Contaminated-water sign at Imperial Beach on March 18
  • Contaminated-water sign at Imperial Beach on March 18
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On Monday, March 18, with currents and wind pushing north, the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health closed all beaches in Imperial Beach due to a suspected sewage spill from the Tijuana River mouth.

On Tuesday, under pressure from the binational environmental group Wildcoast, which had conducted its own investigation, Mexican officials confirmed that two broken sewage pipes in the Las Playas neighborhood of Tijuana had dumped at least 50,000 gallons of raw sewage into the ocean.

"Zach Plopper, from our staff, went surfing Monday morning and noticed smells and the color of the water off IB, and he called the county," Wildcoast executive director Serge Dedina said. "At noon, you could see a yellowish plume along the beach headed north."

The county Department of Environmental Health's sole beach-water-quality testing expert came in Monday and shut the beaches and began the countdown to when they could be tested to be reopened. In the meantime, Wildcoast began trying to track where the spill came from.

"[Wildcoast’s] Paloma Aguirre went into Las Playas and found the broken pipes and the city crews working on them," Dedina said. "The sewage is flowing directly into the ocean."

Wildcoast estimated the flow at about 32 gallons a minute. The California Water Resources Board says Mexican sewage is less diluted than San Diego sewage. There's no word on when the pipes will be repaired.

Fortunately, Imperial Beach lifeguard captain Robert Stabenow said, the weather is cool and the water is cold.

"The wind and the swell are from the northwest, and that's going to help us," he said. "And it's cold enough that the beach isn't packed with people celebrating spring break and wanting to go in the water."

Aguirre said that word of the spill didn't make it to Tijuana beaches Monday, which was a holiday in Mexico (the observance of Benito Juárez's birthday — March 21, 1806).

"There were hundreds of kids in the water at Las Playas, and none of them had any warning of what they were swimming in," Aguirre said.

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