Tijuana sewage spill shutters Imperial Beach and Coronado shorelines, yet again
Adam Wraight pulled a blue “warning sign” out of the sand at Imperial Beach Pier Thursday morning and replaced it with the more ominous yellow and red placard telling beachgoers the waters were officially closed.
“There’s more to come than just the normal sludge?” asked Colette Dominguez, a native of Imperial Beach, who happened to be passing by.
“It’s an active spill,” explains Wraight, a sea sergeant with the city’s lifeguards. “A major pipeline has broken.”
Coasts from the border to Coronado were closed to swimming on Thursday due to a pipeline that ruptured at Smuggler’s Gulch over the weekend in Tijuana. Sewage has been flowing across the border to the mouth of the river for days, but it’s only now making its way into the ocean and pushing up the coast with rising currents to the north.
The situation is likely to last until next week, when public utility workers in Baja California are expected to complete repairs, according to federal officials in San Diego.
“That pipeline handles 80 percent of the wastewater generated in Tijuana. It’s huge,” said Morgan Rogers, area operations manager at the San Diego field office of the United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission.
More than 135 million gallons of treated and raw wastewater have spilled across the border since Saturday, with about 25 million to 30 million gallons more each day. Most of it has flowed through the Tijuana River after the pipeline burst forced officials to shut down a diversion system that pumps water from the main concrete channel.
An additional approximately 10 million gallons of raw wastewater per day is diverted to the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant along the border in San Diego. The situation is putting some pressure on the plant, which now processes more than the 25 million gallons per day it was designed for, Rogers said.
“I think we can probably sustain 35 million gallons a day for a few weeks until the repairs are complete,” he said. “We’ll probably have to do some cleanup at the factory, but no real damage.
Summer beach closures in the South Bay have become more frequent since public health officials in the county rolled out a new DNA-based test for ocean water quality in May. Beaches saw a wave of closures earlier this summer when conditions were much less severe than under the current sewage discharge.
Leaders in Coronado and Imperial Beach have questioned whether the new test isn’t too sensitive. The province has so far not publicly embraced the idea of revising its new approach, which replaced the traditional culture method where scientists look for bacterial growth in water samples.
The presence of bacteria is considered an indicator of pathogens, such as E. coli, Vibrio and Salmonella. Exposure can lead to diarrhea, fever, respiratory disease, meningitis and even paralysis.
The county started putting up blue warning signs giving beachgoers the freedom to enter or not enter the water when bacteria levels have increased, but the presence of sewage has not been confirmed.
While many locals and tourists have ignored the new blue signs, surf camps, junior lifeguard programs, and various events have been closed as a result.
Still, even the yellow and red signs that went up over the South Bay this week aren’t enough to keep everyone out of the water.
The risk of illness did not stop Armie Ferrer, who was surfing with her husband at Imperial Beach Pier on Thursday. The 45-year-old Chula Vista resident said she relies on her nose more than any signage.
“It’s always been dirty because of the TJ sewer,” she said. “There are certain times when it’s really polluted. We base it on the water color and sometimes it has a really strong smell. Sometimes when the wave breaks, you see the brownish bubbles.”
It can be difficult to determine how polluted the water is in Imperial Beach and Coronado, as wastewater often drifts up the shoreline from a crumbling wastewater plant about 6 miles (10 km) south of the border. Officials estimate that the plant spews 25 million to 35 million gallons of mostly raw sewage into the ocean every day.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a $630 million plan to tackle pollution coming from the factory and through the Tijuana River. Officials have said projects could be groundbreaking in the next three to five years.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Imperial Beach, Serge Dedina, is pushing hard for temporary solutions, especially at the aging facility in Mexico known as the San Antonio de los Buenos Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“People are really traumatized and they’re losing hope,” he said. “We need to make some improvements here and show people that we’re really trying.”
Ongoing spill in Mexico floods Tijuana River with millions of gallons of raw sewage
2022 The San Diego Union Tribune.
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