Surf’s up… for now! While many San Diegans flock to partially reopened beaches, our favorite beach activities may be impossible in the future – and not just because of COVID-19. Every day for the last six months, 60 million gallons of sewage have flowed through the Tijuana River in Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Is this what we want our kids swimming in? As the problem persists, Coronado needs to take a more active role to protect our beaches from Mexico’s pollution.
Coronado can’t take a backseat on this issue. Confronted with Tijuana River sewage, Imperial Beach has remained closed every day since November until this past weekend. And this isn’t a fluke. Transborder pollution from the Tijuana River has contaminated U.S. waters and coastlines for decades. Now, the beaches of Imperial Beach are closed an average of 300 days per year because of unsafe bacteria levels. Most of the pollution comes from Tijuana, Mexico, which has poor sewage infrastructure that cannot accommodate its growing population. Although Imperial Beach faces most of the adverse effects from Mexico’s runoff, Coronado and other San Diego beaches aren’t safe, either. If the currents are strong enough, the sewage can flow north past Coronado.
Faced with the challenges of polluted beaches, Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina and the City Council have been pursuing solutions with the federal governments of both Mexico and the United States. Meanwhile, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey and the City Council remain inactive when now it’s essential that they increase their efforts to stop the pollution.
Although Coronado doesn’t experience as frequent beach closures as Imperial Beach, there have been several beach closures over the last few years due to Tijuana River sewage. As a resort city that attracts more than three million visitors to its beaches each year, Coronado thrives on attracting beachgoers. Numerous businesses, like kayak and surfboard rentals, need the beaches. However, no one wants to swim in sewage-tainted water that can expose them to pathogens like E. coli and salmonella. Even if businesses aren’t directly related to beach access, they still benefit from the foot traffic the beaches generate during the busy summer months.
Coronado also needs open beaches to maintain its strong relationship with the U.S. Navy. A report showed that 19 SEAL training events were canceled in Coronado because of water-quality concerns between 2011 and 2018. While the U.S. Navy appropriately remains apolitical, Mayor Bailey and the City Council need to act to preserve the Navy’s interest in Coronado. As the largest employer in San Diego and Coronado, the Navy is critical to the economic livelihood of many families in southern California.
Furthermore, the sewage from Tijuana affects the U.S. Border Patrol’s readiness. The Tijuana River runoff is so toxic it can burn through boots. In fact, Border Patrol’s parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, commissioned a six-month study that showed the runoff contained 710 times more arsenic, five times more lead, seven times more uranium, and 1,135 times more hexavalent chromium than local tap water. Unfortunately, simply avoiding contact with the runoff isn’t enough. Border Patrol agents have reported headaches, rashes, infections, and breathing problems from being near the sewage. Although they take precautions, the number of sick agents continues to grow. From June to December 2017, the U.S. Border Patrol had over 83 of its 300 agents that patrol the Tijuana River Valley report sewage-related illnesses. Because Coronado lies within 16 miles of the Mexican Border, the actions of the U.S. Border Patrol preserve the city’s security.
Of course, Mayor Bailey and the City Council have addressed the Tijuana River sewage before. However, their current efforts aren’t enough. Coronado refused to join Imperial Beach, San Diego, and other South Bay cities in a lawsuit against the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) to repair Tijuana’s sewage system. Although Coronado offered a $50,000 reimbursement of legal fees, Imperial Beach must reach certain milestones to receive the funding. For example, Imperial Beach must complete the case to get the $25,000 meant to assist with trial costs. Coronado has just as much to lose as Imperial Beach if the runoff persists. Therefore, the city shouldn’t hold Imperial Beach by a leash for its lawsuit against IBWC. It should join the lawsuit or eliminate the conditions on its reimbursement.
While Mayor Bailey and elected leaders from San Diego secured the inclusion of $300 million for water quality projects along the Mexico–U.S. border in the recent overhaul of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the problem isn’t fixed. Imperial Beach and Coronado continue to experience beach closures. Furthermore, it’s unclear how much of the federal funding will reach our region. The timeline for repairs on sanitation facilities along the Mexican border also remains unclear.
Coronado also needs to foster stronger relationships with Mexico. Mayor Bailey should be meeting regularly with the Mayor of Tijuana, Juan Manuel Gastélum, and updating Coronado residents on Mexico’s efforts. Because the Tijuana River crosses the Mexico–U.S. border, the solution needs action from both countries.
Following the $300 million announcement, Mayor Bailey and the City Council have failed to provide any recent updates when many questions remain unanswered. Bailey’s February email update mentioned a regional stakeholders meeting with the EPA. What was the result? His May email update didn’t specify. Furthermore, now that the city has the attention of our federal government, how does it plan to collaborate with the Mexican government? While many in Coronado rejoiced this past week about the reopened beaches, the most important question remains: how long can they stay open given our pollution crisis?