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Border Sewage Policy Update, February 2018

By Gabriela Torres. Policy Coordinator/Attorney

  • 2017: 143 million gallons of raw sewage and hazardous runoff from Mexico land on the beaches of Southern San Diego County, from Imperial Beach to Coronado
  • 2017: Surfrider teams with local organizations, participates in domestic and binational civic groups, and lobbies representatives - resulting in small but important victories
  • 2018 Programs and Policies:
    • Partner with IB Group South Bay Clean Water Movement
    • Test Water with Blue Water Task Force
    • Focus on a Solution at the Source in Mexico: Education, Infrastructure, Collaboration
    • #mycleanh2o - Sandy Hill’s featured story

It has been one year since the 2017 massive sewage spill where 143 million gallons of raw sewage and hazardous industrial runoff from Mexico were diverted and funneled onto beaches from Imperial Beach to Coronado. In the months after the sewage and hazardous runoff spill, community members from Imperial Beach and Coronado mobilized and organized, nonprofits gathered and public agencies and local elected officials met aplenty.


In the aftermath of the big spill, Surfrider had a seat at the table as part of the Minute 320 Work Group and engaged in dialogue and discussion with stakeholders on both sides of the border. Surfrider also met with elected officials across all levels of government.

As a result, there were a series of small victories, including:

  1.       Congress members Hunter and Issa introduced a joint bill, HR 3795 that will divert funds and resources, not sewage into the TRV. This bill is not ready for a legislature vote.
  2.       The California legislature passed SB507 that will allocate $500,000 to a feasibility study on mitigating sewage impacts in the Tijuana River Valley.
  3. The City of Imperial Beach, along with the cities of National City, San Diego, Chula Vista and the Port of San Diego agreed to file a joint lawsuit against the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).
  4. The IBWC and its Mexican counterpart CILA (Comisión Internacional de Límites y Aguas) have agreed to a communication protocol and further studies.
  5. California Border Patrol is engaging in a comprehensive 6 month water sampling for a vast range of contaminants. The first set of results will be released shortly. Surfrider will distribute these results also.

Surfrider also spent last year building relationships with Wildcoast and grassroots organizations, South Bay Clean Water Movement and Citizens Against Sewage.

In 2018, we are ready for the hard work ahead and excited to introduce our new programs and policy objectives.  

  1.       South Bay Clean Water Movement, a fierce Imperial Beach community organization committed to stopping sewage flows has joined forces with Surfrider to lead the No Border Sewage campaign.
  2.       With the support of a nonprofit, Las Patronas, Surfrider has purchased two labs and will begin a water quality testing program called the Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) that will allow high schools and community volunteers the opportunity to test the ocean water for bacterial contaminants.
  3.       Our policy objectives will shift focus to a solution at source strategy. To this end, we will be working to educate, spread awareness and build partnerships with Mexican environmental organizations and our neighbors south of the border. We will also work to persuade the Department of State to address the wastewater, industrial runoff and plastics pollution by addressing environmental impacts of trade into the  renegotiations of NAFTA.
  4.       We will be contacting our Congressional representatives and asking them to support the Border Wastewater Infrastructure Program (BWIP) that funds sewage infrastructure projects in Mexico.
  5.       We will also be working with elected officials, local agencies and non-profit organizations in order to develop systems that limit the amount of sewage and trash that find its way into the Pacific Ocean through the Tijuana River Valley.

The sewage and pollution problems in the Tijuana River Valley have existed for decades. Surfider is ready to collaborate with all interested stakeholders to reach creative solutions. As an organization, we do this to protect our beaches, our waves. But we also advocate for residents and visitors like Sandy Brillhart who was drawn to retire in the natural beauty of Imperial Beach. Read her #mycleanh2ostory* below.

Five years ago, my husband and I retired and moved to Imperial Beach.  We enjoy the outdoors and one of the major considerations in our decision to relocate to IB was its natural resources – the ocean, beach, estuary and wildlife.   We spend many hours each week biking in the Estuary and walking on the beach; watching and photographing the birds, enjoying the scenery and getting exercise.  

Since the sewage spill in February 2017 , we have noticed a significant decrease in the number and species of birds.   In the months immediately following the spill in 2017,  commonly seen shore birds such as the Sanderling, Black Bellied Plover and Curlews were gone and the water was often foamy, odorous and discolored.    Until recently, we saw almost no shore birds on our routine beach walks from the pier to the river mouth.   Similar conditions existed in the Estuary in 2017, with  many previously commonly seen species gone. Though things have improved  recently,  the variety of birds is still down and many of the birds that are there are now searching for food in different habitats.  While we used to see the endangered Ridgeway Rail almost every time we visited the Estuary,  now we can go months without seeing one.  

In addition to the disruption of the ecosystem, I am concerned about the economic damage posed by the dirty water and beaches.  In recent years, IB experienced a renaissance, with new investment and thriving new businesses bringing more people to town to enjoy the beach, eateries and natural resources.  But a beach with dirty water and a wildlife reserve without wildlife are like a restaurant that is closed for health violations – you might give it one more chance,  but if it persists you will eventually stop going there.   That is what I fear happening in IB, whose economic well-being is reliant on tourism. Several merchants with whom I have spoken reported less business in the months after the spill last year.   Attendance at the Estuary also appears to be down, which could threaten its funding.  It took a long time for IB to get to where it is today and the repeated sewage spills and beach closures (62 in 2017) can negatively impact this progress.

Water is life. Clean water is not only essential for  wildlife, but for a good quality of life for those who live, work and recreate in IB.  This is my #cleanh2ostory and why #cleanwaternow is important to me.

*#mycleanh2ostory is written by local activists who are fighting for clean water.