Tijuana Sewage Spill Leaves Lesson For Both Sides Of The Border
January 20, 2011

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
A sign warning people not to swim in Imperial Beach was put up earlier this week, after reports that 31-million-gallons of sewage had spilled just south of the border, in Playas de Tijuana.

SAN DIEGO -- Ben McCue stood feet away from the beach on the United States side, facing a sign that reads "Keep Out, Sewage Contaminated Water." He said Imperial Beach is used to warning signs due to pollution, but the Playas de Tijuana incident -- a massive amount of sewage flowing from a broken pipe -- was more problematic.

"The real issue is the public notification," said McCue, conservation director for local nonprofit, WiLDCOAST. "(We are concerned by) the fact that there were reports from residents that the spill in Tijuana was going on since December 23rd and three weeks passed without the authorities really doing anything. It really took media reports to get them to go into action."

Sewage spills aren't new along San Diego and Tijuana's shared coast. Typically, people on both sides of the border keep an eye on this and inform each other so that measures can be taken to fix broken pipes. But this time, there was a breakdown in communication.

City officials in Tijuana could not be reached for comment. But earlier this week, they issued a warning against swimming at local beaches, saying the contaminated water could cause infections and gastrointestinal problems. The spill was caused by a ruptured sewage pipe.

Margarita Diaz, director of Tijuana non-profit, Proyecto Fronterizo de Educacion Ambiental, said that despite reports, the sewage and water infrastructure in Tijuana is in much better shape than people north of the border think.

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
A surfer goes into the water at Imperial Beach, despite warnings of a major sewage spill along the coast. The contaminated water can cause infections and gastrointestinal problems.

"The water authorities in Tijuana have invested a lot of money on the remodeling of treatment plants and pipe systems," she says.

And despite the maddening repair delay, both organizations say the incident should open the way to better coordination across the border, and between residents and government officials.

"San Diego's protocol for these types of accidents are an important model for us," says Diaz. "We need to take that protocol and incorporate it into our laws, our culture and our system."