted. Many surfers and swimmers who enjoyed the beach that weekend became ill, including the Mayor of Imperial Beach, Serge Dedina.

It is extremely unfortunate that these sewage spills are happening so frequently, and the response from government officials on both sides of the border is unacceptable. Sewage events such as this highlight the need for community-based organizations such as Surfrider, WILDCOAST, and Proyecto Fronterizo to fulfill the duties that our governments are failing to perform.

Surfrider San Diego was recently awarded a grant from Las Patronas to set-up two Blue Water Task Force labs: one at a local high school in Imperial Beach close to the US/Mexico border, and the other based out of the chapter's office to cover testing sites in Coronado. These new labs will allow chapter volunteers and high school students to establish a routine water sampling program and to respond to future sewage spills in the border region in a timely fashion.

Test results will be posted on Surfrider’s website, shared with community members, local beach-goers, and agency officials responsible for monitoring and managing the situation. Our hope is that this information will better protect our coastal communities, urge our public officials to act on necessary closures, and develop a federal solution to this ongoing public health issue.

Help us take action to protect our coastal waters!

  • Click here to email your congressional leaders and urge them to support initiatives that will allocate federal funding to eliminate the border sewage problem
  • Volunteer with Surfrider San Diego and learn how to test water quality
  • Become a member and donate to Surfrider San Diego to support Clean Water initiatives

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