Thursday, January 26, 2006 | Last week, Los Angeles was throwing a fit about a 2 million-gallon sewage spill. The newspapers ran wild. Politicians demanded investigations into how it could have happened. It was a real pee-down-your-leg moment for our northern neighbors.


Two million gallons? C’mon.

San Diego and Tijuana know how to do sewage pollution. Ours come in rivers, not just occasional spills. It’s uncontrollable, unimaginably stank and the rivers of sewage have in them a lot more feces than L.A.’s measly 2 million gallons.

Serge Dedina, the executive director of Wildcoast – a group of conservationists – said that a gauge that monitors the Tijuana River recorded 5 million gallons passing by every night last week.

And most of what flows in the Tijuana River is raw, disgusting sewage. These 5 million-gallon bursts came down the river only during the nights last week, although the concrete river bed is supposed to flow only after rainstorms.

I don’t remember it raining last week.

If it had, it would have been worse. Last year, the Tijuana River flowed at about 600 million gallons a day after heavy rains drenched the region. Rainwater overwhelms Tijuana’s faltering sewage infrastructure and it’s not fair to call what happens after that a “sewage spill.”

It’s just a plain old river of feces. And it drains right into the Pacific Ocean, just off Imperial Beach.

A colleague and I toured the concrete Tijuana River and the estuary behind it the other day. It was a smelly experience. It was something few San Diegans had probably ever done. But everyone who submerges themselves in the ocean at one time or another should take a stroll through this garbage-strewn basin.

The day we were there, the concrete river was completely dry but for a tiny stream of water that mangy dogs were easily able to hop over.

Even that mere creek wasn’t supposed to be there, Dedina said.

Aside from the sewage, there’s some really blow-your-mind things to look at when you stare down that concrete river bed.

The most prominent, of course, is the yellow line that marks the border between the United States and Mexico. While a fence highlights most of that incredibly significant geopolitical demarcation in surrounding areas, a fence obviously can’t continue across the river. So there’s a big gaping view into Mexico.

It’s a startling scene. The packs of dogs look through the strewn litter. People wander on the Mexican side of the line looking through it, too. They casually stroll back and forth a few feet across the line. A border patrol SUV stares down, making sure nobody strays far enough over the line that they’re really in the United States.

But the people who walk up and down the yellow line don’t appear to care about the significance of the river. While the yellow line is supposed to mean so much, here at least, it means nothing. Crossing the border involves much more than what they’re doing.

And, after all, they’re hanging around – some living almost in – the largest toilet in the world. They probably don’t much care what anyone thinks about them stepping a few feet over the border here and there.

Only a few yards away is a Polo outlet store. And a Starbucks. And a Neiman Marcus and Nike outlet, as well. Banana Republic and Gap, too.

The concrete river bed, while protecting Tijuana from flooding, and allowing more areas of the sprawling Mexican city to develop, also acts as a giant hypodermic needle injecting the ocean with the sewage and other chemical compounds without wasting a drop – and at a rate that would make the Angelinos declare a state of emergency every week.

One step ahead of them again, the San Diego City Council does officially declare a state of emergency routinely because of the sewage flowing down the Tijuana River. But the council doesn’t talk about it and so, while official, the regular resolutions merely sit as words on the agendas.

It’s hard to get fired up about an intractable problem that many people over many years have been trying to solve.

But maybe if Los Angeles could teach us how, exactly, they were able to work themselves into a frenzy about the 2 million-gallon “spill” they had the other day, we might be able to freak out enough to change some things quickly.

If the stank smell I took in last week ever wafts into the richer areas of San Diego County, that might actually happen sooner than we think. And maybe by then, I and others can learn enough about this problem to understand it, and then fix it.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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