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The sloughs aren’t breaking today. The well-known big wave surf break at Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge is silent. But shapely waves are breaking on the beach in a flash of white. And two surfers are standing atop a pile of rocks, weighing whether to go out.
If only Peter Pohl could talk his friend into it. If only the 23-year-old could convince his buddy with the pierced lip that the water isn’t polluted, that the water closure that’s been in effect since February doesn’t mean anything.
But he can’t.
Sunday marked the dubious three-month anniversary of the closure of the water along this quiet stretch of beach just south of Imperial Beach. While other beaches in the region have closed periodically and since reopened as a result of winter and spring rains, the Tijuana refuge remains closed three months after a quarter-inch rainfall.
And Pohl’s friend is a bit freaked out about the raw sewage that sometimes washes down from Tijuana into the water here. So much came in 2005 that Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based environmental group, named this the most polluted beach in the state.
Pohl doesn’t mind. He’s not oblivious – you’d have to be an idiot to not know about the pollution, he says – but he hasn’t gotten sick. Not yet. Sure, he admits, surfing the break is a risk.
“But,” he says, “it’s a good wave.”
It was February 17 when the rain came. Barely a quarter-inch fell across San Diego and throughout the Tijuana River Valley. About two-thirds of the river’s watershed is in Mexico, where tens of thousands lack basic plumbing.
When that rain fell, it flushed the waste – human excrement, laundry detergent, tires, trash – that collects on Tijuana’s hillside colonias into the Pacific.
Two days later, the county’s Department of Environmental Health declared the water at Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge off-limits to swimmers. Bacteria levels were too high at the beach, which sits at the mouth of the Tijuana River. It has remained closed since.
And while county officials expect to reopen it soon, the winter closure has lasted three months, even though the region hasn’t had a significant rainfall since mid-April.
“We still have high bacteria hits,” said Mark McPherson, the county Department of Environmental Health’s chief of land and water quality. “The bacteria can come from so many sources, it’s hard to point in one direction.”
But on the rocky beach near the river mouth, a fisherman hoping for white sea bass doesn’t have any trouble pointing out what he thinks is the source.
Through the salty haze, Tijuana hangs like a ghost. The Mexican hills are shrouded with development – condominiums, a bull ring, churches, the border fence – the viscera of the sprawling metropolis of more than 1.2 million.
The hard-packed sand leading there is empty, save for the occasional washed-up tire and decaying gull carcass. No surfers, no sun-seekers. The emptiness is engulfing. Greg Gilmore, a 58-year-old Imperial Beach resident with graying hair is wearing blue everything – shoes, shirt, shorts, hat – and is holding a small surf rod in one hand. He has the ocean to himself.
Gilmore remembers a time when Tijuana was sleepy. Wide-open swaths of ranch land. Dairies near Rosarito. An occasional curio shop. A handful of seaside shacks along the old road to the surf break at Campo Lopez.
Back then, beers and lobster tacos were a quarter. Crest the hill on that old road now, Gilmore said, “and all you see is development. It’s all housing.”
The sewage infrastructure hasn’t kept pace? That doesn’t surprise Gilmore. Tijuana is a border city next to the city Gilmore considers the finest in the nation.
“Tijuana,” Gilmore says, “was bound to happen.”
Plans are in place to address some of the Mexican city’s sewage infrastructure problems. The controversial Bajagua Project LLC would double Tijuana’s existing sewage infrastructure; two other plants are due online next year.
Some assail the company devising the Bajagua Project, criticizing the sole-source contract it was awarded to build the plant. It has divided San Diego’s environmental community: Some say it will undoubtedly improve water quality; others say it won’t address the sewage-contaminated runoff that has kept this area closed since February.
Some locals aren’t sold either way. Late last week, while the two surfers were deciding whether to head out and while the fisherman was looking for sea bass, Ken Schertzer Sr. was working in his nearby surf shop.
He surfed the polluted area three times, maybe four over the winter, he says. He didn’t get sick this time. Last year, he recalls getting a nasty stomach bug. Pain so bad he had to go to the doctor.
He’s getting older, and believes the pollution is getting worse. He worried his immune system won’t keep up. And he’s not sure whether Imperial Beach is any closer to a solution.
“People I guess are getting so used to it they’re not concerned any more,” Schertzer says. “They just shrug it off. But they should be screaming. They should be outraged. We should be able to do something down there.”