During Christmas break in early 2019, Imperial Beach biology teacher Josh Hill headed to the nearby beach for his favorite pastime — surfing.

Hill said he’s been sickened at least 30 times over the last decade by ocean water roiling with sewage from Tijuana — suffering rashes, headaches, sinus infections and stomach ailments. 

A little illness didn’t deter him.

Within days of that outing, however, he started feeling so physically drained that he lay down on the floor at his house. Then he started coughing up blood, and his wife, Audrie, made him go to the hospital.

Hill was diagnosed with a pernicious staph infection known as MRSA, and was hospitalized for a week. He said doctors found a hole the size of a baseball on the upper side of his left lung.

“Is it a direct result of surfing? Can I prove it? No. But where else are we finding antibiotic resistant material?” said Hill, father of three young girls. “The thing that breaks my heart is you get sick (from the sewage) and you try to explain to a 2-year-old why you can’t go to the ocean. It’s life threatening and terrible.”

Josh Hill in Imperial Beach. Photo taken by Madeline Yang.

The Coronado News is investigating a nearly century-long legacy of broken promises by United States and Mexican officials that has resulted in raw sewage and other toxic wastes flowing into the Pacific Ocean from Tijuana. 

For years, public health officials say they have sampled beach waters of south San Diego County for fecal microbes, getting counts as an indicator for pathogens such as enterococcus, E. Coli, salmonella and MRSA. Exposure to such germs and viruses may lead to diarrhea, vomiting, fever, headaches, respiratory illness, infections, rashes and meningitis.

A University of California San Diego professor has calculated that more than 34,000 people got sickened by sewage at Imperial Beach in 2017, the most recent data available. Pollution from the ocean last year caused at least 43 closures, advisories and warnings in Imperial Beach, 39 at Silver Strand and 21 in Coronado, county health department records show. 

Meanwhile, during the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission meeting on March 2, Operations Manager Morgan Rogers said excess flows are affecting performance of the main treatment facility for Tijuana’s sewage.

YouTube video
Imperial Beach surfer Josh Hill and others share how they have gotten deathly ill from the pollution in the Pacific Ocean from Mexico.

He said the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, about 2 miles west of the San Ysidro port of entry between the two countries, is designed to handle on average 25 million gallons of effluent per day from Tijuana.

However, since August it has averaged 30.6 million gallons per day, Rogers said.

During the presentation, IBWC Board Member and Imperial Beach City Councilman Mitch McKay said more than 100 billion gallons of wastewater has flowed into the Pacific Ocean since 2018. McKay, in an interview, said that’s equivalent to roughly 1,200 supertankers with a capacity of 84 million gallons each.

However, the wastewater output doesn’t just contaminate water and beaches, raising a red flag for tourists in coastal communities. It also damages sea life while creating health and logistical problems in pollution zones for beachgoers, Navy SEALS, lifeguards and U.S. Border agents like Christopher Harris.

A border agent’s tale

Harris expected scrapes and bruises from rounding up bad guys during his 36 years in law enforcement.

But the former agent said he never imagined getting hospitalized in 2006 from exposure to noxious effluent while trying to arrest illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico. 

Harris said while searching for two suspects along the Tijuana River he got black, oily mud on his arms and, after using an alcohol gel to remove the muck, broke out in red hives and became gravely ill.

Amber Craig and Chris Harris sit with The Coronado News to discuss Tijuana sewage problems and the influence on U.S. Border Patrol agents. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

“We accept the risks of being shot at and getting rocks thrown at us…We don’t expect to work in raw sewage.”

-Former U.S. Border Patrol Agent Christopher Harris

“We accept the risks of being shot at and getting rocks thrown at us. That’s inherent to law enforcement,” Harris said. “But, what we shouldn’t accept is walking into a chemical dump. We don’t expect to work in raw sewage.”

A 2018 Border Patrol study found “transboundary flows” from Tijuana pose a “health and safety risk” to agents as well as individuals apprehended in the area. The study also found those flows include discharges of E. coli, total coliform and enterococcus exceedances which can make people ill.

Morgan Rogers talks with The Coronado News at the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

Harris, the ex-Border Patrol agent, retired that year after more than two decades with the Border Patrol, but he and former colleague Amber Craig, a supervisor who retired last year, say the threat to agents continues.  

Craig said water samples in the river valley typically contain medical waste and hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing chemical that poisoned the community of Hinkley, and was made notorious in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.”

Craig said it’s unlikely that any agents will immediately die from exposure to the toxic waters, but long-term health consequences are likely.

Craig said the U.S. government needs to hit Mexico with sanctions to stop the millions of gallons of sewage flowing into San Diego County, including Coronado. And, she said, new pressure needs to be mounted even though it’s a problem dating back roughly a century. 

“It has to be a constant drum beat,” she said. 

Harris agrees.

“The solution is on the Mexico side, but you have to convince them that it’s worth it,” he said.

The transborder flow

Surfers and other ocean users, who often smelled the sewage and became sick, knew where it was coming from. 

Until the past few years, however, there was not conclusive proof. 

That changed in 2021 when Falk Feddersen, an oceanographer at UCSD’s Scripps Institute and other researchers published a study showing the impact of ocean currents on Tijuana effluents. 

A lone surfer paddles out to catch a wave next to the Imperial Beach pier.
A lone surfer paddles out to catch a wave next to the Imperial Beach pier in January after winter storms caused transborder sewage flows from the Tijuana River. Staff photo by Dennis Wagner.

By pouring a benign, fluorescent-pink dye in the ocean, Feddersen’s team showed how summertime sewage from an outdated treatment plant at Punta Bandera, six miles south of the border, was carried north to contaminate the San Diego County shoreline. 

Feddersen said the research required simulations to crunch huge data sets – the equivalent of 360 regular computers working together nonstop for more than a month. The key finding was that effluent from Punta Bandera doesn’t just stream to the north, but mostly hugs the coastline until it reaches the mouth of San Diego Bay. 

Feddersen, also a surfer, said he was told that Mexican officials reacted with denial when the dynamics were explained to them: “They’d be like, ‘No, no, the water at Punta Bandera, it always goes south.’”

Study: About 34,600 sickened in Imperial Beach

Two years ago, Feddersen and others conducted further simulations based on shoreline sampling from 2017.

Using beach recreation data and known illness rates, they calculated how many people likely were sickened in Imperial Beach. 

Signs in Coronado warning people about polluted waters. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

The answer: about 34,600 swimmers over an entire year. That would be nearly 8% of the estimated 440,000 visitors each year. 

Researchers concluded that 4.5% of swimmers likely became ill during summer months, or 3.8% for the year. At the peak time for tourism, in July and August, more than 40 beach users per hour were sickened, according to the modeling. 

Using EPA safety standards, Coronado’s shoreline would have required closures 28% of the time from Memorial Day to Labor Day. (Imperial Beach would be 40%; Tijuana would be 60%.)

It could have been worse. Because 2017 was a dry year, Feddersen’s study noted, the Tijuana River never had significant flow and wintertime pathogen counts were abnormally low. 

Worse in Tijuana

Meantime, it’s worth noting that beach contamination is almost certainly worse on the Mexican side of the border. 

Margarita Diaz, director of the Baja California environmental organization, Proyecto Fronterizo de Educacion Ambiental, noted that the U.S. government considers seawater unsafe if enterococcus counts exceed 104 per milliliter.

When her group sampled the surf at Playas de Tijuana in January, Diaz said, readings were 2,000 to 5,000 per milliliter. 

But Mexican officials rejected the data.

“Every week we do the testing and we give the results to the government,” Diaz said. “And the government says, ‘You’re not a certified lab.’”

No health studies

While there is abundant scientific research linking sewage pathogens to infection and disease, Feddersen and county health officials said they are not aware of any significant epidemiological studies of the phenomenon in Coronado and Imperial Beach. 

“The No. 1 thing to make us really sick is norovirus,” said Feddersen, who stressed he is not a medical expert. The pathogen causes gastro-intestinal illness characterized by vomiting and diarrhea at the same time.

Wildlife can be seen in the Tijuana River estuary in January. Staff photo by Dennis Wagner.

He said hepatitis is a concern the Tijuana River estuary, and he would not surf waters south of Point Loma when contamination readings are high.

“If the (Tijuana) River’s running or there’s a south swell, forget it,” he added. “And that’s a shame because waves are really f-ing good down there.”

The sampling controversy

For years, beach testing results were based on the presence of sewage-related bacteria measured in live cultures, particularly enterovirus, which may survive only six hours. (By contrast, Feddersen said norovirus has a half-life of 10 days in seawater.)

But researchers have found that DNA sampling, which measures the concentration of organisms whether they are dead or alive, is a faster and more accurate measure of disease threat. 

Last May, when the county’s Department of Environmental Health switched to a DNA sampling protocol, bacterial readings soared.

Higher counts prompted a dramatic increase in beach closures — and a backlash from some, including coastal entrepreneurs and elected leaders who complained the new testing method was wrecking business.

Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey and then-Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina immediately questioned whether the new protocol set clean-water standards too high. 

Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey walking along the beach in Coronado. He lobbied Congress to get funding to expand the wastewater treatment plant at the border. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

But political leaders face a dilemma: On one hand, beach closures due to contamination undercut tourism economies. On the other hand, publicity and outrage bolster the pressure campaign to solve Tijuana’s wastewater calamity.

In the end, county health officials stuck with the new testing protocol but devised a color-coded warning system to indicate whether bacteria concentrations are high – to some extent letting people decide for themselves whether to brave the waters. 

Dedina, a surfer who in 2000 co-founded the international coastal conservation organization known as Wildcoast, said contamination grew worse for decades as governments on both sides of the border refused to be accountable.

“It was like being in an abusive relationship. Just painful and traumatic for Coronado and Imperial Beach and all our residents,” he said. “And it (sewage) was killing our hotels and tourism economy.”

Dedina recalled catching waves in Imperial Beach three years ago on a beautiful day when the water around him turned murky and fetid with pollution. He soon became sick, and has not surfed local beaches since. 

“It was killing our hotels and tourism industry.”

-Former Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina on the sewage crisis.

“It became like Russian roulette for me,” he explained. 

Ultimately, the two mayors worked on the problem with separate paths.

Then Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina points towards a beach that was closed due to sewage water contamination as it flowed from Tijuana, Mexico, behind, through the Tijuana River, left, and out to sea Friday, March 3, 2017, in Imperial Beach. Dedina called it, “the tsunami of sewage spills.” (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Bailey said he lobbied Congress to fund the expansion of the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plan while Dedina spearheaded a lawsuit against the International Boundary and Water Commission for violating environmental laws.

“Serge and I have had a great partnership the past four years, and we took two complementary paths to pursue the same objective and the results speak for themselves,” Bailey said.   

Now, Bailey said, he believes the U.S. government’s commitment to spend $300 million expanding and upgrading the plant in San Ysidro is bringing a solution “closer and closer.”

However, IBWC officials have said the funding is not enough to truly fix the problem.

‘One day our prince will come’

In the meantime, Hill, the Mar Vista High School teacher in Imperial Beach, said he has begun tasting the ocean to determine whether it’s safe to go in, based on the belief among some surfers that a detergent flavor means the water is heavily polluted. 

Hill said he’s loved the ocean since childhood.

His father, a missionary, first taught him to surf when he was five, driving to La Jolla because even decades ago the family believed the waters were tainted.

Josh Hill at Imperial Beach. Staff photo by Madeline Yang.

“Growing up, I never thought I would have lived down here because it was a rough place,” Hill added. “But there has been a lot of city investment and capital.”   

Hill said he knows there’s danger here, at one of the best surfing spots in San Diego County. But, he and his wife, a fellow teacher, have made the community their home, and they shouldn’t have to drive north to escape Tijuana’s sewage, he said.

“You can only be hopeful so many times before you get cynical…It’s 2023, and all this keeps going on.”

-Josh Hill

Hill said he’s attended numerous rallies to fight for clean water. He’s had his students test for pollutants in the ocean. And he tries to be optimistic about getting the problem fixed. 

“But you can only be hopeful so many times before you get cynical. It’s a terrible thing to live with,” Hill said. “We have to close our windows at night because it stinks. It’s crazy that it’s still happening. It’s 2023, and all this keeps going on. Hopefully, one day our prince will come, but until then it’s taking a lot of Vitamin C.”

Coming Next Week: Over and over, public outrage prompted studies, plans and political rhetoric that appear to have accomplished little or nothing with the Tijuana sewage crisis.

Dennis Wagner is a veteran journalist who earned a Pulitzer Prize while working for USA Today and The Arizona Republic. His career started with a job at the former Coronado Journal 46 years ago. He can be reached by email or at 602-228-6805.

Craig Harris has 31 years of daily journalism experience and is editor and associate publisher. He most recently worked at USA TODAY as a national investigative business reporter, and he’s a two-time Polk Award winner. You can catch him at the Coronado dog beach with his beagle, Daisy, who has her own Twitter account. He can be reached by email or at 602-509-3613.

Julieta is a reporter for The Coronado News, covering education, small business and investigating the Tijuana/Coronado sewage issue. She graduated from UC Berkeley where she studied English, Spanish, and Journalism. Apart from reporting, Julieta enjoys reading, traveling, and spending quality time with family and friends.

Madeline Yang is a reporter for The Coronado News, covering the City of Coronado, the U.S Navy and investigating the Tijuana/Coronado sewage issue. She graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University with her Bachelors in Journalism with an emphasis in Visual Storytelling. She loves writing, photography and videography and one day hopes to be a filmmaker. She can be reached by phone at 916-835-5843.