GRI Current Events Blog

Cross-Border Sewage Spill Contaminates San Diego Beaches

GRI Research Assistant

Mar. 5, 2017

Over the course of 18 days in February, more than 143 million gallons of raw sewage from the Tijuana River spilled into the Pacific Ocean, contaminating water and beaches up the coast to San Diego. The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), “a joint government agency responsible for brokering water treaties,” reports that the spill was spotted first in early February. Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina describes the impact as a “tsunami of sewage spills.” The spill has forced the closure of beaches from Silver Strand State Beach through Imperial Beach; the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health reports that these beaches will be closed until the water is sampled, tested, and deemed safe for beachgoers.

A sign warning against contaminated water (Wikimedia/Tony Webster)

The cause of the sewage spill is contested. Some U.S. officials accuse Mexico of causing the spill deliberately in order to reduce pumping costs while conducting repair work on a sewer pipeline.  U.S. and local officials initially reported the sewage spill to the IBWC on February 3rd, but their Mexican counterparts failed to respond to numerous inquiries regarding the spill and also did not notify the U.S. or IBWC ahead of time that repairs to the pipeline take place. Mexican authorities claim that the spill was accidental, caused by heavy rain which resulting in the collapse of a sewage interceptor in Tijuana. Miguel Lemus, director of the Commission for Tijuana Public Services, the agency responsible for repairing sewage lines, stated that the spills only occurred from February 1st to the 4th and that any stench was caused by trapped foul water. The magnitude of this spill has caused elected officials including U.S. Representative Scott Peters (D-CA) and the non-profit clean-water group, WildCoast, to hold a public meeting to force the IBWC to investigate the spill. The US and Mexican Commissioners of the IBWC agreed to a joint investigation of the spill in order to gather more information on the exact quantity and characteristics of the sewage, as well as the procedural issues that led this situation.


Sources and Further Reading

  1. A massive Mexico-US raw sewage spill is under investigation – CNN
  2. Cause of Mexican sewage spill fouling U.S. beaches under investigation – Reuters
  3. ‘Tsunami of sewage spills’ in Tijuana fouls U.S. beaches, may have been intentional – LA Times
  4. Mexican sewage spill flares US noses and tempers – ABC News
  5. Mexican Sewage Spill Raises Stink in California – Wall Street Journal
  6. A ‘tsunami of sewage spills’ sparked outrage in San Diego County – Business Insider
  7. Calls mount for investigation into massive Tijuana River sewage spill – San Diego Tribune

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