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Coronado beaches closed from Tijuana sewage ahead of Memorial Day weekend

The beaches in Coronado were relatively empty headed into Memorial Day weekend. While a few families splashed in the surf Friday, most folks kept their distance, playing Frisbee or lounging in the sand.

Nobody, save a couple of brave sufferers, ventured very far offshore — thanks to roving lifeguards and the now-familiar yellow and red placards that read: “Keep out of water.”

Sewage spilling over the border from Mexico has for months shuttered shorelines from Imperial Beach to Coronado. Local leaders had hoped the rain, which flushes pollution through the Tijuana River into the South Bay, would’ve subsided by the unofficial start of tourist season.

But no luck. Continuous downpours and Tijuana’s crumbling pipes have kept Imperial Beach waters closed since last December, and Coronado has so far racked up an eye-popping 120 days this year during which ocean swimming was officially restricted.

Around noon on Friday, Janci Farwell of Los Angeles was building sandcastles in Coronado with her 2-year-old grandson. They were using buckets of ocean water until a lifeguard warned her about the sewage.

“The lifeguard said that she herself has been very, very sick from the fecal contamination,” said the 65-year-old. “I guess, we’ll check into that.”

Janci Farwell from Los Angeles was shocked when a lifeguard alerted her to sewage contamination in the water off Coronado.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Farwell, who has a condo in the area, said she didn’t see the closure signs on her way to the beach. The small placards can be easy to miss, at least according to several tourists in the area on Friday.

“Hey, get out of the water,” Amber Merrill called to her daughters, 4 and 7, after suddenly realizing the situation.

Merrill, who came from Tucson, Ariz., to stay at the iconic Hotel del Coronado, said she was wondering why the beach was so empty.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s Memorial Day weekend,” said the 40-year-old. “It’s pretty disappointing to say the least.”

Local businesses haven’t been eager to chat about the beach closures. The local chamber of commerce didn’t return a request for comment, nor did several prominent establishments including the Hotel del Coronado.

Mayor Richard Bailey blamed the unprecedented rainfall.

“Hopefully, the weather will let up here, so we can have an enjoyable summer,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

However, that’s far from guaranteed, especially since the county’s new DNA-based water quality testing has been showing elevated bacterial levels even under sunny skies. The main culprit is a defunct wastewater facility along the coast in Mexico, about 6 miles south of the border, that spews about 35 million gallons of raw sewage a day into the Pacific Ocean.

“Mexico’s dilapidated sewage treatment plant needs to be fixed urgently,” said county Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, whose district includes Coronado.

County health officials and scientists from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography have found those plumes regularly creep up the coast on so-called south swells, when ocean currents move north from Mexico.

Leaders, uneasy about closing beaches in the summer, last year rolled out a new blue and red “warning” sign that gives swimmers discretion over getting in the water. The placards read: “Warning! Beach water may contain sewage and may cause illness.”

People were restricted from swimming in the water at Imperial Beach as a result of sewage pollution from Tijuana.

People were restricted from swimming in the water at Imperial Beach as a result of sewage pollution from Tijuana on Friday.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Still, business and public programs haven’t wanted to take on the liability. Imperial Beach recently canceled its Junior Lifeguard program this summer, according to officials. At the same time, YMCA’s Camp Surf just north of the city is preparing to bus kids to La Jolla and Pacific Beach.

“Hopefully our beach will be open the majority of the time, but we do expect closures, and we’ll pivot to alternative programming,” said Jamie Cosson, executive director of overnight camps.

Local leaders are hopeful a fix is in the works. The U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have a $474 million agreement with Mexico to overhaul wastewater facilities on both sides of the border.

The U.S. federal government has set aside about $300 million to double the capacity of the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, which services Tijuana. Mexico, for its part, has agreed to pony up $144 million, in part to replace its own crumbling wastewater plant, known as San Antonio de Los Buenos.

However, the federal agencies will almost certainly need to find additional money to complete all the upgrades by the target date of 2027. EPA said in an email that the agency has cleared major regulatory hurdles toward expanding the international treatment plant and is “evaluating updated project costs and will be sharing them in the coming weeks.”

Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre said she fears projects could drag on if political pressure isn’t maintained. She met earlier this month with the governor of Baja California, Marina del Pilar Ávila, then lobbied State Department officials in Washington, D.C.

Aguirre admitted the results were less than reassuring.

“Do we need to demonstrate at the doorsteps of the White House?” she said. “That’s something I’m seriously considering.”

Meanwhile back in Coronado on Friday afternoon, resident Aaron Heitke was fishing on the beach. The 51-year-old, who’s keenly aware of the situation, said he wouldn’t eat anything he caught and is careful not to wade too far out into the water.

“It sucks, but there isn’t a lot we can do about it,” he said. “Hopefully, it opens up this summer.”

A sign telling people not to get in the water was posted at a beach entrance in Coronado on Friday.

A sign telling people not to get in the water was posted at a beach entrance in Coronado on Friday.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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