It finally feels like summer in Imperial Beach and Coronado.
School’s out and, just in time for the solstice, the water contact closures at Imperial Beach and Silver Strand State Beach were lifted by the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health and Quality.
In Imperial Beach, the water was full of swimmers, surfers, curious kids inspecting the shallow surf and passersby getting their feet wet. Most people were excited to see the water reopened, but some weren’t ready to jump in just yet.
“I wouldn’t go,” said Rene Geleana, who has lived in the area off-and-on for 17 years with his family. “Honestly, I actually choose to go to other beaches.”
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The water contact closure had been in effect in Imperial Beach since May 17, according to a spokesperson for the county. While it has put a damper on excited visitors wanting to experience the San Diego region at its finest, it has also taken a toll on the city’s lifeguards.
“We want fun, clean water just like everybody else,” said Capt. Jason Lindquist, a 20-year veteran of the agency. “We want to be busy making warnings and rescues and being in the water. That’s what people wanted this job for.”
Lindquist shared that the daily duties of lifeguards have shifted since the water contact closure started, and it is not helping their ability to maintain staffing and attract new hires.
“People don’t really want to work here, right? You can’t do your job,” said Lindquist. “Your job isn’t going to rescue people in the water anymore, your job now becomes a regulator and making warnings all day long.”
He added that there is also a lack of cooperation from some community members with lifeguards getting the brunt of the backlash. Some people walk right past the closure signs, take them down or refuse to get out of the water, creating a hazard for lifeguards.
“If we have to go in and rescue somebody, it puts the lifeguard at risk for a workers’ comp situation and exposes them,” said Lindquist.
The water contact closure comes when bacteria levels in a certain, and frequently tested, area exceed the state’s limit and can cause illness. Testing used to take days to reveal water quality results, but now the county has a new same-day testing method.
“The old test often failed to detect when markers of the sewage were present,” said Vice Chair Nora Vargas, County Supervisor for the district that includes Imperial Beach. “It sounds a little complex, but this is what has been in our water for years.”
Vargas acknowledged the issue of contaminated water near the Tijuana River Valley has been an ongoing issue for decades, and one she is trying to tackle.
“What I don't want to do is I don't want it to be, ‘is the need for our businesses and our tourism to be solid and to be able to survive competing against the safety and well-being of our communities?’” said Vargas. “It shouldn't be either-or, so we're going to find a middle ground so that we can have both.”
While some beachgoers were hesitant to dive in Tuesday, an ocean-expert from the University of San Diego said he understands people wanting to be cautious, but the decision to open and close the water is not made lightly.
“With the scrutiny they have and the way they’re careful about doing the analysis, if they’re opening today, they’re confident that the numbers are safe,” said Michel Boudrias, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Environmental and Ocean Sciences.
As for Silver Strand, it has been closed less frequently than Imperial Beach since the start of May. The longest streak Silver Strand was closed in May was 11 days from May 17-28, according to a spokesperson for the county. The county met with impacted jurisdictions on Tuesday, including Imperial Beach, and said in a statement sent to NBC 7: “Both the County and Imperial Beach officials expressed their mutual goals of protecting public health and working toward opening beaches for the community to enjoy. The County will continue to engage with additional stakeholders as inclusive community engagement is an important part of everything we do.”
The statement also said, in part: “Bringing the new water testing method to our region has been a collaborative effort with the County (DEHQ and Public Health Services), U.S. EPA, CDPH, Southern CA Coastal Water Research Project, and the State Water Resources Control Board. The ddPCR testing method was sought after and implemented based on community feedback for faster, more accurate information on water quality. It took nearly a decade of testing, pilots, research, state law change and approvals to deliver for the community.”
The shoreline south of Imperial Beach to the U.S.-Mexico border remains closed, according to the county’s water quality dashboard. This closure has been in effect since December 2021.