Tijuana River crosses U.S.-Mexico border on August 1, 2022
The Tijuana River, which typically only flows in the rainy winter season, begins to flow over the U.S.-Mexico border after a couple of wastewater leaks or breaks in Tijuana. / U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission

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Prepare for what’s shaping up to be the perfect sewage storm for California’s southernmost coast. 

Two sewage line breaks on the Tijuana side of the U.S.-Mexico border sent contaminated water toward the Tijuana River beginning Sunday morning, according to the International Boundary and Water Commission, a federal agency that manages border water issues. This coastal desert river should naturally flow only in the rainy winter season, but poor infrastructure in Tijuana means sewage makes its way into a waterway that’s now a vehicle for pollution.

Photos taken by the border water agency show the Tijuana River Estuary is swelling with water coursing west. Morgan Rogers, operations manager at the IBWC’s International Wastewater Treatment Plant, said Monday morning that water hadn’t reached the ocean, yet.

But it probably will.

And that’s only half of this double whammy of doo-doo about to strike the shoreline. 

A hurricane off the coast of Baja California and week-old winter storms in the Southern Hemisphere are sending beautiful sets of southern swells to San Diego – a surfer’s summer dream. Except, you can probably count on those swells to be laden with sewage, and not just from the Tijuana River. 

We know that southern swells (which means ocean currents are actually flowing northward) sweep sewage from a broken wastewater treatment plant a few miles south of the border called Punta Bandera. 

“What that means is that sewage released at the shoreline at Punta Bandera six miles south of the border is getting ripped to the north,” said Falk Feddersen, a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and co-author of a study showing that broken plant is likely responsible for summertime beach contamination all the way to Coronado. “And generally the faster the water moves, the more concentrated the contamination is in the water.” 

Actually, one of the two sewage line breaks in Tijuana is on a section of pressurized pipe that sends sewage to Punta Bandera. In order to fix it, Baja officials had to turn off a key wastewater pump called PB-CILA. When that pump is off, the international treatment plant on the U.S. side of the border has to work double-time, treating twice the flows it’s permitted to treat, which means it can’t do as good of a job cleaning that water it then shoots to the ocean through a miles-long pipe. 

“It’s like driving your car at 100 miles per hour for an extended period of time,” said Morgan Rogers, operations manager at the IBWC’s plant.

That shutdown pump is also responsible for drawing contaminated water out of the Tijuana River for treatment. So when it’s down, more sewage flows toward the river mouth and ominously closer to the city of Imperial Beach. 

Baron Partlow is the founder ‘Stop the Poop,’ a local group that advocates against cross-border sewage flows. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Baron Partlow, an Imperial Beach activist under tagline “Stop the Poop,” posted a video on Facebook of the river flowing beneath Dairy Mart Road bridge, generally the point at which it concerns residents that the water will reach the ocean. He pointed out that it’s the last day for the public to comment on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to spend $300 million on a suite of projects that reduce cross-border spills.

“Before today, this channel was dry,” Partlow said.

Baja’s State Public Services Commission said it’ll probably take more than five days to fix that debacle. If it takes that long, the river – and the sewage along with it – will likely reach the ocean. 

San Diego County public health officials told me they only close beaches if there’s a known or officially reported sewage spill into the Pacific Ocean. Well, now we have one — almost.

County staff checked out the river on Sunday and didn’t see it flowing toward the ocean, according to spokesperson Gig Conaughton. But water had started to pool behind Dairy Mart Bridge, which usually means it’s on its way to the ocean via its natural causeway – the riverbed. 

The sewage breached a large dirt berm built by IBWC across the river’s causeway on Monday. So that might change the county’s course of action. 

So far, it’s unclear if the waters are unsafe to enter from Imperial Beach to Coronado. There’s been quite a bit of drama since the county unveiled a new and more sensitive water quality testing technology that can detect the probable presence of poo down to bacterial DNA.

The county started shutting down beaches as a precaution, including in Coronado which rarely experienced beach closures in the summer before. I reported on a recent change in policy by the county to keep beaches open despite failing water quality tests under the new tech. 

Coronado and the Silver Strand state beaches were under a new posted sewage warning for much of July. The county’s since greenlighted most of those beaches, for now. 

In Other News

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that a known sewage spill, according to the county, is one that reaches the Pacific Ocean.

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