If anyone should have known he might be surfing in sewage, it’s Mark West.

The 44-year-old Imperial Beach resident volunteers with the Surfrider Foundation’s local chapter, working on a campaign to end the sewage pollution from Mexico that routinely befouls beaches from the border north to Coronado. He sits on an advisory committee for the federal agency responsible for intercepting and treating Mexico’s sewage as it crosses the border.

Before he paddles out during the rainy season, West goes online and checks the direction of the ocean’s current to make sure the Tijuana River, which carries Mexico’s sewage and polluted storm water runoff across the border, isn’t flowing and unfurling its trademark brown plume in his surf spot.

And so there West was Tuesday morning, surfing chest-high waves just south of the Imperial Beach pier in what he thought was clean water. It hadn’t rained in weeks. No warnings were posted. But the water smelled and tasted funny. Like detergent, an indicator of sewage.

Unbeknownst to West, the Tijuana River had been flowing into the ocean for days. Pumps that intercept the polluted river before it reaches the Pacific were shut off because of a system failure. An estimated 6 million to 7 million gallons of sewage a day had been seeping into the ocean for almost a week.

Currents had been pushing it south toward Mexico until Tuesday, when it moved north to Imperial Beach. County health officials closed the beach there later Tuesday — after West got out of the water.

The incident is just one symptom of a major pollution problem that has plagued San Diego’s coast for decades, one that was supposed to have been fixed 15 years ago but that’s been dragged down by missed deadlines, bureaucratic bungling and local infighting. Mexico’s sewage infrastructure is inadequate for its booming population, and with nowhere else to put it, the country’s waste ends up flowing into the United States and the Pacific, where it pollutes area beaches.

Even surfers who actively try to avoid the border’s polluted waters sometimes end up unknowingly paddling into waves tainted by sewage.

“I live my life watching where the plume is going, because I don’t want to get sick, I don’t want to surf in somebody’s sewage,” West said. “I’m supposed to know.”

The recent problem began with a sewage spill at a treatment plant in San Ysidro. The international plant, which sits in the United States, treats 25 million gallons of Tijuana’s sewage daily and intercepts polluted water that flows into the U.S. regardless of whether it’s rainy or dry.

But it had a spill overnight April 4. It’s the latest issue for a plant that’s violated federal pollution standards since its 1997 opening. A $93 million upgrade completed in January 2011 was supposed to ensure mandated levels of pollution were removed from the plant’s treated sewage before being pumped into the ocean. But it hasn’t. Since being upgraded, the plant has rarely complied with federal Clean Water Act standards.

The latest issue happened when a software error caused two million gallons of sewage to spill, said Steve Smullen, area operations manager for the International Boundary and Water Commission, the federal agency that runs the facility.

Because the spill flooded some of the plant’s equipment, parts of the facility have been taken offline for inspections, temporarily cutting its treatment capacity, Smullen said.

The agency operates pumps in Mexico that intercept polluted water that would otherwise flow through the Tijuana River and into the ocean. But because its treatment capacity is lower, the agency has shut off those pumps, allowing sewage in the Tijuana River to reach the ocean.

County health officials were notified of the spill the day it occurred, took seawater samples and found no problems, said Mark McPherson, the county official who oversees its water quality testing program. In the following days, they monitored the ocean current, which was pushing the river’s flow toward Mexico, away from Imperial Beach.

But sometime between Monday and Tuesday, the current switched and began pushing the river’s pollution north. The county closed Imperial Beach on Tuesday, but not before West and other surfers unwittingly paddled out into the funky-smelling water.

West said he’s angry that federal officials are required to notify state and county agencies about the spill and ongoing flow into the Tijuana River, but not the public. If he’d known, West said he wouldn’t have surfed where he did.

“Somebody from one of those agencies should’ve notified the public that there’s an active spill going on,” West said.

McPherson said he’d be willing to talk with West and others in the environmental community to figure out whether there’s a better way to notify the public about potential pollution problems.

“I’m not sure how much better it can be done,” he said. “It’s far better than it was done 10 years ago. But I’ll think about how we can do that better.”

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact him directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

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Rob Davis

Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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