Serge Dedina and Wild Sea on KPBS-These Days

On January 24th, I appeared on KBPS Radio’s These Days to discuss Wild Sea and a large sewage spill that impacted water quality in South San diego

CAVANAUGH: Which did the recent big sewage spill start in Mexico and why wasn’t it reported to U.S. authorities? I’m Maureen Cavanaugh, coming up on These Days, are there are many questions arising from the sewage pipe collapse in Tijuana. It spilled an estimates tens of thousands of gallons into the ocean and led to beach closures both in Tijuana and San Diego’s south bay. But beyond this incident, sewage spill res main a continual hazard for swimmers, surfers and coastal residents on both sides of the border. We’ll examine how effective our efforts have been to keep San Diego’s coastal waters clean. First ahead this hour on These Days. First the news.

I’m Maureen Cavanaugh and you’re listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego County beaches got a belated and unwanted new year’s clever from Mexico. A massive sewage spill has fell beaches from pray playa de Tijuana to skeg’s south bay. One of the most disturbing features about this spill is that it apparently went unreported to American authorities for weeks. This morning, we’ll talk about where we stand in efforts to protect the quality of California’s coastline. Efforts have been under way for years to clean up the coast and coastal waters seven. Are they working? I’d like to introduce my guests, Serge Dedina is executive director of wild cost, and author of the new book, wild sea, eco wars and surf stories from the coast of a California. Serge, are good morning, welcome to These Days.

Serge, can you give us first of all, an update on where we are in this spill? First of all has the pipe been repaired? Has it topped.

DEDINA: Yeah, last night, I received an e-mail from a residence debt of playa de Tijuana, and he actually talked to the work crews working on really what is a block long sewage pipe break down, and apparently they’re putting a rubber — some rubber material 32 the existing pipe that’s about a block long. So he thinks it’ll take some time. Apparently some of the rains caused some of the erosion which caused the pipe diagonal. So hopefully those crews are working seven days a week to get that up. So we’ll see. Luckily the beach was open this morning in Imperial Beach, so that’s good news for surfers and beach users everywhere in the south bay.

CAVANAUGH: Now, why, if indeed the sewage pipe hasn’t necessarily been repaired yet, we don’t know, why is the beach open?

DEDINA: Well, unfortunately, imperial beach is a function of swell and wind conditions. So we had a beach closure notification last week and we could really smell the sewage precisely because we had a lot bit of a south swell, and a little bit of a south wind. And that pushes up from playa de Tijuana, the Tijuana River, and sometimes from six miles south of the boarder, and a sewage river called Punta Bandera, so that’s something that worries my team and I at wild coast, and we’ve really been working hard to deal with.

CAVANAUGH: So however north do the beach closures go.

DEDINA: Well, the beach closures were going as far as — really the north end of imperial beach, but that doesn’t mean it goes into the Coronado. Really, what happens, is there’s sewage moving so quickly that oftentimes county authorities don’t always catch the sewage when it hits the beach. But the county has been doing a great job along with my colleagues at wild coast at really documenting what’s happening, and really trying to be proactive about closing the beach as soon as we know about sewage contamination. But in this case, only, we didn’t know until — about a sewage spill until haft week that had been happening since December 23rdrd.

CAVANAUGH: So when did you first become aware that this sewage spill had occurred.

DEDINA: Well, last Tuesday — the surf has been really good. Surfers have known in San Diego for the last three weeks. And I got up really early in the morning, had my wet suit on, literally jumped out of my car with my board at 6:30 in the morning, and the stench of sewage was absolutely overpowering. This was about 6:30 in the morning. So I called my colleagues at wild coast Paloma, and Paloma actually went across the boarder and found the sewage spill, another environmentalist in Tijuana had known about it as well, but we immediately contacted the authorities and the San Diego media who really jumped on the for. The next day, Wednesday morning, when it appeared in the front page of the San Diego union, work crews had already started working Tijuana. We really got their attention.

CAVANAUGH: I want to remind our listeners that we’re inviting you to join this conversation at 1-888-895-5727. What is the best guess of when this sewage spill actually started?

DEDINA: Really, I think, from talking to residents, we’ve got a good YouTube video on our website at wild coast dot net, it sounds like it was before Christmas. From talking to different residents, what they’re saying is there’s a continual plethora of sewage pump station breakdowns in Playas. That really upon has a lot with the rape, you get these sewage stations, pump stations that are over loaded. So a lot of sewage flows into the ocean of that’s something that we expected. But you have to give credit to the city of Tijuana, over all, they have been doing a great job in improving their sewage collection system. But really these issues show there’s a lot of breakdown of communication, and really that’s why organization like wild coast and my colleague at San Diego coast keeper and people like Bruce exist because we know that it really isn’t a job of all notorieties this monitor the coastline, but it’s really our job to make sure they do their job, and we can all enjoy the ocean.

CAVANAUGH: And what’s the submit of how much sewage has actually spilled?

DEDINA: The city of Tijuana estimates it’s about a half a million gallons a day, other estimates came in at a million gallons. The bottom line is, whether it’s between half a million gallons and a million gallons a day, the video shows a large pipe spewing sewage right into the surf line which gets carried north very easily. It’s way too much. And probably over 30 million gallons since before Christmas, and ultimately, my kids and I and lots of other people in Imperial Beach and Coronado and south San Diego have been suffering in that. And one Kay I came out of the water, and actually my entire wet suit just stunk. So it’s naturalistic pretty, it’s not pleasant. But it’s something we need to work together on both sides of the boarder to really fix.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about this most recent sewage spill that fouled beaches in Tijuana and San Diego’s South Bay. Taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 let’s take a call. Dave is calling from Ocean Beach. Good morning, Dave, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. Thank you having me. I have a question for Serge, actually. Given the — given this recent spill south of the border, I’m wondering if you could clarify why wild coast was opposed to the Bahama project, which would have created up to 50 million gallons per day of sewage on the Mexican side of the border, which I think is twice the capacity of the international treatment plant on our side, which is the capacity of 25 MGD or so. And I’ll take my answer off the air. Thanks very much.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Dave. And of course the Bajagua plant was big news several years ago. A lot of debate about that. Perhaps can you give us a thumbnail version to bring our listeners up to speed?

DEDINA: Yeah, in my book, Wild Sea, I talked specifically about the Bajagua project. And really, it really isn’t about Bajagua. Bajagua consumed a lot of news. We argued it wasn’t a good cost effective way for U.S. taxpayers to fund work in Mexico. Since the Bajagua project was canceled, we’ve got a new border plant being built on the north side of the US/Mexico boarder, very and $10 million a piece. So it’s a much more cost effective way of dealing with this 11issue. And really I’ve learned a lot from Bruce, and I think Bruce and his colleagues at coast keeper have really argued in San Diego, you have to look at the big and small solutions to these issues. And wale when wee looking at this specific sewage spill, whether or not we have a sewage plant in eastern Tijuana or western Tijuana, this is a specific infrastructure breakdown, a pipe breakdown. Sewage plants don’t fix old pipes. And this where we’ve argued at wild coast in my book, wild sea, is that we’ve gotta think big and small, tackle the small problems that result in beach closures in IB, and some of the larger issues.

CAVANAUGH: Sure, yes: But some of these wounds are still there. I think we ail really need to come together and think about the big comprehensive solution to the border sewage issue. It’s gonna be a challenging one over the next couple decades. Just one quick last question about the Bajagua project, what I have heard from people, and I want to see if you b Serge, in if that plant had been in place, that this spill would have been as bad as it was. Do you agree?

DEDINA: Absolutely not. This was completely independent of sewage treatment plants, which was the an example of an old pipe that broke because of erosion and rain on a sort of a cliff near the ocean. Anybody who knows Playas of Tijuana knows that literally the entire slope is eroding downhill. And that was the argument we made, whether or not you have centralized sewage plants issue you’re gotta think big and small in Tijuana. A lot of these gullies that flow into the beach, sewage pump stations break down and specifically to tell you how you can address it at no cost, the Otay water strict, and thanks guy, donated a generator to the city of Tijuana to make sure that when pump cities break down, they can get the electricity on and keep pumping the station. I’m sorry. A blackout. So it’s not just spending five hundred million on a sewage plant, it’s thinking big and small, getting into the colonias, and really making sure these small spills don’t close beaches.

CAVANAUGH: And I just want too to make the point, my producer, Hank Crook, has told me that a sewage spill that closed a half mile of ocean beach shore line happened around Christmas time. It was caused by a flooded pump station in Santee, the sewage flowed down San Diego river out into the ocean at Dog Beach. So we still have spills on our side of the boarder as well.

DEDINA: Exactly. I think that’s why it’s important not to point fingers and say that Mexico’s western the United States or that we just gotta focus on these giant issues,  You upon, what are the comprehensive ways we need to do things? But also to make sure that every agency is doing their job, and more importantly that citizens and environmental groups, like coast keeper and wild coast, are out monitoring every day to make sure that people aren’t affected. And of course dogs at Ocean Beach aren’t affected by renegade sewage spills.

NEW SPEAKER: I work in La Jolla, and I work in plain view of the ocean, and I can say that a number of times in recent years, I’ve seen visually what’s sometimes referred to as the brown tide, meaning a sewage spill in Tijuana has washed up along the shore of the San Diego beaches. Including in La Jolla, La Jolla shores beach. I’m wondering — well, heme just preface my question with a comment that obviously we’re in a period of tight budgets and the — any solution that’s proposed is gonna cost money. So one of the issues you have to grapple with is how are you gonna raise funds to potentially come up with the money needed to technologically fix this problem in Tijuana. And I’m just wondering about the value to the San Diego tourism industry, better water quality. And whether you might think about tying a mechanism for improving water quality to some kind of tax or other fundraising on the tourism industry instead of trying to dip into already strained government budgets.

CAVANAUGH: Serge, any chance of a beach tax.

DEDINA: Well, I’m not sure that in Mexico that’s really the solution. But one of the things we talk about at wild coast, [CHECK] reframe the debate in Mexico so it’s not just about dirty beaches but about quality of life in Tijuana so that kids aren’t literally playing in sewage in if every colonia in Tijuana, and that really means supporting the Mexican government’s efforts to look for Japanese development funds, which they used to build three new sewage treatment plants, to go after north American bank funds, and then also to really tap people like senator Diane Feinstein who got about a hundred million to upgrade the sewage plant on the border to secondary treatment. So we’ve been really proactive at looking at a diverse source of funding, and really working proactively with Baja California and Tijuana officials and officials from Mexico City to really target the problem and come up with concrete solutions. And I have to get Tijuana credit. They’ve done a great job in moving forward in the last three years. [CHECK] by working proactively with Mexico and being really, really, I guess, entrepreneurial in how we identify multilateral funding, woo we can make a big step in dealing with this issue.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. I just wanted to make a comment how something that really frustrates me is that — when we get into these debates, whether it’s an oil spill or a sewage spill, I get really frustrated that it doesn’t seem that there’s enough emphasis placed on the fact that it’s our marine life or wildlife’s home. The conversation seems to always go right back to human impact only. And I feel that in people don’t really realize the delicate, you know, balance of life, and that we’re all part of a circle that I don’t know that there’s ever gonna be enough care to really take on these issues and say no and prioritize projects like this to get them done because it affects our earth, it affects our whole circle of life. So if you’d like to comment on, I’d like to hear what you have to say about that. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Joan, thanks very much.

DEDINA: Well, you know, first of all, I love the ocean, I love wildlife, and that’s something I really talk about in my book, wild sea. But the fact is, whether or not I can surf with a beautiful pod of dolphins, [CHECK] any traction on the border sewage issue until we reframed the debate to really be about children’s health, whether there were children swimming in Tijuana, and more personal in the U.S., [CHECK] are boarder patrol agents who are getting sick from contact with polluted water, our friends in the U.S. Navy seals who had to stop training because they were getting so sick. So we really changed the debate. In fact my favorite person who’s been our biggest activist, is Dick Tynan, who’s a cowboy. And Dick and I, appear on TV together, he’s got a big cowboy hat, so cowboys and surfers and border parole agents and kids working together on both sides of the border talking about the impact on public health, and our friendly dolphins and leopard sharks is the only way we can really move this debate forward.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you though, when there is a big sewage spill, like the one we have contended with in the last few week, and there have been great surf, surfers wanting to go out and get in on that, I’m wondering, some surfers disregard beach closures, what kind of health risks are they actually putting themselves in danger of?

DEDINA: Well, at wild coast, we worked with Rick Gerzberg [CHECK] on the impacts of Oceanside pollution on public health, the study that we actually did with him showed that 75 percent of the people who come in contact with the Oceanside water in Imperial Beach every week have gotten sick. I know I just talked to one person who got really significant ear aches, I’ve been sent to the emergency room with ear infections of so the risks are really high. At least in south county, that you can really get sick. I think if extends on your own immune system. I know at coast keeper and with the county department of environmental health, you’re not gonna stop the idiots who want to surf in really polluted water, we real estate really Mike sure that a guy who’s just gotten back from Iraq, and wants to take his family to Beach in OB and IB, he doesn’t step in polluted water. There’s always going to be a group of hardcore surfers who actually seem to really thrive in surfing in polluted water.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I used to many years ago, friends of mine and I used to crack dawn before school and high school and go down to Baja, Malibu, Rosarito, the waves down there are as good as anywhere in the world. And I refuse to surf there now. It is — it has gotten so bad. And I’m really alarmed by the amount of development that’s gone on there. I mean, Donald Trump had some huge development going on there. I don’t know if it’s stopped in its tracks due to the economy. But there’s a lot of high rise development. And targeting, you know, U.S. people to buy a vacation, you know, retreat or whatever, weekend apartment or condo.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

NEW SPEAKER: And there’s just — I’m alarmed at the amount of development. And I wonder, you know, I can imagine what’s happening with the sewage from all these new resorts. I don’t think they’re pumping it back up the hill away from the beach. They’re all right on the cliff at the ocean.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let’s get a — Dave, let’s get a comment on that. And Serge?

DEDINA: Yeah, in my book, wild sea, I really talk about the whole Baja boom to Baja bust. Right now on the coast between Tijuana and Ensenada, I counted just republic 24 empty high rise buildings, Dave, and you’re absolutely right. It’s Baja Malibu, just north of Baja Malibu, there’s 30 million gallons of sewage discharged every day right on the beach, which has a huge impact [CHECK] Baja Malibu, which we all know is one of the big beach rigs on the planet. Some guys still surf there, and a lot of guys get really sick. But the plethora, [CHECK] Ensenada has had a significant impact on tourism, and frankly, some of the largest developers in Mexico aren’t doing what they should to really make that coast attractive to tourists. And that’s where I really — what developers and tourism officials called the gold coast has really turned into the ghost town coast. Because that coast is absolutely empty. [CHECK] and second, if you go to the beaches that are good for suffering, a lot of them like rosarita and Baja Malibu are super polluted. So that’s something that Mexican officials have started to look at. But really the private sector and the government need to work hand in hand with citizens to address that issue because people are just voting with their feet and not going to northern Baja because of the pollution and lack of public access.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both, if I may, one aspect of this Christmas sewage spill that really, really has annoyed and, alarmed people and that is the fact that the American authorities aren’t notified of this sewage spill for weeks. And I’m wondering issue since people have been working on this kind of communication for years now, what broke down?

DEDINA: Well, I’m not sure what broke down. I think it was before Christmas of I’m not sure what happened in Tijuana. Maybe people didn’t alert the proper authorities of but as produce and I know, there’s always gonna be a problem with agencies and with governments. What Bruce and I at coast keeper and wild coast have worked on really for the most of our lives is the fact that you need the public sector or the public involved, you need citizens monitoring our beaches and coastline [CHECK] in suing people to make sure they do their job, changing our regulatory framework to make sure that we have better legislation and [CHECK] in place, these sewage spills aren’t happening and then alerting authorities. That the process broke down right before Christmas, a really busy time in Mexico for vacations. And so, you know, it was a step back. But I’m confident that by getting more citizen capacity in place in Tijuana and on the rest of the Mexican coast as well as in San Diego, we can make sure we prevent those spills or at least alert authorities the minute they happen.

NEW SPEAKER: I just wanted to add a couple comments on the notification aspect of beach water quality. And I thought one of the things that was coming up as a result of the spill down at the border at the end of 2010 was some type of an amendment to the IBWC discharge permits that would require notification to the health agency department of environmental health in San Diego during those events. And the second thing I wanted to bring up was when I was — before I left coast keeper, there was discussion with Doug Lyden at USEPA to extend public notification that’s shown on SD water sheds.org that would include enormous Baja beaches.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, clay, let me take that. I think you want to take that, Serge.

DEDINA: Yeah, specifically, clay, thanks for bringing that up. And what we found when we look at all these sewage spills is that agencies — it turns out that agencies that work on the boarders like the IBWC aren’t actually required to inform San Diego County agencies when sewage is discharged into the ocean. If it’s into the Tijuana river, they’re required by law to inform other agencies that this happens. And so we’ve gotta go back and get a minute put into U.S. treaty so that the IDWC can notify the county of san diego and the regional board, that’s a really great policy recommendation. Soap those are the really big and small things to really improve this stuff. But clay is actually the guy that really talked to me with the small things that go into creating beach closures in.

CAVANAUGH: And Serge Dedina, I want to mention that your new book, wild sea, eco wars and surf stories from the coast of the Californias, you’re gonna be reading from that at the Tijuana estuary this Saturday; is that right?

DEDINA: That’s right, from 6 to 8:00 PM, you can find out more information on wild sea book.com, or wild coast dot net. And I want to thank Bruce for his work [CHECK] drives the work that we do, making sure that all those little groms in the water and on the beach, and everybody there with their dogs, and everybody loves the beach and can continue doing that. Because that’s who makes San Diego San Diego.

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