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Keeping Sewage Off California Beaches And How You Can Help

By Gabriela M. Torres, Policy Coordinator for Surfrider’s No Border Sewage Campaign

Nestled at the southernmost part of California’s 840 miles of Pacific coastline is a beach community known as the City of Imperial Beach. With a population of approximately 28,000, Imperial Beach boasts of iconic and untouched beaches, big surf, rich wetlands and unique wildlife that residents and visitors are able to enjoy. That is, other than when the beaches aren’t polluted with untreated human sewage seeping in from neighboring Mexico.

For approximately 20% of the year, Imperial Beach beaches are closed because the level of human sewage is just too risky for human exposure. 60% of the year Imperial Beach’s Tijuana Sloughs, home to the big waves, are also closed. Sometimes, neither is closed but the stench of raw untreated sewage resting in the nearby Tijuana River causes residents to stay indoors, keep their windows closed and dart from home to car fighting nausea and watering eyes.

The sewage is a result of the rapid growth of Tijuana, Mexico’s border city. Tijuana grew faster than Mexican infrastructure and despite some Mexican effort, United States investment and an international body called the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) the sewage problem continues to plague the community.

The largest spill in a decade happened in February 2017 where U.S. estimates had the spill at between 143 to 230 million gallons of sewage. Mexican estimates concluded that the sewage leaked totalled 28 million gallons. Residents of Imperial Beach have coined the phrase “One gallon is one gallon too many.” During this period plumes of brown water covered the Pacific ocean and even now some are still too wary to enter the waters.

Immediately  following the big spill of 2017 there was community uproar, a binational investigation and meetings aplenty involving elected officials, city and state agencies, non-profit organizations and federal agencies. Almost 200 days have passed since the spill and no federal assistance has been provided to remedy the problem moving forward or to remedy the harm that was done to local beaches and wildlife. There has been zero clean-up effort. To make matters worse, there have also been 14 additional small sewage spills. No agency has taken the lead and no agency seems to have a solution or the necessary finances to tackle the issue. Thus Imperial Beach stands alone, a small city fighting an international battle for clean water.

As a result of lack of action, the City of Imperial Beach is filing a lawsuit against a federal agency, the IBWC in order to force the United States government to intervene and stop cross-border pollution flows that pose both a health and safety risk and a border security risk as the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Navy Seals work and train in this very region.

Surfrider has taken an active role by participating in binational meetings and workgroups, meeting with local and state officials and liaising with the residents of Imperial Beach who have formed active grassroots organizations. Surfrider is paving the way for water quality testing and will be launching its own water quality testing program in late-September that will provide residents with data that is easily accessible to the community. Surfrider has successfully advocated before the IBWC and other stakeholders for more comprehensive testing of the Tijuana River Valley for bacteria, heavy metals and other pollutants. This program is in the planning phase.

Still there is work to be done.

Surfrider supports the Imperial Beach lawsuit and hopes that other cities will join the effort. Further, Surfrider will be releasing a bipartisan call to action with the hope that the Administration and members of Congress will join in a bipartisan effort that will allocate federal funding and require Mexico to stop sewage from flowing onto local beaches.

As a Surfrider support you can help by contacting your Congressional representative and asking them to join in supporting a solution to stop border sewage pollution. If you are a resident of San Diego County call your Port Commissioner and County Supervisor and demand they join the fight for clean water by asking them to join the City of IB’s lawsuit. You can also support Surfrider’s water quality testing program by donating to the Blue Water Task Force (link).

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