Published: July 2006

U.S. Coasts

Sun sets as surfers wait for a wave.

Land on the Edge

Loving Our Coasts To Death

By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
National Geographic Senior Writer
Photograph by Tyrone Turner

On a gorgeous San Diego afternoon, 64-year-old surfing legend Skip Frye strokes his longboard into a towering blue wall of water hurtling toward the aptly named Sunset Cliffs. He fades left to discourage a half dozen teenagers from dropping in, then smoothly carves a fat bottom turn to the right, climbing the wave, cross-walking to the nose, gliding like a gull across the wave's wind-brushed face. On the surface, it's a quintessential California day.

Under the surface, it's a murkier story. Surfers know the popular break as "North Garbage." Just a few miles down the beach, the Point Loma Water Treatment plant spews 180 million gallons (680 million liters) a day of partially treated sewage into a pipe that carries it 4.5 miles (7.2 kilometers) out into the ocean. Until it was extended in 1993, the 12-foot- (four-meter) diameter pipe was only two miles long, and its brown plume often ended up in the surf zone. Storm drains flush car-drippings such as oil, gas, and brake dust, along with a raft of coffee cups, soda bottles, and pet excrement, straight into San Diego's surf breaks every time it rains. Frye and his fellow surfers now routinely suffer a laundry list of waterborne ailments, from sinus and ear infections to more serious illnesses like hepatitis.

"There will be a time when the sea's dead," says Frye, who once predicted San Diego's waves would be too toxic to surf by 2000. "We're kind of like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike."

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