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California beaches among most polluted in Surfrider's latest report

California Beachgoers Enjoy Sand And Surf Before Holiday Weekend Shutdown
Beachgoers catch the last of the sunset light in the ocean alongside the Pacific Coast Highway ahead of July 4th weekend on July 2, 2020 in Point Mugu, Calif.  Getty Images

California's coastline is home to beaches with world-class surf breaks and some of the most stunning scenery in the country.

But a few of the state's oceanwaters have struggled with potentially disease-causing pollution.

One beach in Southern California and another two spots up north are named among the most polluted natural bodies of water mentioned in the latest report from the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit which fights for ocean-friendly legislation and carries out cleanup efforts.

Surfrider tested water samples from 567 locations nationwide including in Puerto Rico and states such as California, Florida, Hawaii and 11 others. Across the country, volunteers from the organization's Blue Water Task Force tested a total of 9,539 water samples at 57 labs in 2023. More than 1,300 of the samples tested were in Southern California. 

That's more water sampling sites, tests and labs used than in any other year before. Surfrider has been doing the water testing for more than 25 years. 

Ten beaches and other bodies of water are mentioned in the report as "consistently" measuring for high bacteria levels, or more specifically, "fecal indicator bacteria levels." This is basically the amount of bacteria largely coming from the feces of humans and other warm-blooded animals (often from sewage runoff) which can contain potentially disease-causing organisms and other germs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Such bacteria doesn't usually survive long in ocean waters, the government agency says, but can persist in high levels under certain environmental conditions.

In harmful levels, it can lead to damaged underwater ecosystems, the killing off and sickening of sea creatures and their precious natural habitats as well as potential diseases affecting humans.

Of the ten beaches highlighted in Surfrider's report, two had all of their water samples test for bacteria levels that were so high that they exceeded state health standards: Imperial Beach in Southern California and the Nāwiliwili Stream at Kalapakī Bay in Hawai'i.

Linda Mar Beach, a popular surfing spot in the Bay Area, had more than half its water samples test for bacteria levels that exceed state health standards — 54% to be exact. 

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AVILA BEACH, CALIF.: A sea lion swims beneath a pier in a Pacific Ocean marine area, which is part of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary along California's Central Coast, on Sept. 21, 2023, near Avila Beach, Calif.  Getty Images

The last California spot in Surfrider's 10 most polluted areas is San Luis Creek Mouth, which leads into Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County. With white sands and calm waves, Avila attracts tourists with a warmer climate than neighboring beaches. More than a third of the water samples from San Luis Creek Mouth — or 35 percent — tested for high, unhealthy bacteria levels.

But the story behind the polluted waters of San Diego County's Imperial Beach goes a little further than its neighbors up north.

Every single water sample tested there — so yes, 100 percent — revealed bacteria levels so high that they exceed state health standards. 

Just ten miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Imperial Beach's struggles with pollution are nothing new. 

Scenic beaches dot the coastline running down to California's southernmost tip. But Surfrider's report describes the pollution crisis at Imperial Beach and other coastal areas near the border as "one of the most significant public health and environmental justice emergencies in the country."  

Raw sewage, stormwater runoff, chemicals and trash run through the Tijuana River Watershed and flow out into Imperial Beach and the rest of the Pacific Ocean, leaving behind bacterial levels so high the beach has been closed for the past two and a half years. Everyday, the San Antonio de los Buenos Wastewater Treatment Plant just south of the border releases roughly 35 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Pacific Ocean, according to the Surfrider Foundation.

As of June 7, Imperial Beach along with the Tijuana Slough and beaches in the city of Coronado all remain closed due to high bacteria levels, according to San Diego Coastkeeper, another environmental advocacy group. Meanwhile, water advisories warning people not to swim in the water remain in place at nearby La Jolla Cove, Ocean Beach, Mission Bay and San Diego Bay.

"The Surfrider San Diego Chapter has been raising the alarm on the egregious public health and environmental justice crisis that has been affecting communities on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border for decades," the Surfrider report states.

In fact, the nonprofit actually sued the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) in July 2018 over the high levels of pollution and little effort by the federal government to stop it. Lawsuits and other court actions were also filed by the city of Imperial Beach, the Port of San Diego and Chula Vista, the Regional Water Quality Control Board as well as the city and county of San Diego. The federal government's International Boundary and Water Commission was the defendant in every litigation.

In April 2022, the yearslong legal battle over San Diego's coastal pollution problems finally came to an end. Lawsuits were resolved with a settlement in which IBWC officials promised to limit the amount of raw sewage and toxic chemicals polluting the communities and beaches of San Diego. The settlement earmarked $300 million in federal funding to handle the situation.

But as San Diego's beaches remain closed, the legal battle is far from over.

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The coastline and beach boardwalk near the International Border Wall In Playas Tijuana, Mexico, just outside the U.S.-Mexico border and San Diego region. Getty Images/iStockphoto

San Diego Coastkeeper sued the International Boundary and Water Commission in April. Failures in Tijuana's sewage treatment plan, including problems with pumps and pipes, have led to flows of sewage into California's coastline. This is a cross-border issue that the federal government's International Boundary and Water Commission is tasked with overseeing, and really, resolving.

But San Diego Coastkeeper and other environmental advocacy groups say the federal agency has failed to do that. They say the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant — which is owned and operated by IBWC and runs along the U.S. side of the border — regularly violates a state-issued permit that requires meeting federal Clean Water Act standards.  

Basically, the U.S. plant is overwhelmed by the sewage coming in from Tijuana and the federal agency that oversees it hasn't fixed the problem.

The San Diego Water Quality Control Board has been working with the agency, IBWC, to fix the issue but has strayed away from taking more punitive measures like heavy fines or court action. 

San Diego Coastkeeper says that's not enough and the group has decided to take the federal agency to court — four years after its $300 million settlement with other cities and groups over the same issue.

"The (San Diego Water Quality Control) board is aware of the violations," Phillip Musegaas, San Diego Coastkeeper's executive director, told local public radio station KPBS.

"The board has the authority to take strong enforcement actions and to date they have not," Musegaas said. "And so we are stepping in as citizens, as a clean water advocacy group, to take action to hold IBWC accountable."

Musegaas told the station there needs to be real, concrete changes that will finally put an end to the pollution and closed beaches.

"What we want is a court ordered — federal court — legal agreement that will hold IBWC accountable if they don't meet these deadlines," he said.

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