Cleaning Up Southern California’s Oceans

Gabriela Torres ’03 and Adam Collardey MA ’10 turned volunteer passion into legislative action

By Maura Sullivan Hill, USF News Posted Mon, 11/06/2017 - 14:30

In February, 143 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Tijuana River in Mexico, after a sewage pipe ruptured. The pollution traveled north, along the U.S.-Mexico border, and emptied into the Pacific Ocean, contaminating beaches on both sides of the border. 

Sewage spills along the U.S.-Mexico border have been a problem for decades, but this was the largest spill in recent memory. Imperial Beach, the southernmost beach city in California, took the brunt of the damage. The community decided enough was enough. Locals and volunteers — led by international business alumna Gabriela Torres ’03 — rallied to address the border sewage issue.

In wealthy, tourist communities like La Jolla or Malibu, the water would have been cleaned up right away, says Torres, a native of San Diego who's now an environmental lawyer. 

“But Imperial Beach is considered a low-income area, so it’s not as much of a priority,” she says.

New law improves cleanup

Torres is the policy coordinator for the No Border Sewage Committee of San Diego’s Surfrider Foundation, a branch of the national nonprofit that protects oceans and beaches. She meets with elected officials in both the U.S. and Mexico to bring attention to the sewage issue.

Thanks to Torres and other local advocates, California recently passed new legislation that will improve cleanup efforts in Imperial Beach and fund research into ways to prevent spills. Surfrider is also in the process of securing funding to conduct water testing and provide weekly public updates about water quality. 

"The issue is no longer being ignored," Torres says. "Every elected official in our area is now talking about the border sewage issue and ways to solve it."

Torres says her role was meant to be four hours per week, but she routinely spends 20 hours a week working for Surfrider, because she cares deeply about the cause. Before returning to San Diego, she spent nine years doing international commercial arbitration in Europe and earned a master of laws degree in environmental law and sustainability at Kingston University in London.

“When I was at USF, everything had a social justice and equality component. USF did a great job of integrating that into the academic experience,” she says. “I was inspired by the motto of educating minds and hearts to change the world.”

USFers team up

She wasn't alone. At Surfrider, Torres met another USFer who was inspired to change the world: Adam Collardey MA ’10, a graduate of the Asia Pacific Studies program and former volunteer co-chair of the No Border Sewage Committee. 

They'd been working together on the committee for a few months before realizing that they shared an alma mater. “When I found out that Adam went to USF too, I thought, ‘Wow, USF sends the right message to people,’” Torres says. “Neither he nor I live in the area that is most affected by the sewage — we just really care and want to volunteer our time.”

Collardey, who works for a mobile software company, got involved with the No Border Sewage group as a surfer interested in environmental issues.

“I had concerns over budget cuts to federal organizations like the EPA and NOAA and got involved with Surfrider to fill in the gaps and protect the natural environments in my community,” he says.

Know someone with a powerful USF story? Let us know! Twitter @usfcanews