February 18, 2005

Contaminated Beauty

By: Katia Lopez-Hodoyan

Series: First of Two

It was twenty-four hours after Serge Dedina swam in sewage-contaminated water that he realized he had done so. He along with his seven and nine year old sons had taken advantage of what seemed to be a fitting morning to enjoy what has become part of their life: surfing. Nonetheless, the next day, postings of yellow signs alerting beach goers of sewage-contaminated waters quickly made them think twice about their wave breaking surfs, not to mention their health. As life-long residents of Imperial Beach though, the warning of contamination came as no surprise.


An all too frequent sign on South San Diego beaches

For years, San Diego County’s beaches have been an ending point for raw and treated sewage from the neighboring city of Tijuana. Unlike most border terrain, the ocean cannot be divided. It knows no borders, so it drifts and sways freely from one country to another with no limits or restraints. For many Imperial Beach and Coronado residents, dealing with sewage spills is not a new problem. It is a serious concern that for decades has merely changed shape and expanded into the realm of the region’s economy, tourism industry and health standards. Dedina, Ph.D. Executive Director of Wildcoast Conservation Team, can speak of this plight first hand. Amongst the many files in his desk, lay several folded, worn out, yellowish newspapers that show how 25 years ago, protests dealing with sewage-contaminated water made the front page. Although years have passed since then, the concern has persisted, yet a solution still awaits.

“We have been fighting this for years,” says Dedina. “People feel comfortable here in Imperial Beach because there is a relaxed ambiance that attracts families, teens and surfers. The problem is, that it’s really hard to enjoy when the ocean is contaminated with waste.”

Roughly half of Tijuana’s residents are connected to the municipal sewage system in that city which treats and breaks down the millions of gallons of raw sewage every day. The problem, however, emerges with the treatment plant for the other half of the population.

In a city of over 2 million people, half of those not hooked up to the sewage system plant, depend on the Tijuana River Estuary to dispose of their waste. The latter is part of the result of a 1990 bi-national accord between Mexico and the U.S to treat surplus sewage from Tijuana in North American soil.

It involves a concrete channel that receives all the uncollected sewage flows in Tijuana. Millions of gallons drift into the International Wastewater Treatment Plant where the sewage receives primary detoxification treatment. When this phase is completed, the impure water (at this point, no longer sewage water) is disposed-of in the Pacific Ocean where the bacteria will eventually die off. This is under the hope and assumption that all will go as planned. Nonetheless, for years it hasn’t.

The International Wastewater Treatment Plant located in San Ysidro has a maximum capacity of 25 million gallons per day. When it rains, the combination of the rainfall and the sewage-contaminated water create an immense surplus that far exceeds the limitations of the plant. The result is millions of gallons of raw sewage that end up being poured into the ocean because they simply do not fit into the sewage treatment plant. Therefore, they are disposed of into the ocean with no processing and no type of regulation.

The International Boundary and Water Commission owns the treatment plant in San Ysidro, Ca. And although IBWC admits that sewage overflow is a problem, it is quick to acknowledge that it is not a dilemma unique to their Commission.

“The plant is not designed to receive storm water,” says Sally Spener from the IBWC. “In fact, I can’t think of a sewage treatment plant that is designed to do so... There are oil, grease and waste flowing by the millions from the channel into the plant.”

One of the main reasons, this problem has persisted is the amazingly rapid growth of Tijuana. Every day migrants keep arriving in search of employment or in hope of venturing into the United States illegally. Inevitably, they start building their shelters with whatever they can find, obviously with no regulation or connection to the proper sewage system. Their main concern is survival, not linkage to the municipal sewer line.

“Another big issue in the city is that the channel which runs through the city should be the focal point for the Renaissance in Tijuana,” says Dedina. “There needs to be a major reconstruction effort where creativity comes into play.”

Those affected by this health issue are not only beach-goers in San Diego Coastal waters, but families in Tijuana that literally live next to the raw sewage flowing from the Tijuana River Estuary. Next to the contamination, children play, families gather and population increases.

“The kids in these ‘colonias’ or communities are basically forced to play near sewage because there is not enough recreational space in Tijuana,” says Dedina. “So what you have is no park space and tens of thousands of children who are exposed to raw toxic sewage... We have a bi-national system that is broken down.”

The irony in this issue is that while some children in Tijuana play around the toxic sewage surrounding their humble homes, those in San Diego County swim and surf in contaminated water next to their affluent homes in Imperial Beach and Coronado. The issue is a bi-national one that pays no respect to border regulations or immigrations statistics. It has developed into one singular problem in two countries.

Nicole Pratt, 21, whose tanned face and blond hair show her affinity for the ocean, has witnessed its contamination year after year. As an Imperial Beach resident and surfer, she too has had to walk away with her surfboard after confronting the yellow warning signs that she now recognizes all too well. Before she used to disregard them; now she understands what they entail.


A lone surfer checks out IB beach before deciding whether or not to go in.

“It’s not worth it going into the ocean when it’s like that,” said Pratt. “One of my friends who swam in contaminated water got a mild case of hepatitis. Lately, it has been really contaminated and well, it smells.”

Not all beach-goers are as cautious though. Amidst the signs, dozens of surfers can be spotted paddling through the ocean and breaking waves. Although signs are posted to warn beach- goers of the sewage spill, no enforcement takes place. So while bonfires, alcohol and sleepovers at the beach are penalized, swimming in contaminated water is not.

“Lifeguards are informed of the ocean’s contamination,” says Clay Clifton from the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health. “Signs are then posted in order to avoid the risk of an unexpected illness. But, there is no type of enforcement from lifeguards or other local authorities to prevent them from going into the water.”

Following light rainfall from a few days before, around half a dozen fishermen can be seen atop the Imperial Beach pier on a cloudy morning. They place bait at the end of their fishing poles not knowing or perhaps ignoring the fact that the water is contaminated with sewage. Signs are posted on the outskirts of the beach, but not on the pier itself. Furthermore, the majority are Hispanic and Filipino fishermen who have little if any knowledge of English. Nonetheless, they press their luck to see if they will be able to catch a meal.

“Talking about sewage water is for some reason embarrassing for people,” says Dedina. “It’s not something people talk openly about because it’s taboo. We need to put up signs on the pier and in more than one language.”

Recent rainfall in San Diego County has triggered some of the worst sewage spills in recent memory. The Department of Environmental Health issued several releases in past weeks warning beach goers of contamination involving human bacteria, viruses and protozoa. Currently, the County’s website shows 12 local beach sections in Imperial Beach, Coronado and the Border Field State Park that are closed due to sewage spill: a situation proved to be triggered by rain.

“When it rains, Tijuana just washes out into the channel,” says Dedina. It’s incredible.”

The pollution tests are conducted by the San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography and also by simply observing the direction of the water flow. If the current is moving north, the water is most likely coming from the Tijuana River and thus is contaminated. According to Clifton, it usually takes around 72 hours for the bacteria to die off. Furthermore, it’s unlikely for pollutants to reach beaches other than those of Imperial and Coronado because both time and waves disintegrate the bacteria before it travels beyond these city limits.

This environmental, health and aesthetic issue has, as expected, triggered several lawsuits over the past years. Although people’s health is the primary issue, quality of life is obviously on the list as well. The state board sued the IBWC in 2001, in an effort to change the IBWC plant operations, specifically for its failure to comply with clean water laws. On December 6, 2004, U.S District Judge Barry Moskowitz signed an order that mandates the construction of a secondary plant where sewage will receive further detoxification treatment. According to court orders, the contract for the facility should be awarded by December 19, 2005. The treatment is set to begin on September 30, 2008.

“IBWC has always intended to have secondary treatment, says Spener but it’s a relatively new process. A decade ago, primary sewage treatment was advanced and before that, in the 1990’s there was no treatment for sewage at all.”

California Congressman Bob Filner is currently heading a federal proposal to build a new sewage plant in U.S soil for the treatment of Tijuana waters. Although no official agreement has been reached on what company will both build and take charge of the plant, a controversial multi-million dollar project of a corporation named Bajagua seems to be fist in line. In the meantime, residents, beachgoers and tourists await a solution to a problem that has for decades forced them to look at inviting ocean waves from afar…all amidst the postings of yellow warning signs.

Part Two of this series will deal with solutions to this environmental problem.

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