Even though San Diego beaches are failing water quality tests after public health officials implemented new, more sensitive testing technology, San Diego County is leaving them open.
At least, open to interpretation.
Summer beach closures hit Imperial Beach and Coronado like never before after May 5, when San Diego County rolled out the nation’s first water quality test that counts bacteria by their DNA. It sparked backlash from elected officials worried about losing access to beaches during the July 4 holiday.
Then the county abruptly reopened them.
On July 1, the county announced it would post new blue signs at beaches warning that there may be sewage in the water that could cause illness. While warning beachgoers about the water, the county stipulated that it would only close beaches when there was a “known” source of sewage contamination, such as a reported spill, or when the Tijuana River , often contaminated, flowed into the Pacific Ocean.
Elise Rothschild, an environmental health specialist and former director of the county’s Department of Environmental Health, said this was done so the public could make their own decisions about whether to enter the water.
“We don’t have the power to close the beaches” otherwise, she said.
Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey argues there is another explanation for the county’s decision to warn of sewage in the water while allowing people to swim in it.
“I think it’s because (the county doesn’t believe) in the integrity of its own testing and methodologies, and doesn’t want to deal with the public backlash that would ensue if the beaches closed half of the year,” Bailey said. “They close the beaches all the time. It’s their job.
Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey points to the city’s beach on a map Monday, July 11, 2022. / Photo by MacKenzie Elmer
San Diego County began using a more sensitive water quality test along its coastline on May 5. The test looks for the presence of Enterococcus bacteria, which is found in the gut of warm-blooded mammals, including humans. Find Enterococcus and there is a good chance that feces is also in the water, which means there could also be harmful viruses present. COVID-19, for example, can be tracked by looking for virus shed in feces.
On May 10, tests showed Coronado’s shore water was too dirty for human contact by public health standards set by the state. The county has closed the beaches.
Coronado’s beaches closed four more times in the following weeks, alarming elected officials there because the city faced the prospect of closed beaches over the holiday weekend.
Bailey spoke out against the sudden local news shutdowns, telling Voice of San Diego it got to the point where he told the county he would personally rip the closure signs from the sand.
“This is unprecedented for our community. This is unheard of for public access to the shore. This is unprecedented for economic development,” Bailey said. “It could have catastrophic effects for Coronado.”
Initially, Bailey blamed the new water quality test because, prior to its rollout, beaches in Coronado were typically closed only after a huge winter storm or a large sewage spill from Tijuana beyond the border. While Imperial Beach, located closer to the border, can face year-round closures due to contamination, Coronado’s beaches rarely do so in the summer.
Pressure from beach communities mounted.
Coronado and Imperial Beach were closed the morning of June 29 when water quality tests again showed bacteria levels exceeded state health standards. On the morning of July 1, the county lifted the shutdown, but not because testing showed bacteria levels had fallen below the state’s threshold.
Water quality tests conducted hours before county officials lifted the shutdown show bacteria levels were still three times higher than state health standards. Still, the county reopened the beach, replacing the closure signs with bright blue signs that issued a new warning: “Beach water may contain sewage and may cause illness,” it read. It was the first time the county had issued such a notice.
“We are sampling South County daily because of the concern there, so we are giving the public daily updated information so they can make their own decision,” said Rothschild of the Department of Environmental Health, which issues advisories and beach closures.
This confused Bailey. He wants the beach open, but can’t help but wonder if the sudden reopening means the county isn’t standing behind its new water quality test.
“Here in Coronado, it’s created a lot of confusion because at the end of the day, the only question that matters is, ‘Is the water safe or not?'” Bailey said.
Some members of the public are confused. Karl Bradley, a member of a citizens’ council that monitors the Tijuana River sewage problem, said at a meeting Thursday that he wanted to bring the county to account.
“I know they have different colored signs, but I don’t know if a sign means, go in the water, and a sign doesn’t,” Bradley said.
Cameron Kaiser, deputy director of the county’s public health department, said the new testing technology does indeed indicate that bacteria levels in water are exceeding state health standards more frequently than before.
“This test is superior and more sensitive,” Kaiser said. “It picks up things that we couldn’t see before.”
But the county is letting the public choose whether to swim in the water anyway, taking the position that it cannot close beaches based on water quality test results alone.
“County policy is to close beaches in the event of known sewage contamination,” spokeswoman Donna Durckel wrote in an email.
In South Bay, everyone knows where the pollution comes from, said Chris Helmer, director of natural and environmental resources for the city of Imperial Beach.
“It’s Punta Bandera,” Helmer said.
Punta Bandera is the name of a broken sewage treatment plant in Tijuana that dumps millions of gallons of untreated sewage pumped from Tijuana’s sewers directly into the Pacific Ocean virtually non-stop.
A Scripps Institution of Oceanography study recently confirmed the link between Punta Bandera and sewage contamination on Southern California beaches in summer in summer In summer, storms in the southern hemisphere push ocean currents to the north that collect the waste water from Punta Bandera and transport it to the north.
Helmer said the results of the new test only further confirm the Scripps study.
“What we’re asking is that the county take the lead in explaining the rationales for their signs, the science, and why the beaches are closing,” Helmer said. “If beaches are closed from known sources of pollution south of the border, tell the public where they are. Be the spokesperson for beach water quality, not Imperial Beach or Coronado.
Rothschild, of the county, did not confirm whether the sewage plumes from Punta Bandera count as “known” sewage, repeating that the county depends on an official report, such as notifications from the border agency the Commission. Borders and Waters International, which alerts the region to a sewage spill beyond the land border. The last report of a known IBWC spill was on April 28, well before the series of beach closures after the launch of the sensitive test.
Regarding closures between May 5 and June 29, the county said it closed those beaches based on the test result and because southern swell conditions or odors and discolored water were apparent. But since July 1, the policy has changed and these two conditions now trigger the new warning or the regular beach advisory.
Bailey said he wants the county board of supervisors to order the public health department to continue testing beach water in the previous way — in the test that is less sensitive but historically had rarely issued beach advisories or closures in Coronado in the summer.
He pointed out that data obtained from the county showing that testing the same range by the two methods showed dramatically different results.
“There is a huge disconnect between the two. If so, the county has done the wrong thing over the past 25 years,” Bailey said.
This differs from Imperial Beach’s position.
“We are very supportive of the new test at Imperial Beach,” Helmer said. “We’re not asking the county to change it.”
The county did not develop this test on its own. He has worked for years with the California Department of Public Health and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project on the research and development of the new digital droplet polymerase chain reaction (or ddPCR) test, which the Agency US Environmental Protection approved for San Diego County. use in May 2021. San Diego is the first in the country to use it and it could soon be rolled out to other cities.
Before the most sensitive test, the county used one that took 24 hours to determine water quality. The bacteria present in the water samples had to be taken back to a laboratory and cultured, then counted.
It basically meant the county could tell the public today how safe the ocean was yesterday. Beach community leaders asked for a faster test, and after years of development, the county gave them one.
Under the previous method, tests typically showed unhealthy water quality in South County during the winter rainy season, when the sewage-ridden Tijuana River swelled with stormwater and contamination, spilling along Imperial Beach a few miles from Coronado.
The county’s new blue warning signs are potentially temporary. Rothschild of the county’s environmental health department said the signs will be in use until September, then the county will assess how the public interacts with them. She said the county has yet to institute a public survey or other method to measure that impact.
As of 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, water quality in Coronado at the sampling site off Avenida Lunar was technically safe for human contact, according to county data. But not at Imperial Beach Pier, which failed a water quality test the same day. A notice is posted warning that public bacteria levels exceed health standards there – but swimmers are still free to enter the water.