As summer unfolds, Coronado and Imperial Beach are facing an uncomfortable question: What’s a beach city without its beach?
Both places have seen their sandy shores dotted in recent weeks with yellow “keep out” signs that warn visitors about unsafe ocean water contaminated by sewage from Tijuana.
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The persistent closures have government officials, residents, tourists and business owners bracing for a bummer summer in the South Bay.
“It could be devastating for our local economy and for the overall public perception of our beaches,” said Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey. “The beaches are a natural resource enjoyed by the entire region. Having them closed all the time would be a tremendous loss for everyone.”
Some are already feeling the loss. Remy Willens traveled with her family from Virginia two weeks ago for a vacation in Coronado. Until the tail end of it, the ocean was off-limits.
“I don’t think we would’ve paid all this money to stay here if we’d known the beach would be closed,” Willens said Thursday afternoon as she watched her 1-year-old daughter Quinn play on the sand. “I’m happy it reopened before we left, but we’ll definitely be reconsidering our vacation plans next year.”
Although dirty water closures have been a problem for decades, they usually happen in the less-crowded winter months after storm runoff overwhelms sewer and drainage systems south of the border.
They’re happening now because county health officials implemented a new, DNA-based water testing system May 5 that gives them a faster, more accurate picture of the bacteria that can make people sick.
In the works for about a decade, the new system was developed in part to address clamoring from swimmers, surfers and others for better monitoring. Some have long suspected that the ocean is more polluted than the old tests showed.
But few anticipated what’s happened since the rollout. Imperial Beach has been shut down every day. Silver Strand State Beach, just north, joined it on the daily closure list last week.
And Coronado, which 10 years ago was named the best beach in America in a widely-cited annual ranking?
From May 10 through June 15, it was closed half the time.
‘I just don’t trust it’
Few places in California are as associated with the beach in the public’s mind as Coronado is.
You cross saltwater to get there, coming from San Diego by bridge or by boat. Once there, you’re never far from a shoreline. Vistas of sand and surf dominate travel websites that routinely gush about the city’s beauty and relaxed pace.
Many of the feature articles also offer glimpses of the Hotel del Coronado, the red-roofed jewel that’s hosted presidents and princes and been the backdrop for dozens of Hollywood movies. It opened in 1888, when the worry visitors brought with them wasn’t water quality but the new-fangled lights that Thomas Edison helped install.
“The use of electricity for lighting is in no way harmful to health,” a card in every room advised.
The lure of old-world charm and scenic splendor persists, and on Thursday afternoon, along the wide stretch of beach that runs adjacent to the Hotel Del, it wasn’t hard to see why.
Dozens of families lined the warm sand with towels and umbrellas on a breezy, 68-degree day. They watched as kids built sand castles or tossed footballs or frolicked in the surf with boogie boards. Others took photos as the Navy jets flew overhead up and down the coastline.
The beach was open — for now.
But Tina Simon from San Francisco sat by the pool at the hotel, watching her twin daughters splash in that water. “I’m not letting them get in the ocean,” she said.
Her family visits every year, she said, and beach closures have not been an issue before. “The girls love the waves, so they were super upset when I told them they can’t go in,” she said. “I just don’t trust it.”
Jeff Bowman and his wife traveled from Arizona to visit family in Point Loma and were sitting on a bench in front of the hotel, looking out at the beach. He said they come to San Diego three or four times a year and enjoy bringing their grandson to Coronado.
“If (beach closures) got to be a big, big issue, we’d be going up to Orange County,” he said. “But we love it here, so we hope it remains the San Diego that we know and love.”
Tourists aren’t the only ones concerned.
Along the boardwalk by the hotel, Ian Olivers listened as his children, ages 7 and 9, argued about who’d picked up the bigger piece of trash. A different kind of pollution was on this longtime San Diegan’s mind.
“Sewage is one of the biggest ocean pollutants,” he said. “It’s not a new problem, and it’s so sad to see that we haven’t been able to fix it.”
Bill Pavlacka, aka The Sand Castle Man, sat and watched as tourists took photos of his creations in front of the Hotel Del.
He said he is on the beach most days and was alarmed by the closures. “I’m horrified that we can’t do anything to stop this,” said Pavlacka, who is sometimes paid for his custom sculptures. “It affects my business.” If it continues, he, too, might head up the coast.
Jino Frederick, manager of Little Sam’s Island & Beach Fun, is also worried about what persistent closures might do to the bottom line.
“We’re basically just a beach rental business, and we wouldn’t really be able to rent our beach equipment like surfboards, boogie boards and all that if the beach is closed,” he said. “It is a big part of our business.”
City officials in Coronado and Imperial Beach knew that new water tests were coming, but they said they’ve been blindsided by the results.
“There was no indication from the county that there was even a remote possibility that we would be closed for so much of the first part of summer,” said Bailey, the Coronado mayor.
He questioned what, exactly, the tests are detecting.
“No one wants to swim in dirty water,” he said Thursday afternoon. “But is the water truly unsafe, or is it as safe as it was in past summers?”
He and other city officials met with the county on Friday and got an answer. He said they were told that if the environmental health department was still using the old tests, the beaches wouldn’t have been closed.
“The water quality off Coronado is the same as what’s existed for decades,” he said.
City leaders asked the county to go back to the old tests through this summer, giving officials, residents and businesses more time to “get our hands around the practical impacts” of the switch to the more-sensitive monitoring.
Serge Dedina, Imperial Beach’s mayor, said he’s been baffled by what he called “a failure to communicate” by the county on the implementation of the tests. He said he hopes to use a meeting scheduled for Tuesday to make sure he understands the science behind what is happening now.
“The biggest issue is what the threshold is, especially at the lower end, where it’s kind of a gray area,” he said. “In certain conditions, is this really a threat to public health? We want to be sure the test is giving us the best possible indication of what’s a risk and what isn’t.”
County health officials said the standards they use underwent rigorous evaluation by state and federal agencies. They have no plans to change them.
During the almost 10 years it took to get the new monitoring approved, the county said, affected cities and agencies — including the Navy, which trains its SEALs along the Silver Strand — have been invited to meetings to discuss the tests and their anticipated outcomes.
Those meetings will continue, the county said.
In the meantime, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is pursuing a $630-million plan to curb the cross-border pollution by diverting wastewater away from an outdated treatment plant at Punta Bandera that is estimated to be dumping as much as 35 million gallons of raw sewage a day into the Pacific Ocean.
Completion of the project is years away, a frustration to many, including Pavlacka, the sand castle builder.
“I’m very disappointed that our elected leaders can’t do anything to stop this,” he said. “They keep telling us they’re doing something, but year after year, nothing’s getting done. We’re all responsible — the United States, Mexico. Everybody’s responsible and we need to solve the problem.”