Thursday, May 21, 2009

Summary of Events from May 7th Meeting and Open Forum


Dan Murphy started the meeting off by emphasizing that Surfrider will be part of a coalition of environmental agencies as well as community members that will focus on finding solutions for storm run off in an effort to decrease beach closures in Imperial Beach. Tours of Border Field State Park and the Tijuana Estuary will help volunteers to understand the issue and motivate them to act and bring more attention to the issue.

Belinda Smith referred to the Trestles campaign as an example of how a coalition force can work together and result in success. Beginning now the goal is to make more of a presence in the South Bay.

Scott Harrison addressed what some IB community members may have perceived as Surfrider’s lack of support for the border sewage problem. Although South Bay residents are not a large majority of the volunteer force, Scott remarked that anyone can become a member of the executive committee as a way to represent their community. Surfrider is excited to be involved and for the potential it provides for the issue and the Imperial Beach area.


Jeff Knox (IB resident, Tijuana River Citizen’s Council (TRCC) member). Jeff spoke with great passion about the history of surfing in Imperial Beach and its beginning in the 1930s with Dempsey Holder. In the 1960s South Coast and Wind and Sea Surfboards had their start in IB. Surfers would come all the way from Australia already familiar with IB and could and stay at the White House where Dempsey was caretaker. Jeff talked about the Sloughs, a deep water break and intimidating wave that’s half a mile from shore. The surfing trilogy Tijuana Straights is based on the Sloughs. Imperial Beach is an isolated community and the residents prefer it that way. However, Jeff invited everyone to come down and meet the people and experience the great surf. He ended with a special invite for anyone that is strong swimmer to surf the Sloughs in the wintertime. Just not after the first rain.

Jay Novak (IB resident, TRCC member, owner Novak Surfboard Designs)
Jay first noticed a problem in the ocean off Imperial Beach in the 1970s. He watched as the population in Tijuana increase drastically in a very short time period. And now he watches as rain events wash 250 million gallons of untreated water into the ocean. Last year the beach was closed 76 days and on average closures are 70 days per year. Jay, as a local business owner, appreciates the impact this has on local businesses and livelihoods as well as people’s health. For Jay, solutions lay in the two Japanese funded treatment plants which will address the San Antonio outfall. The outfall currently sends treated and untreated water into the ocean and is responsible for the odor of chlorine that accompanies a south swell. Also, progress is being made by the Tijuana River Recovery Team (TRRT) that focuses on trash and sediment that comes over the border. Plastics recycling in Mexico and trash collection close to the border will certainly need to be part of the solution. Jay stressed that government agencies need to work together and develop a timeline of goals and stick to them. Jay sees the ocean as a great asset to Imperial Beach and that while border sewage is a big problem with no easy solution; people working together creatively can help the issue.

Sarah Emerson (Tijuana River Estuary Community Outreach Coordinator)
Sarah encouraged people to get involved by participating in habitat restoration/clean up (next invasive plant removal is 5/9), the more healthy the habitat is the better the water will be. To learn more people can attend the speaker series at the estuary the 3rd saturday of each month (Greg Abbot on 5/16 will talk about endangered vegetation). Check out their website for more information and events calendar.

Rich Hildalgo (Imperial Beach Lifeguard)
Rich’s goal is to help people understand the water quality issue from the lifeguard perspective. The Imperial Beach lifeguards are proactive with regard to sewage: they take water samples and work closely with the Department of Environmental Health (DEH), a relationship that the lifeguards feel is good. Rich and his colleagues are the only lifeguards to take water samples. They receive on going training from the DEH and follow the specific procedures necessary for collecting the samples (before 11am, using sterilized bottles, etc.). Presently tests are conducted every 2-3 months, it’s up to the DEH, when the lifeguards get the call they take the samples. (Apparently funding is tight at the moment for testing) The current turn around time for getting test results is 24 hours from the time the samples are submitted to the DEH. According to Rich the only other testing being done is by the City of San Diego but this has not been done recently. However, last year San Diego Coastal Ocean Observing System (SDCOOS) (Rich wasn’t certain if it was SDCOOS, may have been different organization) received a grant through University of Southern California (USC) for smelly event sampling. The samples tested at USC underwent very detailed tests but no reports were ever received regarding the results as grant funding was stopped. Rich urged the public to report anything they notice to the lifeguards since they can’t be everywhere all the time and they will contact the DEH, take the proper steps and make an informed decision. DEH makes the determination as to whether or not to close the beach and the county issues the order to the lifeguards. The DEH decides where and which sign to post. An advisory posting (white sign) occurs when there is a renegade flow/unknown source. A rain event results in full closure (yellow sign). A yellow sign does not necessarily mean that a test has been done. Rich explained that after a significant rain event the smell alone is enough for the lifeguards to call the DEH but the signs go up before tests are taken in order to protect the public.

Roger Benham (lifelong IB resident, engineer)
Roger sees solutions to the border sewage problem as technical in nature and something that can be done on the US side of the border. His fear is that sending volunteers out to pick up trash is a futile effort and the photos of the massive amounts pollution will be the same 20 years from now. Roger has researched long term solutions to address the problems of sewage, trash and erosion products flowing into San Diego from Tijuana. The three components include a bypass channel, trash reclamation facility and technology center and advanced separation unit. Contact Roger at for further information.

Closing Questions & Comments

Community members in attendance praised the Rich and his fellow lifeguards for the job they do collecting samples and protecting the public.

Dick Tynan mentioned that the San Diego County Water Authority is meeting on new wetlands to be located just west of Smuggler’s Gulch, $28 million to fund the Tijuana River Valley and an additional $250,000 for trash boom. Dick proposed an idea to Congressman Filner regarding a $0.25 toll at the border crossing to raise money for the pollution problem. Surfrider may be able to draft a letter regarding this idea so that others can support it. Also announced was that the Tijuana River Valley Equestrian Association (TRVEA) is organizing a trash pick up on June 6th from 9am to noon. Meet at Hollister Street.

Jim King (city council member, resident of IB) is glad Surfrider has renewed interest in the South Bay and brings credibility and energy to the border sewage issue.

One community member asked about a symposium where all the agencies could gather to share information. Sarah Emerson responded that the Tijuana Estuary has regular public meetings with a symposium like format that would provide an opportunity for the coalition members to communicate.

Post Meeting Discussions

Belinda and Keri discussed the possibility of using the QwikLite Biosensor System for the IB lifeguards to do their own testing. More research into the monitoring kit and input from Rich Hildalgo needed.

Belinda spoke with Kyle Knox and he agreed to attach his name to the campaign. Possibly do a video w/Marty.

State Budget Crisis Could Endanger Beachgoers

— Several environmental groups say California's budget crisis has crippled efforts to solve ocean pollution at beaches near the Mexican border. In its 2009 Beach Report Card, Heal the Bay says state cutbacks in beach water monitoring endangers public health. KPBS Environment Reporter Ed Joyce has the latest on the health of the county's beaches.

Heal the Bay says anyone playing in the ocean at most San Diego County beaches last summer enjoyed near-perfect water quality.

The Santa Monica-based group graded 93 beaches in the county as part of its annual statewide study. The grades are based on levels of bacterial pollution.

The better the grade, the lower the risk of illness to ocean users.

Heal the Bay water quality director Kirsten James says 97 percent of San Diego beaches received an A.

"San Diego beach water quality was excellent during the dry weather," says James.

But she says when it rains that brings pollution to local beaches.

"Several locations at Oceanside that received low grades in wet weather," James says. "We had some south San Diego beaches that received F's in wet weather. The Tijuana River Mouth, the Border Field State Park at Monument Road, Imperial Beach at Carnation Street."

James says in Ocean Beach, the jetty and Dog Beach were also given F's.

She says 29 San Diego County beaches were closed last year because of sewage spills.

James is now worried that beach water quality monitoring could be further hurt by the state's budget crisis.

Last September Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut $1 million in beach water quality testing funds.

"And the County of San Diego Environmental Heatlh Department cut back completely its program in September of 2008," James says. "So in essence, a lot of these beaches are a swim at your own risk because there's just simply not the data to get a grade out there and educate the public."

While the County Board of Supervisors provided over $100,000 to revive the county's ocean monitoring program that money only paid for sampling a third of the county's beaches over the winter.

This summer the county plans to monitor beach water quality at a few of the most popular beaches.

Bruce Reznik with San Diego Coastkeeper says cutting state funding for ocean water quality testing is not just a public health issue, it also hurts the state's economy.

"Coastal tourism is estimated at somewhere over $40 billion statewide," Reznik says. "In San Diego it's $4 to-$6 billion, it supports well over 100,000 jobs in the tourism industry. So if we're cutting off our monitoring and we're taking a step backward in protecting our beaches and not making the public aware of the health of our waterways, ultimately it's going to impact our economy here in the San Diego region."

The budget crunch also has compromised efforts to tackle chronic pollution at beaches near the Mexican border. A state-funded source-tracking study in the Tijuana Estuary was shut down due to funding cuts last year. The study is expected to resume next year.

Sewage-contaminated plumes from the Tijuana River caused 14 beach closures from Coronado to the Mexican border over the last year.

Serge Dedina is the executive director with Imperial Beach-based Wildcoast.

He says progress is being made to reduce the border sewage.

"They're building a secondary treatment plant," Dedina says. "The regional water quality control board has sort of an advisory group or task force, they're working to solve some of the trash and sediment problems. And more importantly we have to proactively work with Mexico and the state of Baja California to put more infrastructure in Tijuana."

Dedina says he expects those and other efforts will lead to cleaner waters at Imperial Beach.

That would be excellent news to Hector Leos of Chula Vista who was surfing near the Imperial Beach pier.

Leos has been surfing for more than 20 years in the area.

"I mean there's a lot of pesticides out there, chemicals that can cause danger, mercury, lead, all that. But when you're addicted to the beach what can you do?"

Health officials say Leos and other beach users should stay out of the water for three days after it rains.

Officials say bacterial levels usually exceed state health standards after rains carry pollution to the ocean.

The Heal the Bay report says while beach communities have made strides to reduce dry weather pollution, more work is needed to limit the harmful effects of storm water runoff on coastal water quality.

Ed Joyce, KPBS News.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hepatitis A Threatens Swimmers At San Diego Beach

by Liz Gill

At Imperial Beach, San Diego's southernmost beach before the U.S.-Mexico border, surfers may need not just a wetsuit, but also a hepatitis A vaccination before going in the water.

The California coastline from Imperial Beach to the international border is home to San Diego County's best surf spots, but it is also where the Tijuana River empties a dangerous amount of sewage, chemicals and other pollutants into Imperial Beach waters when it rains.

"That's why I don't go in the water," said George Gomez, a San Diego resident who prefers to walk along the beach instead. "If I go in the water I go to the Strand or more beaches up north, but I don't go in here."

While the pollution at Imperial Beach is nothing new, a team of researches at San Diego State University led by professor Rick Gersberg found that hepatitis A was present in 80 percent of water samples off the Imperial Beach Pier in 2007.

The beach, which is closed by the County Department of Environmental Health an average of 200 days a year, is now the focus of an initiative to keep its users safe.

"Surf from the Sick" is a program created by researchers at San Diego State University's Graduate School of Public Health, the nonprofit environmental organization Wildcoast and the local Imperial Beach Health Clinic to provide 1,200 free hepatitis A vaccinations to uninsured surfers, swimmers and fishermen of Imperial Beach.

"This collaboration is really unique," said Ben McCue, Wildcoast's coastal conservation manager.

"By working together, we're all adding value. We're trying to get a handle on what's going on with the water and how it's affecting the public's health so that we can provide knowledge about it."

The funding for "Sick from the Surf" comes from a $195,000 grant awarded in July 2008 from the Tide Foundation and the California Endowment's joint Community Clinics Initiative, whose goal, according to Imperial Beach Health Clinic's program development coordinator Nancy O'Sullivan, is to help establish nontraditional alliances between agencies to improve public health.

"It's worked really well to pool our resources together in order to get a change in awareness about public health, a change in attitude, and also a change in behavior," said O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan said that while the community clinic might not be able to control outside circumstances, such as what flows across the border by way of the Tijuana River, it does have the power to help people start changing their behavior.

McCue understands that simply telling people not to go in the water isn't a viable solution to the problem.

"When there's a beach closure, we advise that people shouldn't go in the water," said McCue. "Some people still say, 'The waves are good, I'm going to go in.' So, if people go in the water and do get sick, this is a way that we can provide healthcare."

Despite a permanent metal sign warning of the water quality on Imperial Beach, surfers are still drawn to the waves from the Imperial Beach Pier to the Tijuana Slough whether the beach is closed or open.

Even on a windy, overcast day in late spring, David Crawley and Monica Fisher paddled out to catch waves underneath the Imperial Beach Pier, a testament to the quality of waves in south San Diego.

Crawley, a San Diego resident, said that he surfs at Imperial Beach about three times a week, but the water quality prevents him from going in it any more than that. Fisher added, "Mission Beach is better."

While neither of them has ever gotten sick from the water, Fisher knows of other friends who have gotten sick from surfing.

"My friend was down here surfing and he cut his foot," Fisher said. "They said he had some minor type of hepatitis because of the water."

While both Crawley and Fisher were vaccinated for hepatitis A as children, both said they think people should get vaccinated if they haven't already.

Rick Gersberg, the microbiologist who led the hepatitis A research at San Diego State University, said that the water can pose a health risk.

"I think everyone knows that after it rains the water is contaminated. Few go in the water at its worst, but at that time, it is a fairly large health threat."

Travis Davis, who was stationed outside Imperial Beach from 2003 to 2005 with the Navy, said that beach closures come with living in the area.

"They would cancel all our operations for that day or week or however long it took for the ocean to heal itself. I've never gotten sick from it because I never went in it," said Davis.

Gersberg, who said he has been working at the border nearly two decades, is currently working on a study to test for chemicals and toxins present in fish from Imperial Beach.

He also hopes to do a test for hepatitis A antibodies in surfers and frequent ocean-goers of Imperial Beach to see if these people developed a type of immunity to the disease from being exposed at a young age.

While "Sick from the Surf" has had success with research, attempting to stop the source of the water pollution is another issue.

Gersberg said that a difficult obstacle in solving the water quality in Imperial Beach is the fact that the programs can't control what flows across the border via the Tijuana River into Imperial Beach.

"Mexico has to update their infrastructure to serve more people with sewage treatment," said Gersberg.

McCue, of Wildcoast, which is registered as a nonprofit both in the U.S. and in Mexico, is trying to work with people on both sides of the border.

"To resolve the issue, it's about getting everyone together and getting people too look at it as a shared health and economic issue," he said.

McCue said that an obstacle in solving this problem is California's ability to direct resources to Mexico.

Wildcoast has recently been working on Senate Bill 167, a piece of California legislation that attempts to amend the California Public Resources Code to change the way the state directs tires to Mexico by allowing the California Integrated Waste Management Board to fund projects in Baja California.

"We export 2 million tires to Mexico every year to keep them out of California landfills and then they end up coming back when it rains through the Tijuana River channel at the end of the pipe."

According to McCue, the Senate bill attempts to stop this "tire cycle" by working with Baja California agencies directly.

Whether this similar type of method will be effective in solving the sewage that flows into the Pacific Ocean remains to be seen.

For now, Wildcoast is continuing its partnership with the "Sick from the Surf" initiative with outreach on the beach and in the water by letting people know about the free hepatitis A vaccinations as well as handing out surveys in order to measure the frequency of people getting sick from the water.

"The response has been really positive," said McCue "What they get is two shots that are six months apart. Without insurance it can cost $200, so getting that for free is huge."

O'Sullivan also collects data from the surveys people fill out about becoming sick from ocean use.

Reading from one of the most recent surveys collected, O'Sullivan said, "This is somebody who became sick in the fall with diarrhea, vomiting, and upset stomach. They describe their ocean use as once a week for surfing by the pier."

O'Sullivan said that cases like these are fairly common. Other illnesses she frequently comes across in the surveys are ear infections, sore throats, skin infections, and even pink eye.

"When you talk about how the water is dirty in Imperial Beach, people get mad because they think you're slandering their city. So, we're trying to present the issue from this angle: it's a public health issue," said O'Sullivan.

In O'Sullivan's opinion, the two-year project is just getting started, as only about 12 of the 1,200 free vaccinations have been given out.

"We're still at the beginning. For now, we're still in the information-gathering year. By July, we hope to go out with a strong message out on the beach and make our presences known."

Monday, May 18, 2009

SURFER VICTORY: President Obama Cuts Army Corps Beach Dredge and Fill Projects

Imperial Beach. April 30. Surfers across the country are thanking President Obama after the Army Corps of Engineers' beach-fill budget took a significant cut from the White House.While the Office of Management and Budget approved $4.6 billion for all Corps projects under the stimulus budget, it cut funding for beach dredge and fill projects in 2010."We are grateful to President Obama for listening to the concerns of surfers and environmentalists, since these unnecessary pork barrel projects have long been a point of contention over their destruction of critical coastal and marine habitat and recreational resources," said Serge Dedina, Executive Director of WiLDCOAST, an environmental organization based in Imperial Beach, California, that had fought a controversial dredge and fill project slated for that U.S.-Mexco border community.Dedina and WiLDCOAST worked with surfers and environmentalists from Massachusetts to New Jersey to Florida and throughout Southern CalIfornia to focus attention on the destructive nature of Corps beach dredge and fill project projects. Environmentalists and surfers have made the case that beach dredge and fill projects primarily benefit wealthy beachfront property owners, that erosion is not an issue until a building is placed on the beach, and that dredge and fill projects are a waste of money given global climate change-related increasing sea levels.In Imperial Beach the Corps has scheduled a $70 million dredge and fill project that local surfers said would have caused significant environmental, recreational and public health impacts. The Army Corps was slated to dredge and area near a sewage outfall pipe that was used as a gunnery range during World War I. Local officials had spent more close to $250,000 lobbying for the project. As mitigation for the potential of dumping ordnance on Imperial Beach the Corps said it would have a bomb squad on call. The Corps had rejected working with local surfers and WiLDCOAST who suggested finding an alternative dredge site. Surfers were also worried that the project would destroy the Tijuana Sloughs a historic big-wave surfing site and a reef proposed as a State of California Marine Protected Area that is also a significant leopard shark spawning site.According to Dedina, "Hopefully surfers, environmentalists and coastal managers can now begin to work together to proactively plan a coastal management program nationally that addresses sea level rise rather than solely defending the interest of beachfront property owners through wasteful pork barrel projects. In our case here on the U.S.-Mexico border we don't need help with sand, but with our beach closure crisis caused by sewage from Mexico."- Serge Dedina

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and a longtime surfer in Imperial Beach. You can reach him via

Monday, May 4, 2009

NO B.S. Open Forum - May 7th; 7-9pm Dempsey Holder Lifeguard Tower

Next Campaign Meeting - May 7th Dempsey Holder Lifeguard Tower - We are excited to have our next Campaign meeting down in IB at the Dempsey Holder Lifeguard Tower. Many thanks to Rich Hidalgo from the IB Lifeguards for helping secure the venue. The meeting will focus specifically on the Community of IB and their Surf/Beach Culture and how they have dealt with the sewage and pollution from Tijuana over the years. This is a great opportunity for Surfrider members to learn about this huge local issue and to meet our coalition members. If you would like to help plan for the event, carpool, or have any questions please contact me at or 619.889.5094.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Why are we concerned about stormwater pollution?

Stormwater pollution is a major issue throughout California and is particularly pressing in the Tijuana River Valley. This is because the environment in many parts of this watershed is heavily polluted, thus when it rains much of this pollution is washed into the sea. I recently wrote an article detailing why stormwater pollution is such a major environmental and human health issue. Here's an excerpt:

High levels of pollutants and pathogens often exist in cities as an unintended by-product of development. With so many people living so close to the ocean, much of these harmful materials that makes it into the environment eventually gets washed into the sea. Rainwater rinses the land by collecting materials as it flows downhill, picking up loose soil, pebbles and organic material. As water moves it either soaks into the earth or collects at low points such as rivers, lakes, or the ocean. Soil, rocks and plants, both on land and in aquatic environments act as filters. They efficiently trap and remove from stormwater materials that range in size from large leaves and sticks to invisible dissolved metals. San Diego’s coastal wetlands are particularly important both in their trapping ability and their role as the final filter between land and ocean.

Today, however, California has lost over 90% of its coastal wetlands to development. Throughout our cities we have turned soft earth into hard surfaces such as buildings, roads and parking lots. These surfaces block water from soaking into the earth and speed up the rate at which water flows downhill. Development has stripped away many rocks and plants, which can make areas of land unstable. Although the natural environment still has the capacity to filter storm water, there is much less exposed earth available to do it. Humans have also introduced new materials into the environment, including pollutants such as motor oil, pesticides, animal waste, and trash, all of which get swept up in the torrents of water that flow across the land when it rains.

To read the rest of the article please check it out on the San Diego Union Tribune's website here:

If you want to comment on my piece, please do, you can do it on this blog, or on the UT's blog here: