The Surfrider Series Part 2: Eye Sore

Chris Schumacher. Photo: Chris Straley

The Surfrider Series Part 2: Eye Sore

Don’t believe dirty water can f—k you up? Read on.
By Zach Plopper

On a rainy day in November 2006, Chris Schumacher went for a surf with his friends in Imperial Beach, California. He’d heard it was going to be good—turned out it was actually epic. Like any estuary-front surf spot after a rain, the water was brown with discharged sediment, and Chris and his pals indulged in chocolate tubes all morning.

But the stoke wore off that evening when Chris started feeling ill. Two days later, with flu-like symptoms and a swollen eye, his doctor diagnosed him with the flu. Four days went by and by then he was getting much worse. Chris was running a 105-degree fever, his eye was swollen shut, and he was bordering on unconsciousness. He returned to the hospital and was quickly sent to UCSD, where according to Chris, doctors “obliterated his frontal sinus three times” to remove the infection. They were to about begin going ever deeper and slice out brain tissue but thankfully found the infection. That was just the beginning. He was in the hospital from Thanksgiving through the New Year and left the hospital 22 pounds lighter and with an eye so sunken in from tissue removal that he had to wear an eye patch. Chris went through another surgery in 2007 and remained on antibiotics for 18 months. For three months his antibiotics were taken intravenously, for three hours, four times a day.

What ended up in the water that day, and later in Chris’ sinuses, could have come from a number of sources. Chris was clinging to life those horrific months in 2006 and 2007. Since then, thankfully he’s recovered and has no residual effects. He calls his experience a victory story and wants others to hear his story so this doesn’t happen to someone else.

This is more than a warning about a normal runoff situation, though. It’s about environmental issues that can make a bad situation terrible. The brown water on that rainy day didn’t come from a typical southern California wetland. It came from the Tijuana River, which empties several miles south of IB, just inside of the US side of the border. At any other beach in San Diego, only a precautionary warning about water quality might have been in effect, but Chris and his pals missed the beach closure signs in IB when they ran across the sand, mesmerized by the spitting barrels.

Two-thirds of the river’s watershed is south of the border. When it reaches Tijuana it is channeled through the city and then crosses the international boundary fence. The massive maquiladora factories that assemble 90 percent of the world’s television sets add to the flow. As do the colonias, which string along the canyons where hundreds of thousands live without adequate sewage infrastructure.

The situation in IB hasn’t gotten much better. Although it is not like other Southern California beaches, Chris’ story brings us the reality of water quality throughout the region. Sewage spills and urban runoff occur at many beaches and on days with epic surf. Rather than risk a potentially life-altering experience for a few tubes, be aware of the real dangers of polluted waters. Although beach and watershed cleanups are a step in the right direction, the biggest decisions regarding clean water happen in our capitols. Being educated and supporting and developing clean water legislation is how we can keep our lineups clean.

—For more information, and to join the Surfrider Foundation, please head over to surfrider.org