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By: Dana Williams

There is a TOXIC WATER CRISIS in the San Diego and Baja California border region. Public health, wildlife, the environment, tourism, housing prices and the economy on both sides of the border are at risk.  So are the members of the US Navy and Border Patrol who train and work in the region. It is an issue of social inequality. It is also an issue of homelessness as many people seeking asylum are stuck at the border and living in these toxic conditions.

The children of Bethany Case and Shannon Johnson, two of the three Surfrider volunteer Co-Chairs of the South Bay Clean Water No Border Sewage program, with friends in February 2017 after the 143 million gallon sewage spill

The Tijuana River Valley connects the Tijuana River with the Pacific Ocean. The  Tijuana River watershed is approximately 1,700 square miles and drains into  the Pacific Ocean in the United States through the Tijuana River Valley, which  consists of the Tijuana River, the Tijuana River estuary and the ocean shoreline; all  located in the southwestern portion of the City of San Diego. The Tijuana   River estuary   was designated as a “Wetlands  of International Importance” by the United Nations. This estuary contains one of the last remaining salt marshes in  the State of California, providing a critical habitat for multiple endangered species, as well as a critical stopover point for migrating birds.  The estuary is currently under the protection of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Part of the estuary, Border Fields State Park, is protected...  by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, as it offers some of the few recreational activities which are affordable and accessible to nearby low-income communities.

The Tijuana River Valley Region covers southern San Diego County and northern Baja California, Mexico. Sadly, sewage, trash, sediment and chemical waste has plagued the ocean, waves and beaches in this shared border region for decades.

February 2017, however, was a tipping point:  143 MILLION GALLONS OF RAW SEWAGE was discharged into the Tijuana River, upstream in Tijuana, MX. Transboundary flows containing raw sewage,  waste tires, trash and sediment caused severe economic and environmental degradation because of the pollution in the river valley, resulting in constant beach closures and compromising the economic potential of south county beaches.

An aerial view of the February 2017 sewage spill

Since then, there have been countless additional small scale spills.  Yet, more than a year later, there has been no federal or state emergency clean-up effort, despite ill residents and dead wildlife.

The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) is an international  organization which incorporates  both the United States and Mexican  governments and is the agency responsible for managing transboundary trash, sewage and sediment discharges and is required to give preferential attention to border sanitation problems as specified in the 1944 Treaty and subsequent IBWC Minutes. It owns and operates facilities from which illegal discharges are taking place including the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant (SBIWTP), the five canyon collectors, the Goat Canyon and Hollister pump stations and the South Bay Land and Ocean outfalls.


This is not an issue of U.S. vs Mexico. In fact, citizens, businesses, wildlife and advocates for the environment on both sides of the border are UNITED against the disgraceful lack of political action in addressing this crisis and for the failure of our elected officials to do anything about it.

The solution to this toxic water issue depends on political will on both sides of the border to collaborate on a solution. Surfrider Foundation San Diego is playing an active role in helping to facilitate these discussions, while working to advance policy, test the water, educate the public, and create change.


On April 14, ASC San Diego kindly donated $1 from all game tickets sold to Surfrider Foundation San Diego and Classy matched those donations. The entire Surfrider Foundation San Diego South Bay Clean Water / No Border Sewage team was recognized during half-time for their environmental advocacy work.

Gabriela Torres, Carrie Jiampa, Shannon Johnson and Bethany Case accepting a check from ASC San Diego on April 14, 2018



Shannon Johnson, Bethany Case and Carrie Jiampa being interviewed by ASC San Diego about the toxic border water crisis


Our mini Coastal Defenders walked out on the field with the players for the national anthem, learned drills with the coach during half time, and got player signatures at the end of the game.

We also had a Surfrider Foundation tent on-site where people were invited to sign a letter to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors calling on them to declare a state of emergency in San Diego County for the areas along the Tijuana River Valley and those beaches most commonly affected by ongoing sewage not captured or treated by the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).

It was a great evening that helped shine a spotlight on a critical issue that unites all those impacted, both north and south of the border. It also was an amazing opportunity to honor Gabriela Torres with a Lifetime Achievement Award [link to other blog post: Gabriela Torres, Surfrider Foundation San Diego’s Policy Coodinator, Honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Her Work on the Toxic Border Water Crisis] for her outstanding and tireless work on this issue. She is a true Champion of Clean Water.


Gabriela Torres accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from ASC San Diego

How You Can Help:

If you believe, like we do, that it is time to take a stand and demand change for the Tijuana River Valley Region please consider donating to our Clean Water Now! Campaign. It will help us increase Gabriela’s hours so she can continue to drive policy change on this issue. It will also help us fund water testing, education and advocacy while holding our elected officials accountable. You can also help by signing this action alert to end 437+ days without Federal action on the border sewage spill from February 2017.

Here’s to Clean Water and Healthy Beaches.