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Huge waves at the Tijuana Sloughs are tempting, but dangerous Surfing

At the Tijuana Sloughs in Imperial Beach, waves break massive and unrelenting, flawless creations wrought by the combination of rock-reef and deep-water storms carrying with them the force of thousands of miles of open ocean.
When serious northwest swell spins south from Alaska, fully formed and uniquely challenging heavy-water waves stand up at the Sloughs. The types of creations that make surfers take stock of where they stand along the big-wave divide. Forcing decisions about whether or not one wants in.

The Sloughs produce some of the best big waves on the West Coast. In bygone decades, beginning in the late 1930s, the wave was the gold standard for heavy-water surfing in Southern California. If one wanted to make a name for himself, he first had to make a wave at the Sloughs. Today, the same waves break – big and imposing, the types of waves that can change a surfer's life.
So it is curious, then, that one of Southern California's bastions of big-wave riding goes largely unridden.
On a recent day, northwest swell churning fresh down the coast, reefs and beaches up and down the California shoreline lighting up and impacted with surfers, the reef at the Tijuana Sloughs (just this side of the U.S./Mexico border) forced waves to stand up well overhead and run left down a cobblestone beach. To the left, as you looked at the flawless waves, Tijuana and its relative squalor. To the right, Point Loma and its relative opulence. And straight ahead, the waves, and not a soul. Although every other beach in the county was saturated beyond capacity with surfers, the Sloughs were empty. And on most days, they remain that way.
To be sure, some surfers still ride waves at the Sloughs. But for the most part, even surfers – historically brazen about what they'll endure physically to sneak in a good day's surf – won't enter the water there.
This because, in addition to serving as one of the few legitimate big-wave destinations in Southern California, the Tijuana Sloughs act as the unloading dock for the Tijuana River, on the receiving end of some of the most repulsive water this earth has wrought. The Tijuana Rivermouth without question produces some of the most foul effluence in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Tijuana Estuary spills forth with sewage-contaminated flow right into the surf zone. Naturally, this is particularly problematic during the winter and spring months when heavy rains force an increase in the unholy runoff.
The flow – thousands of gallons of unfettered garbage and raw sewage pumped down untreated and fast-running from the ancient Tijuana River, collecting debris and human waste along the way – spills out right along the U.S./Mexico Border, tenths of a mile from the lineup at the Sloughs.
The Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System is measuring the reach of the Tijuana Plume, launching a Web site with graphics and data that track the far-reaching effect of the Tijuana River . But the evidence is striking to the naked eye. Stand at elevation above the Sloughs, and you'll see a plume of brown water forcing its way into the otherwise blue Pacific, working its way north to Imperial Beach and Coronado.
During the winter months, the beach at the Tijuana Sloughs is almost perpetually closed. Still, there are those for whom the call to perfect uncrowded surf is too much, and they continue to paddle out despite the plume of sewage coursing through their takeoff zone. Predictably, most of these people have stories of strange internal and external illnesses – the most extreme of which include hepatitis – so they pick their surfing dates wisely.
Today, largely uninhabited, the Sloughs take on a storybook quality in any surfer's conversation, even if they're not a mythical construct. Old-time surfers speak of a break that at one point was San Diego's best test of a surfer's mettle. Now, if surfers are looking for the same challenge, they drive north to Half Moon Bay and Maverick's, or South to Ensenada Harbor and Todos Santos Island. Or they simply put on their wetsuit and try to ignore the fact that they're paddling directly into the resting spot of millions of gallons of Tijuana sewage.