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A Historic Moment in the Struggle for Clean Border Water

Imperial Beach Mayor and California Coastal Commissioner Paloma Aguirre recently called the Commission's October meeting a “historic moment” in the struggle for clean border water.  It was the first time in several years that the commission meeting was held in Imperial Beach - ground zero for the border pollution crisis - and it offered an important opportunity for local residents to take a stand and demand action in front of state regulators on the alarming environmental threat that has been largely ignored for decades.  

Impacted and concerned residents packed the meeting room at the Pier South Hotel when the Commission came to town October 11th-13th with such numbers that staff were scrambling to bring in more chairs to accommodate the growing crowd and fans to curb the escalating heat.  The overflow into the hotel lobby continued for several hours as the commissioners heard from 18 invited subject-matter professionals during an informational briefing and 41 members of the public during the testimony that followed.  

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The Surfrider Foundation and our coalition partners that have long been working to address border pollution were gratified to see that our efforts to encourage community participation and to make it easy for people to turn up and voice their concerns paid off.  It was truly a remarkable showing of community voices and support for action on the severe public health and environmental justice emergency.  

The Coastal Commission, which is responsible for regulating development and protecting access along the entire California coast, dedicated a full day to the border pollution crisis, clearly making it a priority.  The day started early at 9am with a tour of the border to experience the issue first-hand.  “There is nothing like seeing a situation like this, smelling a situation like this, to really get a sense of what is going on,” said Commission Vice Chair Hart of the excursion.  This was followed by the informational briefing and testimony that lasted into the evening.  

Some of the most jarring remarks shared were related to public health.  Dr. Tom Csanadi, a retired pediatrician in Imperial Beach spoke to the harmful impacts that polluted water is having on local families after reviewing several dozen scientific articles on the effects of exposure to contaminated marine water.  When “local children [are] exposed to moderately contaminated water,” he explained, “15 out of 100 will get sick with vomiting and diarrhea and 6 out of 100 with a lung infection with fever.  For children who are visiting (because locals can develop some resistance and tourists are more susceptible) 23 out of 100 (~¼) will have vomiting and diarrhea and 9 out of 100 will have a lung infection with fever.  These numbers are based on water that is only moderately contaminated.  Since our waters have been consistently extremely contaminated, and since rates of infection increase with high rates of fecal bacteria, one can only speculate how many frightful numbers of children become very sick simply by enjoying a day at the beach.”   Dr. Csanadi “wonder[s] just how that family will be impacted if they need to be taken to the ER or if they need to be hospitalized. How will that family adjust when their child develops asthma?”  He continued, “what breaks my heart is that this is a manmade problem and it is preventable.  It has been ongoing for three decades and our community has heard three decades of excuses.”   

Two other doctors who have a community clinic in Imperial Beach - Dr. Matt Dickson and Dr. Emily Dickson from South Bay Urgent Care - compared publically measured water quality data from three Imperial Beach sites to illness data during the same time and found that there is a 560% increase of people reporting diarrhea and gastrointestinal illness (vomiting, abdominal pain) when we have high flows of polluted water.  The numbers matched exactly with bacteria colony counts in the water.  “This is making us sick and it’s not just swimming in the water” exclaimed Dr. Matt Dickson, MD in reference to the period of extremely high flow volume during Tropical Storm Hilary in August when no one was in the water but rates of illnesses were through the roof. 

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California Lieutenant Governor and Chair of the California State Lands Commission, Eleni Kounalakis, was present throughout the day and stayed through the end of public testimony that evening.  She commented “this is not just a local and regional issue, this is an issue that affects every single Californian.  If any child in the state of California is living next to an open sewer and becoming sick, it is all of our responsibility to mobilize to do something about it.  So, as we go forward, we need every member of the CA Congressional delegation.  We certainly need the strong support of the coastal commission, of which I have no doubt . . and we must work together in order to raise our collective voices and make sure that if the IBWC can not build these facilities that the authority is given to someone else who can because we can not wait any longer.” 


TRW Youth Art Build - 10.7.23 - 2

To increase community participation and make the most of this unique public testimony opportunity, Surfrider San Diego’s Clean Border Water Now program hosted several community awareness-raising events in the weeks leading up to the Coastal Commission meeting.  We worked with the Tijuana River Action Network to host an Environmental Justice Tour of the Border, we featured the Clean Border Water Now program at our annual Paddle for Clean Water at the Ocean Beach Pier, and we hosted a youth art event to create advocacy pieces that would visually represent youth testimonies since the meeting was to be held during the day while they were at school.

Tijuana Watershed Youth Art Build - 10.7.2023

Surfrider was honored to be invited for the first time to provide remarks during the Commission’s informational briefing.  Sarah Davidson, Clean Border Water Now Manager, spoke about the massive impacts that cross-border pollution is having on water quality, causing beach closures and affecting local businesses and families.  She also shared our opinion that this is one of the most significant environmental justice issues of our time.  Additionally, several other staff and volunteers spoke during the public comment period, covering the details of our lawsuit against the International Boundary and Water Commission for egregious water quality violations and announcing the delivery of our petition.  Just before the Coastal Commission meeting, we delivered a petition with over 3,200 signatures to Governor Newsom and President Biden calling for an emergency declaration to access immediate relief for the border pollution crisis harming South county communities.  Signatures had been collected for several months from San Diego County and beyond through a concerted effort by Surfrider and partners.    


The presence of local youth was also heavily felt throughout the day as their stunning art was presented to the commissioners during the public testimony.  A candlelight gathering organized by high school students that evening also caught the Commission’s attention.  Held at the beach in front of the hotel, the commissioners stood and watched and cheered, appearing to be moved by the stance made by participating youth and families.

At the end of the day, Vice Chair Hart exclaimed, “What could be a bigger issue to the Coastal Commission than this one that we’re seeing today?  I can assure you this is one of the biggest issues that we’re confronting and will continue to confront”.

At this critical opportunity to leverage much needed visibility and support from a well-connected and politically powerful commission, impacted and concerned community members rose to the occasion and shared meaningful testimony that moved the needle on immediate and lasting solutions to the public health and environmental justice emergency that cross-boundary pollution is causing at our border.  The work to implement solutions is intensifying and the struggle is long from over, but the importance of collective action and historic moments can not be overstated in the uphill climb for clean border water now. 


Stay up to date with the San Diego Chapter’s Clean Border Water Now program on their website.