Staying Safe in Baja

 In 2007, violent assaults and robberies experienced by American surfers and off-road enthusiasts in Baja California rocked the avid Baja travel community in Southern California.

That news combined with the very real violence and media coverage of the drug war in Mexico caused many Baja stalwarts to abandon their lifestyle dedicated to surfing, fishing, off-roading, diving, hiking and just plain enjoying one of the world’s most spectacular natural and cultural regions.

Thankfully, the Mexican government finally responded to the surge in incidents in Baja by increasing roadside patrols and strategically combatting and reducing narco violence.

Tourists are slowly returning to Baja again.

According to Mexico’s Tourism Secretariat, border tourism increased 9.4 percent this year compared to 2010.

As someone who works and plays in Baja California I can attest to the increased security and the fact that for the most part, the majority of the peninsula is as safe as ever.

That is especially true in Baja California Sur, which is considered one of the safest states in Mexico.

Interior of Misión San Francisco Javier de Vig...

San Javier Mission

Last year I took a 2,970-mile round-trip to the East Cape from San Diego with my two teenage sons.

We traveled down some of the peninsula’s most remote coastal dirt roads and encountered friendly locals, lots of smiles, great wave and cold cervezas.

WiLDCOAST, the organization I run, has an office in Ensenada. At any given time our staff can be found in some of the most remote corners of the peninsula or the most trash-infested colonias of Tijuana.

So far we have had no problems at all.

To get an update on the situation south of the border I checked in with some of Baja’s most knowledgable and experienced travel experts who spend lots of quality time visiting the nooks and crannies of our neighbor to the south.

Geoff Hill is the Vice President for Business Development for Baja Bound Insurance and a longtime Baja surfing and travel vet.

Susie Albin-Najera is the creator and editor of The MEXICO Report, MEXICO Travel Writers and is a Community Manager for the recently formed Mexico Today. She has been published in numerous publications including San Diego Magazine, Latin Style, Vallarta Tribune, Baja Traveler, and Baja Breeze.

Angie Mulder is the Program Director for Baja Discovery, an adventure and outdoor outfitter that specializes in natural history tours of Baja California. The company’s destination eco-camp in San Ignacio Lagoon, is one of the world’s premier locations for whalewatching.

Kimball Taylor is the author of Return by Water: Surf Stories and Adventures, a columnist for ESPN.go.com, and a former Senior Editor with Surfer Magazine. He has co-authored books on both Pipeline and Jeffrey’s Bay. He is a longtime Baja California travel vet with many miles of deep Baja surf trips under his worn out tires.

La Purisma foothills, Baja California Sur, Mexico

La Purisima

Patch: From your perspective has the safety/security situation in Baja improved?

Geoff Hill: I really don’t feel that Baja has a safety problem as much as it has a perception problem. Every year I drive an average of 5,000 miles all over the peninsula and always have positive experiences wherever I travel. Be respectful, use common sense and Baja will treat you well. It’s not the scary place the media has made it out to be. I always look forward to being down in Baja. I love the warmth and friendliness of the people that I interact with and the rugged beauty.

Susie Albin-Najera: Baja is an excellent destination for road travel, whether it’s visiting the border territories or heading further south. The real safety issues are just simple road conditions but the toll roads are safe and constantly being improved. I’ve always felt safe driving in Baja, but always encourage people to purchase insurance and take normal road trip precautions.

Baja California Desert in the Cataviña region,...

Central Desert

Angie Mulder: After our nearly three decades of travel in Baja, times have certainly changed, but applying the rules of safe travel has not. Whether exploring the peninsula with guests or pursuing our own adventures, we do not drive alone or at night, and don’t carry a lot of cash or take along expensive electronics. Just use basic common sense. We continue to run our natural history trips without incident.

Kimball Taylor: The safety issue is a tough call. Although instances of shocking violence have decreased in Tijuana and the Rosarito to Ensenada corridor, the discovery of a massive pot farm near El Marmol indicates serious narco activity in Baja.

Patch: If tourists have a problem on the road, what should they do and who should they call?

Hill: To start with, it’s a good idea to carry a Mexican insurance policy that includes roadside assistance and towing. That will give you direct contact to assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. HDI Seguros and ACE Seguros are the two Mexican insurance companies that Baja Bound works with and they both have English-speaking representatives that are ready to assist you. You can also dial 078 anywhere in Baja which is the Tourist Assistance Hotline provided by the Secretary of Tourism.

Albin-Najera: The Green Angels also provide 24/7 free roadside assistance to visitors with mechanical problems. Tijuana, Ensenada & El Hongo toll roads: 01-800-990-3900 Tijuana, Tecate toll roads: 1-800-888-0911

Taylor: By far the most dangerous aspect of travel in Baja is Highway 1 (the trans peninsular highway). Although the highway is being widened and improved in places, it is still just one slender ribbon of asphalt with little to no shoulder and dubious engineering. With the advent of Costco and Home Depot in Cabo San Lucas, commercial traffic and semi-trucks increasingly burden the road. I would advise to keep driving to daylight hours and to refrain from the nighttime blitz drives that were popular in earlier decades.

Patch: What destinations do you recommend visiting in Baja?

Hill: Some of my favorite memories are surfing at Scorpion Bay back in the early nineties when it was still relatively undeveloped. Tucked up in a pine forest at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet is the San Pedro Martir Observatory. They have three giant telescopes at the facility and tours are available every day starting at 10 am. The views are incredible, and on the right day you can actually see the Sea of Cortez to the east and Pacific Ocean to the west. I recommend this trip in the warmer months it can snow on the mountain during the winter. Erendira is a sleepy little farming and fishing village about four hours south of the border that has fun surf, nice spots to camp on the water, good fishing and is a beautiful area to relax and unwind.

Albin-Najera: Baja is a mecca of eco-adventure, marine life, dessert and natural beauty. There are so many ways to enjoy the Baja region. I’ve visited all of the regions in northern Baja and each area offers something special. I recommend visiting all of the areas, either on your own with a road map or via guided tour. You can have great experiences all around Baja. For example, some of the activities available are surfing, scuba diving, whale watching, fishing, cave exploration, off road riding, beaches, biking, art galleries, culinary festivals, brewery tours, world class golfing, and wine tasting. I recommend the Discover Baja California website to get an idea of all of the options. Even just driving along the coastline from Tijuana to Ensenada offers stunning ocean views.

A close-up of a Gray whale's double blow hole ...

Gray whale in Baja

Mulder: Our favorite Baja destinations include the rugged and beautiful desert in Cataviña and San Ignacio. In San Ignacio must sees are the Mission and cave painting museum, followed by dinner at Rene’s. And of course San Ignacio Lagoon, where we spend most of our time. The whales, people, flora and wildlife make it a very special place that keeps us coming back year after year.

San Ignacio Mission / Misión de San Ignacio, B...

San Ignacio Mission

Taylor: I recommend a visit to San Ignacio. The town and mission represent both the romance and reality of Baja. With the famous San Ignacio Lagoon and its gray whales nearby, the oasis is also a way station to San Juanico for those heading south and Punta Abreojos for those heading north.

Patch: What are your favorite places to dine?

Geoff Hill: I am a sucker for carne asada tacos. My favorite stands are Los Traileros in El Sauzal (just north of Ensenada) and Tacos El Yaqui in Rosarito. Tapanco in Rosarito is a great option for a steak dinner, and Rey Sol in Ensenada has a unique French-Mexican fusion that is amazing. If you have never been to the wine country just north of Ensenada you are really missing out! Most people have no idea that there are over 50 wineries producing some unbelievable wines that are just now starting to gain notoriety worldwide. The region is also producing some fantastic artisanal cheeses, jams and olive oil. Most of the wineries offer tours and wine tastings for about five dollars.

Albin-Najera: Tijuana has garnered a lot of positive media attention among foodies and food editors as the new gastronomic hot spot. I could be just as happy eating at a no-name food stall in Tijuana as in a fancy restaurant. As a chilaquiles connoisseur, I am partial to La Casa de Mole in Tijuana, and lobster, Puerto Nuevo-style. There are many new upscale restaurants in Tijuana though, that I’m eager to visit.

Angie: Outside of San Ignacio, we stop for chicken tacos at Quichules, the best beans ever.

Taylor: My favorite places to eat are the roadside taco stands in Ensenada, or just around the campfire.

The Ocean Health Index and Cleaning up Our Coast

Paloma Aguirre and Diana Castaneda of WiLDCOAST at a recent Tijuana River Valley cleanup.

Last Friday I missed the first real north swell of the season to attend a meeting organized by the University of California-Santa Barbara on the development of an ocean health index.

The objective of the index is to have a monitoring scorecard that communities, scientists and government agencies can use to determine coastal and ocean health locally, regionally and nationally.

The group included fishermen, seafood harvesters (e.g. shellfish and seaweed), elected officials, energy company representatives, conservationists, scientists and the Chief of State of the Makah tribe.

Community members working together for clean water in the Tijuana River Valley.

Everyone in the room, especially the fishermen, made it clear that ocean water quality and biodiversity were the two most important indicators for managing the health of the coast and ocean.

The consensus was that without clean water and healthy marine life, it’s almost impossible to have a vibrant tourism and fishing economy.

Meanwhile many local leaders have spent the last decade in denial about ocean pollution.

They fear that discussing the issue will somehow negatively impact the economy and local property values.

The bay side of Silver Strand State Beach in Coronado was recently shut down due to a sewage spill from the Sept. 8 mass outage.

A cleanup kid.

In 2011 the main beach in Imperial Beach has been closed 56 days. The south end of the beach was closed 224 days.

In 2010 the main beach was closed 26 days. The south end of the beach was closed 226 days (and yes the south end of the beach is still Imperial Beach).

Meanwhile most south swell pollution goes unreported.

Today we continue to work with local residents on both sides of the border to clean up the tons and tons of garbage that wash into the ocean.

Last January WiLDOCAST notified authorities about a sewage spill in Playas de Tijuana that went unchecked for more than three weeks, resulting in more than 31 million gallons of sewage discharged into the surf zone in Imperial Beach and the border area.

Together with local, state and federal agencies on both sides of the border, our collaborative work has resulted in significant achievements.

These include the recent inauguration of a new international sewage treatment plant; the opening of three new sewage plants in Tijuana-Rosarito; progress on stopping the frequent discharges at Playas de Tijuana; and the cleaning up of thousands of waste tires and hundreds of tons of trash in the Tijuana River Valley by community members.

I invite everyone to join to help to clean up our region and make sure that our coast and ocean is as pristine as possible. Because even one day of beach pollution is one day too many.

There are plenty of opportunities to do so in October with Tijuana River Action Month. The next event will be held Oct. 1.

A small fence separates densely populated Tiju...

The U.S.-Mexico border near the TJ River Valley. Image via Wikipedia

Environment and Hope on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Jared Blumenfeld of the EPA inspects a trash pile in the Tijuana River Valley with reporters from Uniivision-San Diego.

Yesterday my Wildcoast colleagues Ben McCue, Paloma Aguirre and I took a tour of the Tijuana River Valley and Los Laureles Canyon in Tijuana with Regional EPA administrator Jared Blumenfeld. I’ve known Jared since the 1990’s when he ran IFAW‘s San Ignacio Lagoon Campaign. He is a very smart guy who is very adept at getting things done.

Tijuana Estuary's Oscar Romo and a City of Tijuana official in Los Laureles.

The tour was reported on in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Our tour included a site visit to a Community Center Wildcoast has partnered with 4 Walls International, Tijuana Calidad de Vida and the Tijuana Estuary on developing with the Las Hormiguitas Community Group. The  point of the project is to use trash as a building material and then train residents on how to manage trash and human waste.
The Southwest’s top environmental regulator toured the southern edge of San Diego County on Wednesday to promote an eight-year plan for improving water supplies, air quality and energy efficiency along the 2,000-mile boundary between the United States and Mexico.
Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency based in San Francisco, didn’t hit the spots that most visitors go. Instead, he stopped at the corrugated metal border fence, a wastewater treatment plant and a garbage pile in the Tijuana River Valley to build support for a binational blueprint.

My colleagues from Tijuana Calidad de Vida and 4 Walls at the Las Hormiguitas Community Center in Los Laureles.

Called Border 2020, it is the latest in a string of cooperative strategies that goes back to a 1983 agreement between the two countries. The expansive document focuses on climate change, children’s health and environmental education among other priorities. Blumenfeld is working with Mexico, ten border states and 26 border tribes to finalize plans.
He was at once upbeat about the potential for solutions and sober about the difficulty of convincing Congress to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on related projects when funding for the U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Program has shrunk by 90 percent since the mid-1990s. Border cleanup advocates said Blumenfeld’s interest is enough to boost hope that seemingly intractable problems will continue to shrink even if they won’t disappear.

This is the community center. 4 Walls built it using waste tires they found discarded in the canyons in Tijuana.

The current Border 2012 program expires next year. It’s credited with helping to reduce flooding, improve estuaries, boost drinking water supplies, remove junk tires and prompt other upgrades in the region where 14 million people live.
“Incremental progress can sometimes feel frustratingly slow,” Blumenfeld said, before ducking into the towering brush that hides streams of trash along the Tijuana River. “The needs remain great.”
In few places are the challenges as clear as they are in San Ysidro, which sits downhill from Tijuana and has suffered from sewage and garbage flowing across the border for decades.
“(Similar problems) have been solved in other places,” said Blumenfeld. “It’s not a question of this being the first place to solve them. … Just the fact that now 90 percent of Tijuana residents have access to wastewater treatment systems is a testament to the fact that it can be done.”

There is also a native plant nursery and vegetable greenhouse, proof that despite abject poverty, signs of hope can be found.

He said the biggest issue is financing as his agency and others try to trim costs.
“The amount of money that was being given to this in the last 15 years will be hard to replicate in the next 15 years,” Blumenfeld said. “The real question is how we focus on things that have to be done and at the same time work out funding sources and streams that are sustainable.”
Border 2020 is supposed to be the central forum for how work priorities are set.
[Draft document and directions for how to file comments about it.]
Serge Dedina, a veteran border cleanup advocate with Wildcoast in Imperial Beach, said Border 2012 set a solid foundation. EPA’s website shows it gave Wildcoast $53,000 last year to reduce trash in Tijuana’s Los Laureles Canyon.
“EPA has been really strong understanding the needs on the ground,” Dedina said. “It’s much more effective to train Tijuana residents to deal with trash instead of paying people in the United States to clean up.”

The conditions in Los Laureles are shockingly dismal--sewage in the streets, garbage and graffiti everwhere and substandard homes and plywood shacks. But hope for the future is important and is what drives people to continually improve their homes and communities.

Baja Travel Update: My Interview in Surfline

# 53           Los Cabos 3559

Image by Carlos Villamayor via Flickr

Surfline published this interview with me, Sean Collins and Gary Linden

(who had the Green Lantern surfshop in Imperial Beach when I was a kid)

on tips for staying safe in Baja. I’ve just included my interview:

The tragic and ongoing Narco-war South of the Border has many potential visiting surfers on edge, unsure whether to make the trek south — and if so, how to minimize chances of ending up in a dangerous situation. With this in mind, Surfline asked three frequent and longtime Mexico travelers for advice — on when to go, where to go, and how to stay safe. Many of the suggestions are the same as they’ve been since the ’50s. Some are new. All are worth a quick read if you’re thinking about a trip. 

Note: this is NOT an exhaustive list on avoiding the perils and pitfalls of travel to Baja. (Nor does it even begin to bring up the issues involved in travel to Mainland Mexico.) It is three very well-qualified surfers’ perspectives. For those serious and concerned, there are a series of useful related links at the bottom of this feature. For those who have stories and/or advice, please leave them in the comments below. –Marcus Sanders

Baja surfing

Image by Dom Edwards via Flickr

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST, an organization that works in both California and Mexico to conserve coastal and marine ecosystems. He is the author of the new book, Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias. He has been traveling throughout Baja California and in Mexico since 1972. Here are his thoughts:

The security situation has improved significantly since 2007 when a string of robberies and assaults against surfers and a Baja 1000 race crew resulted in most surfers abandoning the idea of traveling to Baja. Over the past three years, the Mexican government spent a lot of time and resources making the highway in Northern Baja safer and overall things are much better than they were. Southern Baja, along with Oaxaca, is considered one of the safest areas in Mexico.

Baja surfing - Larry

Image by Dom Edwards via Flickr

Overall, the level of crime has decreased in Baja. Really, most of the violence and problems are concentrated in Tijuana. Don’t travel through there at night. I travel to Ensenada a lot to surf San Miguel and visit the WiLDCOAST office there and haven’t had any problems or talked to anyone who has had problems recently.

The risk is greatest for surfers who believe that Baja California is like it used to be and they don’t need to take any precautions when traveling there. Bummer is, that Baja has become just like any other area in the developing world where there are problems with crime. Being clueless in Baja is no longer an option. But if surfers are careful and avoid hanging out in areas like Tijuana, most likely they’re going to have a great time South of the Border.

Baja surf

Image by Dom Edwards via Flickr

Camping anywhere in Northern Baja should be done in established camping areas or surf spots where you are not alone and potentially a target for criminals. The increase in the use of crystal meth in Northern Baja, especially anywhere in the area of San Quintin and Colonet, means that there is a greater chance of having problems if you are camping on an isolated part of the coast. South of El Rosario things are generally fine. I spend a lot of time camping and surfing the most isolated part of the coast between Guerrero Negro and El Rosario and haven’t had a single problem. Last summer I took my kids on a 2,970 mile round trip tour of Baja and hit most of the peninsula’s great surf spots. Everyone was super friendly and helpful, we didn’t have any problems at all, and caught some great waves.

Baja surf

Image by Dom Edwards via Flickr

But Baja is back in a big way and surfers need to show that we care about Baja and demonstrate that our tourism dollars are an important source of revenues for Mexico. The more we show that surfing has a positive impact on the economy in Baja and the rest of Mexico, the easier it is for organizations like WiLDCOAST to convince Mexican authorities to conserve coastal areas that have great waves. Surfers have a lot to contribute to Mexico. We have made great friendships, have influenced the development of surfing in Mexico, and have had a positive impact on communities such as San Juanico, Punta Abreojos, Todos Santos, Puerto Escondito, Saladita, Sayulita and the East Cape.

“The risk is greatest for surfers who believe that Baja California is like it used to be and they don’t need to take any precautions when traveling there.”
–Serge Dedina, executive director, WiLDCOAST
The road runs the entire length of the Baja Ca...

Image via Wikipedia

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USEFUL LINKS:

How safe is Mexico? Data on U.S. citizen deaths from the U.S. State Dept — Comprehensive feature by Fodors, posted March 11, 2011.

Is Mexico safe for Spring Break? — USA Today travel section, posted March 9th, 2011.

US State Department Mexico Travel Warning — Updated September 2010

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LOCAL RESOURCES

Baja Crime Hotline: 866-201-5060 — To report a crime or if you need help.

Green Angels
The Green Angels are similar to the AAA in the U.S. The Green Angels are a government paid bilingual crew that patrol the toll roads throughout Mexico every day in green trucks, carrying tools and spare parts, looking for motorists in trouble. The Angeles Verdes will provide mechanical assistance, first aid, basic supplies, and towing. The services they provide are FREE of charge unless your vehicle needs parts or fuel. If for some reason you need assistance call “060” (Mexico’s version of 911) or pull to the side of the road and lift your hood, this will signal the Green Angels that you need assistance or contact them Toll Free 24 hours seven days a week at:
Baja California Highways Emergency Toll Free Numbers:
* 01 800 990 3900: Tijuana – Ensenada & El Hongo – La Rumorosa Toll Roads
* 01 800 888 0911: Tijuana – Tecate Toll Road

US EMBASSY LOCATION:
The U.S. Embassy is located in Mexico City at Paseo de la Reforma 305, Colonia Cuauhtemoc; telephone from the United States: 011-52-55-5080-2000; telephone within Mexico City: 5080-2000; telephone long distance within Mexico 01-55-5080-2000. You may contact the Embassy by e-mail or visit the Embassy website.

In addition to the Embassy, there are several United States consulates and consular agencies located throughout Mexico, listed below.

CONSULATES:
Guadalajara: Progreso 175, Col. Americana; telephone (52) (333) 268-2100.
Tijuana: Avenida Tapachula 96, Col. Hipodromo; telephone (52) (664) 622-7400.

CONSULAR AGENCIES:
Acapulco: Hotel Continental Emporio, Costera Miguel Aleman 121 – Local 14; telephone (52)(744) 484-0300 or (52)(744) 469-0556.
Cabo San Lucas: Blvd. Marina Local C-4, Plaza Nautica, Col. Centro; telephone (52) (624) 143-3566.
Cancun: Plaza Caracol Two, Second Level, No. 320-323, Boulevard Kukulkan, Km. 8.5, Zona Hotelera; telephone (52)(998) 883-0272.
Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo: Hotel Fontan, Blvd. Ixtapa; telephone (52)(755) 553-2100.
Mazatlan: Hotel Playa Mazatlán,Playa Gaviotas #202, Zona Dorada; telephone (52) (669) 916-5889.
Oaxaca: Macedonio Alcala No. 407, Interior 20; telephone (52) (951) 514-3054 (52) or (951) 516-2853.
Piedras Negras: Abasolo 211, Local #3, Col. Centro; telephone (52) (878) 782-5586 or (878) 782-8664.
Playa del Carmen: The Palapa, Calle 1 Sur, between Avenida 15 and Avenida 20; telephone (52)(984) 873-0303.
Puerto Vallarta: Paseo de Los Cocoteros #85 Sur, Paradise Plaza – Local L-7, Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit C.P.; telephone (52)(322) 222-0069.
Reynosa: Calle Monterrey #390, Esq. Sinaloa, Col. Rodríguez; telephone: (52)(899) 923-9331

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Bulldozers and Estuaries

On June 22, 1980, I learned that then Imperial Beach Mayor Brian Bilbray was planning on damming up the Tijuana Estuary. He argued that it was to be done to stop the flow of polluted water into the Pacific Ocean. I and others believed it was to be done to flood the Tijuana Estuary to demonstrate it was a garbage dump prior to a key referendum in Imperial Beach on placing a marina in the Tijuana Estuary.

So a few friends –Jack Burns, Tim Hannan, Jim and Jeff Knox, Richard Abrams, Dave Parra and Ben Holt–and I sat in front of the bulldozers.

We stopped the estuary from being dammed up, but Bilbray made his career out of his skiploader episode–ironically portrayed by the media as an environmentalist.

It was an ugly time. That incident followed a cleanup event I helped to organize in which a member of the Aryan Brotherhood shot a cleanup participant. I witnessed the shooting, which clearly had a racial tilt (the shooter yelled “Hey, ni..er get the hell out of here” to a man playing a guitar at the cleanup BBQ. And then he shot a man in the mouth who defended the guitar player).

Being an environmentalist back then wasn’t glamorous or even popular. Still when I look back on our effort which led to the permanent protection of the Tijuana Estuary, I am proud of the work we did.

Bilbray assaulted us with rocks and polluted water before ordering his flunkies to assault us.

Imperial Beach Lifeguard Ben Holt tries to stop his lifelong friend Brian Bilbray from destroying the Tijuana Estuary. Benny had known Brian since he was a kid. That is me watching.

Dave Parra tries to rescue me from the goons that assaulted me. I was punched in the face by a big guy. That is me on the bottom.

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.

Border Sewage Scandal Update

This is another sewage discharge into the ocean at Playas de Tijuana.

The main beach in Imperial Beach was open today.

In Tijuana, work crews are trying to fix the broken sewage pipe.

An update from a local resident:

  • I just went to the worksite and spoke with one of the workers. They will be pulling the new pipe through the current broken one today. The new pipe is a very thick, heavy rubber (sort of like a car tire) tube that will actually line the inside of the old pipe. They will be pulling about a city block length of the new pipe through the old. I can’t imagine it not getting snagged half way through. I bet there will be problems, but the fix is going in.

We will continue to monitor the situation.

The Sewage Pipe They Tried to Hide

Paloma Aguirre of Wildcoast went to Playas de Tijuana and filmed this:

The day after we contacted authorities and the media, work crews from Tijuana started fixing the pipe. It spewed up to 31 MGD since Dec. 23rd.

Sewage Scandal on the Border

On Tuesday morning (January 18) I detected a horrible stench at the south end of Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach. I was in my wetsuit and ready to surf.

The stench has a peculiar odor that I associate with sewage spills at Playas de Tijuana.

So I contacted Paloma Aguirre of Wildcoast and asked her to investigate.

Here is what resulted from her work:

Massive sewage spill fouls Imperial Beach

By Sandra Dibble, UNION-TRIBUNE

Mike Lee, UNION-TRIBUNE

Originally published January 18, 2011 at 3:06 p.m., updated January 18, 2011 at 8:44 p.m.

 

Sewage spill

An estimated 1.3 million gallons a day of sewage are flowing into the ocean just south of the international border, in what will rank among the largest single incidents to affect San Diego County in the past decade.

The ongoing leak adds a potent pollutant to coastal waters that currents commonly push north into the United States, where they mix with contaminated flow from the Tijuana River, which has lead to beach closures in South County for the past month.

Estimates of the spill size vary greatly — from more than 30 million gallons by environmentalists to just a few million gallons by wastewater officials in Mexico. Either way, the situation provides a vivid reminder that despite numerous upgrades to the sewage system in Tijuana, it remains a chronic environmental and human health problem with roots going back more than 70 years.

Baja California’s top health authority on Tuesday closed the beaches near the leak at Playas de Tijuana as a precautionary measure. Surfers in South San Diego County said they were concerned about getting sick from the tainted water.

The break was about one mile south of the border in a pipe linked to a pump station that lifts sewage to the Punta Bandera treatment plant. The state’s health department said a pipe ruptured when the ground gave way after December’s rainstorms.

A central question is when the leak started. Baja wastewater officials said Tuesday the major problems started last weekend and they acted as quickly as possible to a situation that started small and blew up without warning.

Environmentalists in Mexico said major flows began before Christmas. They and their counterparts in the United States questioned whether Mexico acted fast enough to address the break and issue warnings.

“This is pretty serious and demonstrates a breakdown in communication” between Mexican and U.S. officials, said Serge Dedina, head of the environmental group Wildcoast in Imperial Beach. “This is precisely an issue we have been trying to deal with — just getting basic notifications on sewage spills in Tijuana. Authorities have placed thousands of people at risk.”

Officials initially believed the problem was an overflow that typically occurs during rainstorms when sewage and stormwater mix in overloaded pipes, said Agustin Rojas, spokesman for the CESPT, the acronym of the state public service commission of Tijuana.

He said the scope of the issue was not initially apparent because it involved an underground sinkhole that formed around Dec. 29 but did not immediately damage the 30-inch pipe.

“We believe it began to have problems, but the water wasn’t flowing to the ocean yet,” Rojas said.

On Sunday, he said, “We had not detected the magnitude of the problem. … It wasn’t until Monday.”

He said it would take another couple of days to stop the flow. The repairs involve replacing a 250-foot portion of the collector pipe that’s buried 15 feet below ground.

“We’ve got crews working long-hour shifts. It’s not an easy job, but they are committed to the task.”

Margarita Diaz, head of Probea, a Playas de Tijuana-based environmental organization, said the problems date back to Dec. 23.

“The collector was damaged, the ground collapsed, and it folded, and plugged it up. This caused the sewage to flow north toward the manholes. As it could not go to the pump station, it flowed through the drains.”

Diaz said the issue of the sewage overflows reached her office at the beginning of January, when local residents called and complained. When she called the CESPT, she said the common response was that the engineer was on vacation.

The Playas beach was closed Tuesday afternoon. “But this should have happened a long time ago,” she said. “It should have happened immediately, from the moment that the spill was detected. They were three weeks late.”

Mark McPherson, chief of land and water quality for San Diego County’s environmental health agency, said Tuesday afternoon that he had received no official notice of the incident. In this case, he said an alert would not have made a major difference because the Tijuana River is still flowing with millions of gallons a day of sewage-tainted water and the county has maintained beach closures for weeks in the South Bay because of that.

Dedina at Wildcoast said the problems at Playas de Tijuana likely are contributing to the mess caused by the Tijuana River.

“The stench at the south end of IB this morning was overpowering,” he said.

Conditions were worse south of the international border.

“I have been watching and smelling a stream of untreated sewage run down the street next to my house in Playas de Tijuana and to the ocean in a constant flow,” said resident Scott S. Peters. “The authorities have simply removed the manhole covers on my street and have been letting the sewage flow like a river since the storm a few weeks ago.”

Wastewater has been a major source of tension along the border since the early 1900s because Tijuana’s sewage system has not kept up with growth. Raw sewage flows into the Tijuana River whenever it rains. Agencies on both sides of the border have made big strides to cut down the pollution by building treatment plants and other facilities.

The Marine Protected Area off of Imperial Beach and the Tijuana Sloughs

Here is a map of the new State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) off of Imperial Beach.

It is 2.9 square miles and located from the U.S.-Mexico border to north of the Tijuana River mouth.

Before the MLPA process, the reef was not even recognized by federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers.

Now we have the official justification of its importance.

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