Signs warning swimmers of contaminated waters will stay up along the entire Imperial Beach coastline at least through the weekend as county health engineers continue to test the ocean for remnants of a midweek sewage spill in Tijuana.
A break in a 42-inch sewer main near Highway 1 at Goat's Canyon Wednesday is believed to have sent about 10 million gallons of raw sewage into the Tijuana River, according to county health officials. The break, which occurred about 3 p.m., was repaired by Mexican authorities at 2:23 a.m. Thursday.
In the time it took to repair the main, an undetermined amount of sewage was fed into the San Diego Metropolitan Sewer System's Point Loma Wastewater Treatment plant, said Yvonne Rehg, spokeswoman for the San Diego Water Utilities Department.
Gary Stephany, county Environmental Health Services director, said he was uncertain how far north the sewage had flowed. "This time of year the normal current flows south," he said, "but we are getting a little wave action on the surface of the water blowing north because of the Santa Ana condition."
John Melbourn,a county public health engineer, said signs may be posted along Imperial Beach for at least four days while the waters are tested. The signs are posted from the border crossing to Carnation Avenue, near the northern Imperial Beach city limits.
Stephany praised Mexican authorities for rapidly repairing the break, which was caused when a bulldozer struck the main.
"It could have been a lot worse," he said, adding that an estimated 20 million to 26 million gallons of sewage could have spilled from the main had it not been repaired the same day.
Dion McMicheaux, an engineer with the International Boundary and Water Commission, said he believed the amount of sewage spilled from the break was less than 10 million gallons but would not have an exact figure until he completes calculations, which will take a few days.
The San Diego Water Utilities Department was uncertain Friday as to how much sewage from the spill was absorbed at the Point Loma plant, Rehg said.
The swimming quarantine at Imperial Beach has already hurt business at some seaside spots.
"Tourists aren't going to come here right now to go swimming or hang out at the beach," said Janice Hopkins, owner of a Seacoast Drive cafe. "It's pretty deserted around here."
On an average day, about 200 people visit the cafe, she said. On Friday, that number was halved.
Hopkins said she expects to miss out on "a few thousand dollars" in revenue if the warning signs stay up over the weekend.
A Surf Side Motel clerk, Bonnie Harris, said the beachfront was desolate, even considering Friday's sunny skies.
"If this (quarantine) would have happened in May or June," she said, "it would have killed us."