Ocean Water Quality 101: Or Why You Shouldn’t Surf After it Rains

Tijuana River sewage plume.

With the recent storms that dropped more than an inch of rain along the coast in Southern California and more than an inch and a half in the mountains, rivers, gullies, streams and storm drains carried the runoff directly into the Pacific Ocean. Along most of our coast there is a significant risk associated with surfing after it has rained. Paloma Aguirre of WiLDCOAST, a longtime competitive bodyboarder, is working to clean up what is arguably the most polluted stretch of coastline in Southern California, the area around entrance to the Tijuana River just north of the U.S.-Mexico Border.

Paloma Aguirre of WiLDCOAST in the Tijuana River Valley.

However Paloma does not work alone to safeguard our coast. In San Diego she partners with the City of Imperial Beach, City of San Diego, County of San Diego, State of California, and the U.S. EPA, as well as organizations such as San Diego Coastkeeper, Surfrider Foundation-San Diego Chapter, I Love a Clean San Diego, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, and Heal the Bay, to stop polluters, clean up beaches and watersheds, and educate the public about how to reduce our ocean pollution footprint.

Patch: It rained more than an inch along the coast over the weekend and an inch and a half in the mountains over the weekend. How does all that rain end up causing water quality problems along the coast?

Urban runoff in the Tijuana River Valley.

Paloma Aguirre: Urban runoff is the number one cause of ocean pollution after a significant rainfall. Impervious surfaces can increase runoff that can contain gasoline, motor oil and other pollutants from roadways and parking lots, as well as fertilizers nd pesticides from lawns.

Patch: Specifically, what illnesses are associated with rain-related runoff in the ocean?

Aguirre: Runoff can cause a large number of illnesses ranging from gastrointestinal infections to ear, eye, and skin infections.

Patch: What should ocean users and especially surfers do to keep themselves healthy during the rainy season in Southern California?

Aguirre: Ocean users and surfers should avoid entering the ocean for at least 72 hours following a rainfall event.

Patch: What are the trouble spots along the coast that surfers should be looking out for in terms of avoiding problem areas?

Aguirre: River mouths, jetties, bays, storm drains or any area where water enters the ocean usually have higher levels of bacteria. The County of San Diego provides current information on beach closures that can be found here.

Sewage pipe in the Tijuana that directs sewage into the Tijuana River Valley.

Patch: What are the consistently most polluted surf spots in San Diego County?

Aguirre: The most impacted beaches in all of San Diego County are Border Field State Park, the Tijuana Sloughs and Imperial Beach due to sewage contaminated water from the Tijuana River. It accounts for 85% of all of San Diego County’s beach closures.

Patch: You’ve been working with researchers at San Diego State University to get a better understanding of the health implications with contact with polluted water along the U.S.-Mexico border. What were the findings? And what did you and WiLDCOAST do to prevent ocean-related illnesses?

Aguirre: The study showed that there is a 1 in 10 chance of contracting Hepatitis A (among many other viral and bacterial infections) when coming in contact with polluted water from the Tijuana River. WiLDCOAST partnered with the Imperial Beach Health Center to provide free Hepatitis A vaccinations to local ocean users. The program is still available to ocean users Please call (619) 429-3733 and ask for a “Hepatitis A Vaccination for Imperial Beach Ocean Users.”  (Available to adults only)

Patch: What are the key things that everyone can do to reduce ocean pollution?

Aguirre: There are many things people can do in their daily lives that can prevent ocean pollution. Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers on lawns and gardens. When it rains it washes out to the ocean. Dispose of chemicals such as motor oils, paint and chemicals adequately to avoid runoff. Avoid leaving pet waste on the street; it can carry bacteria and viruses that can harm human and wildlife health.

Volunteers from YMCA Camp Surf clean up the beach at Border Field State Park.

Patch: There has been a lot of awareness about the plague of plastic and debris in the ocean? What are the sources of the “plastic plague” and specifically what can people do to reduce their impact on the environment.

Aguirre: Disposable plastics are the greatest source of plastic pollution. Plastic bags, straws, bottles, utensils, lids, cups, and so many others offer a small convenience but remain forever. It is important to follow the “4 R’s: in our daily lives to ensure a sustainable future: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Patch: You have been working with WiLDCOAST over the past few years to reduce the amount of ocean pollution along the U.S.-Mexico border and reduce the amount of plastic and waste tires flowing into the ocean from the Tijuana River. Talk about the extent of the problem and some of the solutions you have developed?

Cleaning up waste tires in Tijuana.

Aguirre: A recent report estimates that there are currently over 10 million plastic bottles and more than 5,000 ocean-bound waste tires in the Tijuana River Valley and Estuary. The City of Tijuana does not have enough resources to provide sufficient trash collection and sewage collection to unregulated urban developments. Because of the hydrology of the watershed, a lot of uncollected waste washes across the border when it rains. During the recent Tijuana River Action Month we worked to mobilize over 2,600 volunteers on the both sides of the border to clean up over 63,000 pounds of trash. And last week we collaborated with the City of Tijuana to remove 350 waste tires from Los Laureles Canyon before it rained.

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