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Chasing Sewage Spills in our Shared Tijuana Watershed

Our Blue Water Task Force , along with several other non-profit organizations, spent the day chasing sewage spills and testing the water quality at several popular beaches in Playas de Tijuana, MX.  The results showed dangerously high bacterial counts at two of the four locations tested (Read the full report here). Read on for a full account cross-border water testing adventure, and rest assured that we will continue to demand consistent water quality monitoring and better sewage infrastructure in the Tijuana region.

Surfrider San Diego Heads to Playas de Tijuana

On Monday, August 20th, 2018, I joined a group of activists on a mission to test water quality at several beaches and recreational areas in the Playas region of Tijuana, MX. Our cast included Anna Lucía López Avedoy, the Mexican Director for Out of the Boat Swim, a comprehensive swim program that fosters self-confidence and positivity through teaching swimming skills and water safety to underprivileged children in Tijuana. Anna Lucía led myself, Gabriela Torres, Paloma Aguirre Bacalski, and Cristhabel Verdugo to several coastal areas that are chronically affected by failing sewage infrastructure, which cause a serious threat to public health. As a former municipal lifeguard in this region, she has experienced firsthand the poor sanitation conditions that threaten the health and safety of seasonal beachgoers and the local community. In this region, beach closures are rare, water quality monitoring is sporadic, and access to data is difficult to come by.

Beach Water Quality Monitoring in Tijuana

Anna Lucia and Paloma survey sewage leaking onto the beach at Torre 4

We visited five public access sites within a few miles' range of the coast, beginning at Torre 4, a public beach lined with businesses. Anna Lucía pointed to a large pool of murky water where several seabirds were bathing. As we moved closer, an overpoweringly noxious stink of sewage filled our nostrils. This collection of effluent had a constant presence on the shoreline, growing and shrinking with a slow trickling stream. I set down my cooler and collected the first quality sample. Anna Lucía recounted bringing groups of children to this beach for her water training program; while some avoided this area, many became sick after repeated visits to the beach. Later, our BWTF water quality report later found disturbingly high levels of enterococcus at this site.

Ally Senturk collects a water quality sample at Torre 4

The rest of our afternoon progressed in similar fashion. We would arrive at a seemingly picturesque coastal destination, only to discover an unsettling truth lurking beneath the surface. At our second stop, what should’ve been a nice stroll along an art-lined boardwalk, turned out to be a nauseating investigation of overflowing sewage lines beneath the wooden decks.

Cristhabel, Paloma, Anna Lucía, and Ally smelling out sewer lines

Our third stop was Centro Recreativo, a popular summertime beach hangout that also draws  surfers during the region’s winter swells along its point break. As we began our walking tour, we immediately noticed large chalky tablets beneath street grates. They seemed  to have been dumped into what appeared to be a collective sewer pit.

Chlorine chalk tablets appear to have been dumped into the sewer pit

Anna Lucía climbs up to point out the sewer's straight pipe at Centro Recreativo

The problem, we noticed, was that this sewer pit funneled directly to a pipe leading straight to the beach. We collected two additional samples at Centro Recreativo; one from the pipe runoff that smelled suspiciously of chlorine, and one from a location further down the beach. Paloma later recognized this area as a site of historic infrastructure failure. Some years back, a section of the street had given way to a massive sewage line break that sent hundreds of gallons of raw sewage spewing throughout the neighborhood.

Ally Senturk climbs down to collect a water sample at Centro Recreativo

As we made our way back to the truck, Anna Lucía speculated that this stretch of beach receives up to a thousand people a day during the height of summer tourist season. Despite being a high-use public recreation area for both tourists and locals, regular and transparent water quality testing in this region is difficult to track down. According to their website, Tijuana’s public services commission, CESPT, has not updated their water quality data since June 2018.

Ally Senturk and Gabriela Torres at La Joya

Our last sampling site was the canyons of La Joya, a once-popular recreation area for hikers and mountain bikers. Anna Lucía mentioned she’d noticed a huge growth of greenery in the last year - a strange sight due to the region’s lack of recent rainfall and characteristically dry weather. Her growing suspicions about this area’s source of irrigation was yet another example of the often overlooked and underlying sense of instability that runs quietly through the region. We trekked along a rocky hillside lined with vegetation and followed the pattern of growth to a small flowing stream to collect our fourth and final sample.

Read our Blue Water Task Force citizen science report of findings

Recent vegetation in La Joya

Paloma Aguirre Bacalski and Ally Senturk examine a stream of water in La Joya

Seeking Binational Solutions with Citizen Science

The efforts to document our journey and findings are a reminder of the sort of activism it takes to raise awareness and spurn action. As citizen scientists, we work to build bridges across communities and public agencies to bring a greater sense of awareness and accountability in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances. We will use the water quality data collected on this day to support the filing of a formal report of findings in Tijuana. We hope our efforts inspire future testing and accountability measures to create lasting protections to communities on both sides of the border.

Blue Water Task Force and South Bay Clean Water Movement focus on bi-national stewardship and collaboration to address the chronic border pollution issues plaguing our shared coastline. Our mission is to widen our perspectives and our hearts about these ongoing and historical issues through water quality testing and policy work.

Activists enjoying coffee (from left to right: Ally Senturk, Cristhabel Verdugo, Gabriela Torres, Paloma Aguirre Bacalski, and Anna Lucía López Avedoy)

Our thanks go out to - 
Anna Lucía López Avedoy - Out of the Boat Swim
Cristhabel Verdugo - Renovación BAJA Sustentable
Paloma Aguirre Bacalski - WILDCOAST/COSTASALVAJE
Gabriela Torres - Surfrider Foundation, San Diego (South Bay Clean Water Movement)
Ally Celones Senturk - Surfrider Foundation, San Diego (Blue Water Task Force)
Elijah Garcia - Surfrider Foundation, San Diego (Blue Water Task Force)
Josh Hill - Mar Vista High School, Poseidon Academy

About Our Volunteer Water Quality Testing

The Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) is a volunteer-run water quality monitoring, education, and advocacy program. Our citizen science labs test for Enterococcus, a fecal indicator bacteria (FIB), that can signal unsanitary and often dangerous health conditions to swimmers and others who recreate in contaminated water. We use the Enteroalert by IDEXX method, a cost-effective EPA-approved 24-hour detection method. Our BWTF Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are also available for public access. We do not claim to be a certified lab, but instead use standard protocols and procedures when testing and processing water samples. It is our hope that our work is able to raise awareness about unsafe public health conditions that will ultimately lead to effective change.

For more information about the San Diego Blue Water Task Force and information on how you can get involved, please contact our Program chairs, Ally Celones Senturk or Elijah Garcia.

Read the full water quality report of findings