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Photo: This is CA

On Tuesday, April 16, the Tijuana River was designated one of the top ten most endangered rivers in the United States by American Rivers, a national environmental advocacy organization focused on protecting and promoting the health of rivers.  Each year, the organization releases a list of the Most Endangered Rivers in America to shine a spotlight on threats to clean water and drive advocacy.  Rivers that make the list are selected based on their importance to surrounding communities, the scale of threats impacting them, and the opportunity they provide to bring community members together to address the threat. 

The Clean Border Water Now program at Surfrider San Diego teamed up with our friends at Un Mar de Colores to announce the designation at a press conference in Imperial Beach at the Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center.  Surrounded by a sea of vibrant yellow flowers blanketing the estuary and the bustling city of Tijuana in the distance, six speakers shared their reactions to the announcement and several local news media outlets attended.  

Ramon Chairez, Un Mar de Colores

It’s not only the river that’s endangered.  

This announcement comes at a time when the environmental catastrophe in the Tijuana River Watershed and the resulting public health crisis continue to worsen.  Since January 1st of this year, over 28 billion gallons of contaminated water have flowed through the river and into the Pacific Ocean in Imperial Beach.  The southernmost beach in San Diego County has been closed for nearly 900 consecutive days and counting.  The water is now so inundated with toxic pollution that air quality is also impaired.  People are getting sick standing in their front yards, doing their jobs, and going to school.

Featured speakers commented on the current state of crisis and also highlighted the values of the Tijuana River Watershed, along with the importance of this new designation.  


From left: Sarah Davidson, Surfrider Foundation; Bobby Wallace, Barona Band of Mission Indians of the Kumeyaay Nation; Zach Plopper, Surfrider Foundation

Bobby Wallace, of the Barona Band of Mission Indians of the Kumeyaay Nation opened with a powerful land acknowledgement, and added, “The water is not going to stop flowing. It’s going to keep going. It’s going to go up the coast, we can’t even swim.  Our fish in the harbor – it’s polluted – not everyone knows this, but it is.  We need to stop this and we need to stop it now.  So I call on everybody, please support this endeavor.”

Zach Plopper, Senior Environmental Director at the Surfrider Foundation explained, “This river is the ecological heartbeat of the border region.  The wetland is a blue-carbon ecosystem.  It captures more atmospheric carbon per acre than any other habitat type in the county.  More than 10,000 acres of protected areas on both sides of the border are in place to safeguard the river, the estuary, and the surrounding ecosystems, including California’s southernmost marine protected area.  It provides open space for thousands of local residents as well as visitors from far beyond our region.  This place is incredible.  But the public health and environmental justice emergency unfolding here has been going on for decades and it's worse now than it’s ever been . . . It’s our hope that the designation of the Tijuana River as one of the most endangered rivers in the country will be a turning point in the effort to get the funding and resources that are so desperately needed to ensure a clean and accessible Tijuana River Valley.” 


From left: Mario Ordoñez-Calderón, Un Mar de Colores; Bethany Case, Surfrider Foundation

Mario Ordoñez-Calderon, Co-founder and Executive Director of Un Mar de Colores added, “The Tijuana River is a symbol of connectedness and intersectionalism, and in the face of pressing climate issues that will force us to start approaching environmental issues not just at a national level but at an international and global level, the Tijuana River possesses the greatest opportunity to demonstrate successful tri-national collaboration in undoing a gross array of environmental injustices against clean water that have gone overlooked in this nation for far too long.”

Congressmember Scott Peters, represented by his Director of Constituent Services in San Diego, Cesar Solis, said of the announcement, “It smells bad, it looks bad, it’s one of the biggest environmental catastrophes the U.S. currently faces.  But hopefully, soon, the story of the Tijuana River will be one of triumph, not tragedy . . . This should be a destination attracting people from across the world, but instead, anyone who wants to enjoy South Bay beaches is met with hazard signs.“

Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre, represented by City of Imperial Beach Environmental Director Chris Helmer, stated, “The impact of this pollution crisis on the 750,000 residents living in South San Diego County can not be overstated.  Since August 2022, our community has endured the relentless onslaught of over 1 billion gallons of sewage per month coming down the Tijuana River.  The Tijuana River now carries more untreated sewage than any other river in the United States. . . Failure to act now could result in irreparable harm to this endangered river and to this endangered ecosystem here.”  

Bethany Case, long-time Imperial Beach resident and Surfrider’s Clean Border Water Now lead volunteer closed out the press conference by sharing, “We’re disgusted by what we have learned about what we are breathing any time we are outside or inside when we have our windows open because it’s likely seeping into our home that way . . . This designation means so much to our family and our community because it means that the health of the watershed will continue to be a priority not only locally but nationally and that we are able to spread our message and our stories further than we ever thought possible.”

From left: Bethany Case, Mario Ordoñez-Calderón, Ramon Chairez, Chris Helmer, Zach Plopper, Bobby Wallace, Sarah Davidson

The designation of the Tijuana River as endangered sounds the alarm across the country and offers everyone, whether directly or indirectly impacted, an opportunity to join the effort to address this public health and environmental justice emergency.

It will take all of us to build the social movement required to heal our river, our coast, and our communities.  

This momentous designation comes on the heels of several key resolutions by local entities who are adding their voices to the growing movement.  Most notably, the Southern Indian Health Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Biden Administration to declare an emergency and allocate funding for border infrastructure solutions to the public health crisis.  The resolution also calls on Governor Newsom to prioritize this public health emergency and to deploy all available state resources to provide immediate relief to impacted communities and long-term solutions to this decades-old environmental disaster.  San Diego South Bay school districts also added their voices through a series of resolutions passed, as did the San Diego Port Authority by declaring a local emergency

The designation also follows two significant developments in Congress - $103 million allocated to the International Boundary and Water Commission (the federal agency that manages border water infrastructure) and language that allows funding for border water infrastructure to be obtained from federal and state agencies instead of requiring an act of congress.  These significant milestones are the result of years of persistent advocacy from impacted community members, allies, and elected officials.  

We are grateful for the growing community of support to end this crisis and there is still much work to be done.  If you would like to join this effort, please consider, 1. Signing our petition calling on the president and congress to act now to address this emergency, 2. Donating to support our work on this issue, 3. Signing up to receive updates from our Clean Border Water Now team, and 4. Sharing what’s going on here in the Tijuana River Watershed with others who may not be familiar with the crisis.

Thank you for helping to elevate this story and contribute to solutions.



Local news coverage of the announcement: