Dirty water: Beach closures have Coronado, Imperial Beach towns brace for disappointing summer
As summer unfolds, Coronado and Imperial Beach face an uncomfortable question: what’s a beach town without its beach?
Both places have seen their sandy shores dotted in recent weeks with yellow “prohibited” signs that warn visitors of dangerous sea water contaminated by Tijuana’s sewage.
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Continued closures are forcing government officials, residents, tourists and business owners to prepare for a disappointing summer in the South Bay.
“This could be devastating to our local economy and to the general public perception of our beaches,” Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey said. “The beaches are a natural resource appreciated by the whole region. To have them closed all the time would be a huge loss for everyone. »
Some are already feeling the loss. Remy Willens traveled with his family from Virginia two weeks ago for a vacation in Coronado. Until the end, the ocean was forbidden.
“I don’t think we would have paid all that money to stay here if we had known the beach would be closed,” Willens said Thursday afternoon as he watched his one-year-old daughter, Quinn, play in the sand. “Glad it reopened before we left, but we will definitely be reconsidering our vacation plans next year.”
Although dirty water shutdowns have been a problem for decades, they typically occur during the less-travelled winter months after storm runoff overwhelms sewers and drainage systems south of the border.
They’re happening now because county health officials implemented a new DNA-based water testing system on May 5 that gives them a faster, more accurate picture of the bacteria that can make the ill people.
In the works for about a decade, the new system was developed in part to meet demands from swimmers, surfers and others for better monitoring. Some have long suspected that the ocean is more polluted than past tests showed.
But few have anticipated what has happened since the deployment. Imperial Beach was closed daily. Silver Strand State Beach, just to the north, joined it on the list of daily closures last week.
And Coronado, which 10 years ago was named America’s best beach in a widely cited annual ranking?
From May 10 to June 15 it was closed half the time.
“I just don’t trust it”
Few places in California are as associated with the beach in the public mind as Coronado.
You cross salt water to get there, coming from San Diego by bridge or boat. Once there, you are never far from a shore. Views of sand and surf dominate travel websites that regularly talk about the beauty and relaxed pace of the city.
Many feature articles also offer insight into the Hotel del Coronado, the red-roofed gem that has hosted presidents and princes and served as the backdrop for dozens of Hollywood movies. It opened in 1888, when visitors worried not about water quality, but about the new kind of lights that Thomas Edison helped install.
“The use of electricity for lighting is in no way harmful to health,” advised a card in each room.
The lure of old-world charm and scenic splendor lingers on, and on Thursday afternoon, along the wide stretch of beach that borders Hotel Del, it wasn’t hard to see why.
Dozens of families lined the warm sand with towels and umbrellas on a blustery 68-degree day. They watched kids build sandcastles or kick soccer balls or frolic through the waves with boogie boards. Others took photos as the Navy jets flew by along the coast.
The beach was open – for now.
But Tina Simon from San Francisco sat by the hotel pool, watching her twin daughters splash around in the water. “I don’t let them into the ocean,” she said.
Her family visits her every year, she said, and beach closures weren’t an issue before. “Girls love waves, so they were super upset when I told them they couldn’t go,” she said. “I just don’t trust him.”
Jeff Bowman and his wife traveled from Arizona to visit family in Point Loma and were sitting on a bench in front of the hotel, looking out at the beach. He said they come to San Diego three or four times a year and enjoy bringing their grandson to Coronado.
“If (beach closures) became a big, big deal, we would go up in Orange County,” he said. “But we love it here, so hopefully it will remain the San Diego we know and love.”
Tourists are not the only ones concerned.
Along the promenade near the hotel, Ian Olivers listened to his children, aged 7 and 9, argue over who had picked up the biggest piece of rubbish. Another kind of pollution was on the mind of this longtime San Diegan.
“Wastewater is one of the biggest pollutants in the oceans,” he said. “It’s not a new issue, and it’s so sad to see that we haven’t been able to fix it.”
Bill Pavlacka, aka The Sand Castle Man, sat and watched tourists take pictures of his creations outside the Del Hotel.
He said he was on the beach most days and was alarmed by the closures. “I’m horrified that there’s nothing we can do to stop this,” said Pavlacka, who sometimes gets paid for his custom sculptures. “It affects my business.” If this continues, he too could go up the coast.
Jino Frederick, director of Little Sam’s Island & Beach Fun, is also worried about what continued closures could have on bottom lines.
“We’re basically just a beach rental business, and we couldn’t really rent our beach gear like boogie boards, boogie boards and all that if the beach is closed,” he said. declared. “It’s a big part of our business.”
City officials in Coronado and Imperial Beach knew new water tests were coming, but said they were blindsided by the results.
“There was no indication from the county that there was even a remote possibility that we would be closed for much of the first part of the summer,” said Bailey, the mayor of Coronado.
He asked what exactly the tests detect.
“Nobody wants to swim in dirty water,” he said Thursday afternoon. “But is the water really dangerous, or is it as safe as it was in previous summers?”
He and other city officials met with the county on Friday and got a response. He said they were told that if the Environmental Health Service was still using the old tests, the beaches would not have been closed.
“The water quality off Coronado is the same as it has been for decades,” he said.
City leaders have asked the county to revert to old testing this summer, giving authorities, residents and businesses more time to “get their hands on the practical impacts” of moving to more sensitive monitoring.
Serge Dedina, mayor of Imperial Beach, said he was baffled by what he called “a lack of communication” from the county about implementing the tests. He said he hopes to take advantage of a meeting scheduled for Tuesday to make sure he understands the science behind what is happening now.
“The biggest issue is what the threshold is, especially at the lower end, where it’s kind of a gray area,” he said. “Under certain conditions, is it really a threat to public health? We want to make sure that the test gives us the best possible indication of what is a risk and what is not.
County health officials said the standards they use have undergone rigorous evaluation by state and federal agencies. They have no intention of changing them.
In the nearly 10 years it took to get the new surveillance approved, the county said, affected cities and agencies — including the Navy, which trains its SEALs along the Silver Strand — have been invited to meetings to discuss the tests and their expected results.
Those meetings will continue, the county said.
In the meantime, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency is pursuing a $630 million plan to reduce cross-border pollution by diverting sewage from an outdated treatment plant in Punta Bandera that is estimated to be discharging up to 35 million gallons of raw sewage. a day in the Pacific Ocean.
Completion of the project is years away, a frustration for many, including Pavlacka, the sandcastle builder.
“I am very disappointed that our elected leaders cannot do anything to stop this,” he said. “They keep telling us they’re doing something, but year after year nothing gets done. We are all responsible — the United States, Mexico. Everyone is responsible and we must solve the problem.