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San Diego County unveils a new warning system for ocean pollution

The prospect of more summertime beach closures in the South County has beach communities and county officials at odds. KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson explains.

San Diego County is adding a new warning sign in an effort to keep beaches, especially those in the South Bay, open this summer.

San Diego County officials expect thousands of people to pack local beaches over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, and those beachgoers could see new pollution-warning signs.

The old system had two possible sign options: an advisory if contamination is suspected, similar to a rain event, and a beach closure, which goes up when contamination that threatens human health is detected.

The new signs warn of potential pollution and the risk of illness without closing the beach completely.


It is a third option.

“I think that it helps our community make an informed decision before going out into the water,” said Paloma Aguirre, an Imperial Beach City Council member. “So the new warning sign is telling people that `yeah, there may not be a one in 10 chance, but there is a 30 in 1,000 chance that you might get sick.’”

A new, more stringent DNA test, used since May, has regularly found pollution in the ocean off South Bay beaches.

The contamination is traced to a broken sewage plant south of Tijuana.

Wind and ocean currents are carrying the contamination north.


Advocates for cleaner water say Mexican officials need to fix the situation, and the U.S. government is working to address the issue as part of a comprehensive solution to cross-border pollution flows.

That $630 million plan calls for more sewage treatment facilities on the U.S. side of the international border and a new sewage plant to be built south of Tijuana.

But the proposed future solution does nothing to offset current beach closures.

Imperial Beach residents have lost access to the ocean for most of the past seven weeks.

The closures have also hit Coronado, where Mayor Richard Bailey said any pollution-warning signs kept crowds away.

“They’re changing the threshold once again,” Bailey told KGTV. “They’re saying, 'Even if the same conditions happen as in early summer, we’re not actually going to close the beaches.' So either the beaches should’ve been open then or be closed now. And so it really kind of just begs the question: What is this threshold and what is it actually based on and is it the appropriate threshold to be using?”

Supervisor Nora Vargas said the new system would protect families and visitors without limiting beach access.