Newsletter: Quantifying the contamination

News Date

We know it’s bad, but how bad is it? This is the conundrum we’ve been dealing with recently as it relates to the environmental catastrophe from the Tijuana River Valley. 

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. This is especially true when it comes to the pollution from the other side of the border that is fouling our oceans, coastlines, and communities. 

We don’t have the data, which is why I’m urging my colleagues to take a vote next week to start changing that, with a new plan to expand the County’s efforts in combating the longstanding contamination crisis stemming from cross-border sewage. 

Quantifying the Contamination

The policy I announced this week will address health impacts that have been overlooked, but not properly quantified, for too long.

Why do we need this data? It matters because if we want to get further action from the federal government, we need hard facts to show them how bad this problem is for San Diego County.

If approved, my plan will direct County staff to do the following within 45 days, and report back to the Board of Supervisors with quarterly updates on many actions, including:

  • Launching a first-of-its-kind community health survey, led by SDSU,  to assess the broader health impacts of the sewage crisis beyond the water, including chronic exposure to these pollutants and potential impacts on asthma, norovirus, skin and soft tissue infections, ENT infections, noxious gas exposure, and more. Outcomes of the survey are important in arming our region with health impact data to push the federal government to take decisive action.

  • Creating a Tijuana River Public Health Risk Dashboard to serve as a single source of key health and contamination information for the community. It could include links to public alerts, weekly sewage flow amounts, air quality indicators, drinking water data, ocean testing results, public spaces that are potentially sewage contaminated, and locations of any infrastructure failures that resulted in wastewater contamination.

  • Developing local decontamination protocols that can be used by any jurisdiction to ensure public safety when severe storm events bring flood waters contaminated with sewage, chemicals, or pollution.

  • Making a list of data sources that can support tracking sewage-associated non-reportable diseases, such as school absences.

  • Requesting zip-code level asthma and respiratory illness data from the California Department of Public Health’s “Cal Breathing Program”  to evaluate how this data can be used to follow asthma and reactive airway disease incidents related to sewage gasses.

  • Asking for enhanced water quality testing and communication from other agencies, including the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, to encourage more active surveillance and communication. These agencies conduct regular drinking water quality tests and communicates to the public when positive tests trigger a boil water advisory; we will request the appropriate agency to increase water quality testing of the South Bay water supply system, increase testing for chemicals and contaminants, enhance public communication around all positive contaminated drinking water samples  (even when it doesn’t trigger a boil water advisory) and request data sharing of weekly sampling results to identify follow-up investigation and public communication opportunities.

  • Looking at options for additional funding and support to assess the broader economic and health impacts of the Tijuana sewage crisis and secure the necessary infrastructure repairs to permanently fix the problem and make recommendations on the best way to solicit this funding.

Much of this work will be done in collaboration with a task force led by the City of Imperial Beach, SDSU School of Public Health, UCSD School of Medicine, and local physicians.

The Numbers We Do Know

For too long, we’ve been forced to deal with the environmental, economic, and health consequences of the Tijuana sewage crisis. With over 900 consecutive days of beach closures and countless residents, businesses, and first responders facing serious health risks, we can’t just sit around and wait for the federal government to come to the rescue. 

This proposal addresses the severe impacts of over 135 billion gallons of untreated sewage, industrial waste, and urban runoff that have plagued our region, contaminating the Pacific Ocean and beaches from Coronado to Carlsbad, and endangering the health, environment, and economy of San Diego County communities.

While the environmental impacts of this crisis are well-known, we need to pay as much attention to the public health consequences that it has on our community. The scale of the problem is staggering. Studies from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography show that bacteria from sewage can go airborne, posing health risks far beyond our beaches. Astonishingly, up to 75 percent of bacteria in Imperial Beach is from aerosolized raw sewage in the surf zone. Add to that the frequent flooding from the sewage-laden Tijuana River, and you've got the recipe for this public health disaster.

I’ve made it no secret that this issue is one of the most critical things we need to address in San Diego County. I have fought hard over the years to make a difference, from upgrading the County’s stormwater infrastructure to protect our local water supply and prevent pollution and toxic runoff from contaminating our beaches, bays and coastlines, to leading the fight to clean up the Tijuana River Sewage crisis and demanding that our state and federal government take action. 

This new initiative will help us gather more information to protect public health, our beaches and coastal environment, and our community’s future.

In service,