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July 11, 2007 | For regular beach goers and ocean users in Imperial Beach (IB) it came as no surprise that Imperial Beach was recently named a “death beach” by Forbes. According to the magazine:

Imperial Beach in San Diego County made the list this year because of sewer spills in Tijuana, Mexico. Ocean currents bring the pollution north to the southernmost U.S. beach.

However, for Imperial Beach Mayor Jim Janney who campaigned on a slogan of “No Bad Days,” the sewage-contamination signs that often dot the beach are little more than an inconvenience to the City’s marketing efforts and his own misguided boosterism.

In a recent interview with voiceofsandiego.org Janney stated that it does not matter that the southernmost part of the beach including the Tijuana Sloughs, was closed for 198 days in 2006, since “nobody uses that as the beach to go hang out and put your towel down.”

When asked if sewage originating from the Tijuana River is a “major problem,” Janney claimed that the pollution issue is just a media stunt to sell newspapers and that the beach should not have been closed as many days as it was. He concludes by stating Imperial Beach “wasn’t closed more than anywhere else when it rains.”

The fact is that when it rains, other beaches in San Diego County are posted for advisories to refrain from water contact due to “urban runoff.”

Imperial Beach is closed due to “sewage contamination”. Advisories at other beaches typically last for three days. Closures in Imperial Beach often last for more than a week. To believe that sewage polluted water from Tijuana is similar to urban runoff in La Jolla, as Janney does, displays a shocking lack of knowledge about the most basic coastal issues.

No one would be happier than local surfers, fishermen and beach goers if Tijuana River pollution was a public relations problem blown out of proportion by the media. The reality is that Imperial Beach is one of the most polluted beaches in the Unites States. Ocean pollution represents a serious environmental health threat to our community. San Diego State University researchers found Hepatitis A in 80 percent of the water samples off the Imperial Beach Pier after rain events. A recent San Diego Foundation report identified Tijuana River pollution as the biggest environmental health threat in Southern California.

Recent surveys taken last year found that two-thirds of regular ocean users in Imperial Beach reported a water-contact related ocean illness after surfing or swimming at local beaches.

What is most disturbing about the mayor’s comments is that he apparently does not know that Imperial Beach’s two best surf breaks, the Boca Rio and the Tijuana Sloughs, are in the area that he believes no one uses. The Boca Rio, a beach break famous for its hollow A-frame peaks that was once featured on the cover of Surfer Magazine, is at the south end of Seacoast Drive. Hundreds of surfers ride waves there on a weekly basis when the beach is open. Last year I watched John John Florence the world’s best young surfer or “grom” tear up a good size south swell at the Boca Rio during a glassy weekday afternoon.

There is a reason this past week when the swell was rocking all day everyday, there was never a crowd in IB. Most surfers in

San Diego would agree with this description of IB by a surfer on WannaSurf:

for some its to far south to get too which is good for the crowd factor and if your not out of the water by 11am you missed out…and if there is no solid swell then it kinds sucks, ,.as for the polulu problem,the color of the water does not equal the percentage of bacteria in the water,so get a clue.those who think that…ive seen it dead summer blue as the sky and signs posted..Polluted…best bet is to stick to surfing termos,mission and pack rat places like wind N sea,if you have fear of things like gettin sick and are a super whiner..this is not a spot for you.

The Tijuana Sloughs is the legendary big wave spot that breaks on a cobblestone reef offshore from the mouth of the Tijuana River during large winter swells. Former Imperial Beach Recreation Director and Lifeguard Captain Allan “Dempsey” Holder pioneered surfing big waves at the Sloughs in 1937. Kem Nunn in the “Tijuana Straits,” describes how Dempsey or Hoddy Carter named the Sloughs (or Straits),

He dubbed the spot Tijuana Straits and so it would be known, though principally among those watermen who, in time, would make of its liquid giants the stuff of myth and legend, much like the man would had authored the name

But even Janney couldn’t get his description of Tijuana Straits — the only major novel written about Imperial Beach — right. When asked about his opinion of the way HBO’s John from Cincinnati portrays IB, he responded:

I found out the way David Milch discovered Imperial Beach was from that book, Tijuana Straits. And it was written about what Imperial Beach was like in 1970. Every beach, coastal surfing community has gone through periods where they’ve gone through a lot of change.

Next time before Janney talks about a book, he should read it first. Nunn’s book takes place after 2000.

The winter swells at the Sloughs provided a training ground for legendary big wave surfers in the 1940s and 50s such as Buzzy Kerbox, Peter Cole and the Hoffman brothers who went on to pioneer surfing Oahu’s North Shore. Today a hardcore group of Imperial Beach surfers continue to ride the waves of the Sloughs including Kelly Kraus, Jeff Knox, Jon Strebbler, Ken “Bud” Shertzer, Richard Abrams and Mike “Electric Duck” Richardson. It is unfortunate that Janney is unfamiliar with the rich history and irreplaceable natural areas of Imperial Beach that make our community such a special place to live and raise a family.

For local surfers, fishermen and business owners, every day the beach is closed is a bad day. Blaming coastal pollution on media conspiracies will not clean up our beaches. If Janney is unwilling to even acknowledge or deal with the single biggest issue facing Imperial Beach then he should resign. Imperial Beach deserves a mayor with a vision for building a healthy and vibrant community we can be proud of. Instead voters elected a cranky booster whose idea of leadership is writing a lame letter to the U-T spinning IB’s polluted beaches as, “paradise within reach.”

Serge Dedina is the executive director of the environmental group Wildcoast.

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