Executive Director, WILDCOAST
sewage plume

A sewage plume. Gross.


The Inertia

When storms hit the coast in Southern California, rivers, gullies, streams and storm drains carry runoff from rainfall directly into the Pacific Ocean. Along most of our coast there is a significant health risk associated with surfing after it has rained.

I should know. A few years ago, I surfed  south end of Imperial Beach. The water was crystal clear. There was no flow in the Tijuana River and it was more than a week after it had last rained.

A few hours after scoring a dawn patrol session of head-high lefts with my youngest son Daniel (there is nothing better than a go out with my sons before they head off to school), the familiar twinge of pain of a dirty-water infection hit my right ear. A week later I am still on antibiotic ear drops and now antibiotic pills. The infection came even after I doused my ear with alcohol and vinegar after my session, which is something I do religiously after each session.

Paloma Aguirre, who works with me at WiLDCOAST, is a longtime competitive bodyboarder who is originally from Puerto Vallarta. She is working to clean up what is arguably the most polluted stretch of coastline in Southern California, the area around entrance to the Tijuana River just north of the U.S.-Mexico Border and where I secured my ear infection.

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However, Paloma does not work alone to safeguard our coast. She partners with the City of Imperial Beach, City of San Diego, County of San Diego, State of California, and the U.S. EPA, as well as organizations such as San Diego Coastkeeper, Surfrider Foundation-San Diego Chapter, I Love a Clean San Diego, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, and Heal the Bay to stop polluters, clean up beaches and watersheds, and educate the public about how to reduce our ocean pollution footprint.

paloma cleaning up

Paloma Aguirre, doing WiLDCOAST work.

Serge Dedina: How does a rainfall event end up causing water quality problems along the coast?

Paloma Aguirre: Urban runoff is the number one cause of ocean pollution after a significant rainfall. Impervious surfaces can increase runoff that can contain gasoline, motor oil and other pollutants from roadways and parking lots, as well as fertilizers and pesticides from lawns.

Dedina: Specifically, what illnesses are associated with rain-related runoff in the ocean?

Aguirre: Runoff can cause a large number of illnesses ranging from gastrointestinal infections to ear, eye, and skin infections.

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Dedina: What should ocean users and especially surfers do to keep themselves healthy during the rainy season in Southern California?

Aguirre: Ocean users and surfers should avoid entering the ocean for at least 72 hours following a rainfall event.

Dedina: What are the trouble spots along the coast that surfers should be looking out for in terms of avoiding problem areas?

Aguirre: River mouths, jetties, bays, storm drains or any area where water enters the ocean usually have higher levels of bacteria.

Dedina: You’ve been working with researchers at San Diego State University to get a better understanding of the health implications with contact with polluted water along the U.S.-Mexico border. What were the findings? And what did you and WiLDCOAST do to prevent ocean-related illnesses?

Aguirre: The study showed that there is a 1 in 10 chance of contracting Hepatitis A (among many other viral and bacterial infections) when coming in contact with polluted water from the Tijuana River. WiLDCOAST partnered with the Imperial Beach Health Center to provide free Hepatitis A vaccinations to local ocean users. The program is still available to ocean users Please call (619) 429-3733 and ask for a “Hepatitis A Vaccination for Imperial Beach Ocean Users.”  This is available to adults only.

Dedina: What are the key things that everyone can do to reduce ocean pollution?

Aguirre: There are many things people can do in their daily lives that can prevent ocean pollution. Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers on lawns and gardens. When it rains it washes out to the ocean. Dispose of chemicals such as motor oils, paint and chemicals adequately to avoid runoff. Avoid leaving pet waste on the street; it can carry bacteria and viruses that can harm human and wildlife health.

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Dedina: There has been a lot of awareness about the plague of plastic and debris in the ocean. What are the sources of the “plastic plague” and specifically what can people do to reduce their impact on the environment.

Aguirre: Disposable plastics are the greatest source of plastic pollution. Plastic bags, straws, bottles, utensils, lids, cups, and so many others offer a small convenience but remain forever. It is important to follow the “4 R’s: in our daily lives to ensure a sustainable future: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

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