Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Border's Massive Litter Problem

On the left is a photo taken by Wildcoast in June 2008 of a perfectly clean trail in the Tijuana River Valley. In the center is the trail as is stands today. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Monday, Jan. 26, 2009 A mile north of the border fence, Mexico's garbage stands five feet high in places, a pointillistic rainbow made of plastics. Royal blue oil containers. Green soda two-liters. Lavender fabric softener bottles.
There, in the Tijuana River basin, a wide channel that serves as the main drainage basin for Tijuana's storm water runoff, a stack of garbage stretches almost a quarter-mile long. The plastic bottles have washed across the border and gotten stuck in plain sight.

Deeper in the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, on land owned by the county of San Diego, the litter dams up creeks, hangs from trees and lurks beneath muddy paths. Tires, two-by-fours and Styrofoam punctuate the mess.
The region's attention has long focused on the environmental health problems caused by the millions of gallons of raw sewage and sediment that winter rainfalls wash across the border into the United States, southern San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. The litter that comes with it has received less attention -- something that activists and government officials alike hope to change.
On a recent afternoon, standing atop a tangle of garbage in the county park, Ben McCue lamented the never-ending cycle that drives the litter to accumulate here. McCue, the coastal conservation program manager at Wildcoast, the Imperial Beach-based environmental group, had joined 200 other volunteers at a June cleanup here to rip out old tires and whack back overgrown weeds. City Council President Ben Hueso, county Supervisor Greg Cox and Assemblywoman Mary Salas joined in and celebrated the volunteers' efforts.They filled an oversized dumpster with waste. They returned in October and filled another. They plucked 220 tires from the muck during the two cleanups.

When they were finished, the trail they'd cleaned was passable.Then, in November, rain fell.Litter dumped in Tijuana's streets got flushed. Months of plastic bottles and other debris wound up in the county's 1,698-acre park. Today, the trail smells rotten -- McCue has spotted dog carcasses -- and fetid sewage-tainted runoff stagnates in white plastic buckets. Spiders crawl through the bramble.Trash overwhelms this area each year. And each year, county parks employees wait for it to dry out and then clean it up. But the county can't address the problem in Mexico, at its source.
The problem falls into the intractable policy gap that often defines the border environment. Local governments in the United States lack the authority to negotiate or invest in solutions in Mexico. While the county's neighbor is essentially dumping trash on its land, the county doesn't go to talk to its neighbor about the problem. The federal government is responsible for cross-border negotiations.
"We address the fact after the incident," said Renee Bahl, the county's parks and recreation director. Addressing the trash in Mexico "would be a decision outside this department."The trash spreads throughout the area. West of the county's land, volunteers removed 4,000 tires in 2005 from the Tijuana Estuary, a 2,500-acre salt marsh adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, said Clay Phillips, the wetland's manager. Another two tons of garbage were cleaned out in 2007. But volunteer cleanups in the estuary are infrequent. Organizers don't want volunteers tromping around in water often contaminated by sewage.John Robertus, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the local water pollution regulator, organized a coalition of local and state officials that hopes to halt the cycle. Calling themselves the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team, the group has divided into four teams, each with a goal:
Developing a way to intercept trash and sediment at the border. The California Integrated Waste Management Board last week awarded $250,000 to install a trash boom -- a floating barrier -- to stop litter in Goat Canyon, a cross-border canyon that drains into Border Field State Park. But other cross-border canyons still need improvements. The main river channel is among the most problematic.
Determining out how much trash and sediment has accumulated throughout the area and then cleaning it up. Phillips dubbed one area "The Plug." Years of trash have collected and been fixed in place by mud. "I think we'd be amazed at how much trash has accumulated in the river valley," Phillips said. "Nobody knows how much is there."
Creating a plan for restoring the Tijuana River to a normal, functioning ecosystem. Arundo and other invasive weeds are prolific; sediment that washed across the border from Tijuana's denuded hillsides inundates the area, eliminating rich wetlands habitat home to several threatened and endangered bird species.
Reducing pollution in Mexico. "We can't deal with it without solving it in Mexico," Robertus said. Pollution could be reduced in Tijuana by expanding municipal trash service, he said, and cleaning up litter from storm drainage channels before rainstorms."The trash and debris that enters the storm drain system" -- primarily the wide concrete channel that cuts through Tijuana near the San Ysidro border crossing -- "it's just a real good way to get rid of it," Robertus said. "Nobody cares because they know it's going away and going over the border. It takes it away very efficiently."While Robertus wants to see an investment made in Mexico, he lacks the authority to negotiate with Mexico or spend state money there. He is turning to Oscar Romo, the coastal training program coordinator at the nearby Tijuana Estuary. Romo has brought two top Tijuana city officials to see the problem up close.Romo said U.S. officials need to first recognize that their counterparts in Tijuana are willing to work to solve the problem. The answer is simple, Romo said. Bottles tossed into the streets wind up in narrow runoff channels that cut throughout Tijuana's neighborhoods. Installing and maintaining trash booms in the channels that feed the city's main river basin would keep trash out, Romo said."It's not a lost cause," Romo said. "We know exactly where the trash is coming from. It's a matter of catching the trash before it reaches the river. Technically it's really easy. Funding is lacking."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It’s a secondhand town. Everything has been used by somebody else before.

ANOTHER WORLD: Los Laureles Canyon, “a secondhand town,” in Tijuana.
by Sylvia Tiersten
Life’s not bad for Sergio Arreola Armenta—as long as the sun is shining. Four years ago he moved to Colonia de San Bernardo, in Tijuana’s Los Laureles Canyon. He owns his home, a 750-square-foot structure he built himself, and he owns his livelihood, a small construction materials store that extends credit to local residents. But when it rains in Tijuana, life stops in San Bernardo, a hillside neighborhood with no paved streets, no sewer, no storm drainage system and no external lighting.

Some 80,000 people—many of them squatters—live in Los Laureles, or Goat Canyon as it is known in the United States. “It’s a secondhand town. Everything has been used by somebody else before,” says Oscar Romo, a UC San Diego lecturer on urban studies and planning and the Coastal Training Program coordinator at the 2500-acre Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve (TRNERR) in Imperial Beach. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administers the Coastal Training Program.

When torrential rains come—as they did in the winter of 2004-2005—mattresses, tires and other secondhand debris hurtle down the canyon’s eroded hillsides, and end up north of the border in the Tijuana River estuary. South of the border, the storms bring death and destruction to impoverished canyon residents—as improvised shacks built from tires, garage doors and other scrap materials tumble down the slopes.
Uneasy Neighbors
Culturally and economically, San Diego and Tijuana are worlds apart. But geography, globalization and runaway urban sprawl have pushed the two communities into a difficult marriage—and divorce is not an option.

“ They share a common watershed,” says Nina Jean T hurston, MPIA ’08, a former student at UCSD’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) who worked as Romo’s assistant in 2007-08. The Tijuana Reserve is the largest coastal wetland in the Southern United States, a United Nations-designated “wetland of international importance,” a living laboratory for education and research, and a paradise for birdwatchers. More than 370 varieties of migratory and native birds have been spotted in the protected marsh habitat, which is home to six threatened and endangered species.


More than 370 varieties of migratory and native birds have been spotted in the protected marsh habitat of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. It is also home to six threatened and endangered species.

These include: The California Least Tern, The Western Snowy Plover, The Light-Footed Clapper Rail, The Least Bell’s Vireo, The Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, and The California Gnatcatcher. The Tijuana Estuary has one endangered plant—the Salt Marsh Bird’s Beak.

The estuary’s mix of indigenous plants and silt is a last-chance filtering system for cleansing rain and floodwaters before they reach the Pacific Ocean. But raw sewage, loose soil and solid trash do not respect international borders—and the reserve is constantly under siege. Sediment from rainstorms chokes out healthy marshland, and the sediment, trash and pollution actually create opportunistic conditions for invasive (or exotic) plants to thrive. Such plants as giant reed and castor bean threaten to overrun native species—and alter local ecosystems.
In addition, pollution closes South Bay beaches about 180 days a year, affecting local health and local economies.South of the border are the ad hoc shanty towns that have sprung up in Los Laureles Canyon. “It’s an ethnic hodgepodge,” says Thurston of the residents who pour in from rural Mexico, Central America and South America in search of work and housing. Many end up in the nearby maquilas—foreign-owned factories in Mexico that take advantage of low-cost labor and easy access to U.S. markets. By U.S. standards the wages are meager—between $2 and $3 an hour, with exposure to toxic factory wastes as an unwelcome fringe benefit.

Students learn that by building pervious pavers in Tijuana, they’re saving wetlands in the United States.

UNWELCOME EXPORT: Sediment and pollution from ad hoc shanty towns in the canyons around Tijuana are slowly choking the salt marches of Tijuana River estuary north of the border.

Hands-On Learning

“The current situation harms Tijuana and it harms us,” says Anastasiya Plotina, ’10, who belongs to UCSD’s Urban Studies and Planning (USP) Club. It’s a balmy Saturday afternoon in San Bernardo, and club members are busily constructing pervious pavers for the colonia’s dirt roads. They are pouring a mixture of water, gravel and cement into hexagonal wooden frames to make the foot-wide blocks.

UC San Diego students, work with Los Laureles residents installing pavers.

PAVERS— A SIMPLE SOLUTION: Gravel is first laid on the soil and then the pavers are set on the gravel. The pollution collects in this sub base of gravel, between the soil and the pavers, and naturally occurring aerobic bacteria breaks down any pollution. The sub base and the pavers also help to harvest the water, which in turn helps to maintain native sediment at the site.

The environmentally friendly pavers let rainwater drain through and slowly percolate into the soil. The process prevents erosion and reduces flooding hazards, as well as providing water for nearby plant life, before finally ending up adding to the underground aquifers.
With support from the Mexican and U.S. governments, the students are helping canyon residents—mostly women—build and install 70,000 of these handmade pavers to prevent runoff from flowing into the Tijuana River Estuary and adjacent San Diego Bay. Armenta’s shop is providing the materials at a discounted price. The city of Tijuana has agreed to install a sewer system once the pavers are laid.

But the work is proceeding at a snail’s pace. “In a first-world country you would lay a big sheet of permeable asphalt in a parking lot and get the job done quickly,” says Adam Krohn, ’08, who founded the USP club. “In a way, it’s frustrating that the money is not there.”

However, the good part about having canyon residents do it themselves, he reckons, is that “they learn why they’re doing it, how their actions affect the environment and gain a sense of ownership.” As for the student volunteers, “we’re learning about watersheds and wetlands and why the estuary is important.”

Pilot projects such as the paver activity are scientifically based and empower local people, says Romo. He hopes that in a year or two, Tijuana officials will install pervious pavers elsewhere in the city, since it is also a sustainable model for roads, parking lots, sidewalks and driveways in San Diego. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated use of pervious, or porous, concrete as a Best Management Practice for pollution control and storm water management.

The paver project is one of several efforts by Romo and his USP students to improve canyon life and save the U.S. wetlands. UCSD is contributing technical assistance and funding for the bi-national activities, which include educating Los Laureles canyon residents, engaging with local officials in California and Baja, building environmentally friendly homes in San Bernardo, and creating nurseries for native plants in San Bernardo and in Tijuana’s Parque Moreles, near the Tijuana River Channel.

Romo is an ardent environmentalist, who has been trying for many years to educate people on both sides of the border about the perils of unsustainable development. He hosts a Spanish-language talk show in Mexico titled “Ocean Without Borders.” In July, he received the 2008 Smart Growth for Excellence Award from the Urban Land Institute for his work with students in the barrios of the Tijuana River watershed.

Born and raised in Aguascalientes in central Mexico, Romo carries a binational Rolodex in his head that helps him tweak the system. In 2007, he obtained permission from Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon to perform restoration projects on San Bernardo land. Rhon and Director of California State Parks Ruth Coleman signed the agreement, which includes building houses, laying pervious pavers and developing a plant nursery.

Going Abroad in Your Own Backyard
One of the benefits of a UCSD education is “You can travel for half an hour and see the developing world,” says Romo. By participating in the paver project, “Students get hands-on experience in urban systems, globalization and sustainable development.”

Enlightened self interest also comes into play. “Students learn that by building pervious pavers in Tijuana, they’re saving wetlands in the United States,” says Romo.
Some of the lessons are not so comfortable. “In order to enjoy affordable prices on our products, we have to rely on people who earn too little,” says Romo of the maquila-based economy. “Sometimes globalization translates into poverty and lack of access to a higher standard of living.”

Unplanned growth strains social and natural systems, as rural populations across the developing world migrate to urban areas. This year, for the first time in human history, more than half the human population will live in cities, according to UN projections.

Tijuana, with nearly 2 million residents, is the fastest-growing city in North America. But its hillside slums, despite their lack of basic security and sanitation, have some redeeming features. “They’re self-organized and organic,” says Romo. “To some extent, common sense substitutes for the lack of planning.” The residents are creating their own city—and that’s a model his students won’t easily find stateside.

For example, since loans are unavailable, people build their homes with out-of-pocket cash. Los Laureles dwellings are clustered near maquilas, so that residents can walk to work. Because water is expensive, people gather rainwater for recycling purposes.

The Coastal Training Program conducted 70 public meetings and workshops in Los Laureles to promote conservation practices. Funded by the California Conservancy, the workshops “gave scientists a chance to meet with residents, learn from them, share results of studies and invite them to participate in pilot projects,” says Romo. In exchange for attending, people received food and services at affordable prices.

And how successful are such efforts? Residents are responsive, Romo says, once they see the link between protecting the estuary and improving their health and safety.
Sylvia Tiersten is a freelance writer based in San Diego. She acknowledges extra reporting assistance from Carmen Romo, of the Propuesta Design Group.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Huge waves at the Tijuana Sloughs are tempting, but dangerous Surfing


At the Tijuana Sloughs in Imperial Beach, waves break massive and unrelenting, flawless creations wrought by the combination of rock-reef and deep-water storms carrying with them the force of thousands of miles of open ocean.
When serious northwest swell spins south from Alaska, fully formed and uniquely challenging heavy-water waves stand up at the Sloughs. The types of creations that make surfers take stock of where they stand along the big-wave divide. Forcing decisions about whether or not one wants in.

The Sloughs produce some of the best big waves on the West Coast. In bygone decades, beginning in the late 1930s, the wave was the gold standard for heavy-water surfing in Southern California. If one wanted to make a name for himself, he first had to make a wave at the Sloughs. Today, the same waves break – big and imposing, the types of waves that can change a surfer's life.
So it is curious, then, that one of Southern California's bastions of big-wave riding goes largely unridden.
On a recent day, northwest swell churning fresh down the coast, reefs and beaches up and down the California shoreline lighting up and impacted with surfers, the reef at the Tijuana Sloughs (just this side of the U.S./Mexico border) forced waves to stand up well overhead and run left down a cobblestone beach. To the left, as you looked at the flawless waves, Tijuana and its relative squalor. To the right, Point Loma and its relative opulence. And straight ahead, the waves, and not a soul. Although every other beach in the county was saturated beyond capacity with surfers, the Sloughs were empty. And on most days, they remain that way.
To be sure, some surfers still ride waves at the Sloughs. But for the most part, even surfers – historically brazen about what they'll endure physically to sneak in a good day's surf – won't enter the water there.
This because, in addition to serving as one of the few legitimate big-wave destinations in Southern California, the Tijuana Sloughs act as the unloading dock for the Tijuana River, on the receiving end of some of the most repulsive water this earth has wrought. The Tijuana Rivermouth without question produces some of the most foul effluence in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Tijuana Estuary spills forth with sewage-contaminated flow right into the surf zone. Naturally, this is particularly problematic during the winter and spring months when heavy rains force an increase in the unholy runoff.
The flow – thousands of gallons of unfettered garbage and raw sewage pumped down untreated and fast-running from the ancient Tijuana River, collecting debris and human waste along the way – spills out right along the U.S./Mexico Border, tenths of a mile from the lineup at the Sloughs.
The Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System is measuring the reach of the Tijuana Plume, launching a Web site with graphics and data that track the far-reaching effect of the Tijuana River . But the evidence is striking to the naked eye. Stand at elevation above the Sloughs, and you'll see a plume of brown water forcing its way into the otherwise blue Pacific, working its way north to Imperial Beach and Coronado.
During the winter months, the beach at the Tijuana Sloughs is almost perpetually closed. Still, there are those for whom the call to perfect uncrowded surf is too much, and they continue to paddle out despite the plume of sewage coursing through their takeoff zone. Predictably, most of these people have stories of strange internal and external illnesses – the most extreme of which include hepatitis – so they pick their surfing dates wisely.
Today, largely uninhabited, the Sloughs take on a storybook quality in any surfer's conversation, even if they're not a mythical construct. Old-time surfers speak of a break that at one point was San Diego's best test of a surfer's mettle. Now, if surfers are looking for the same challenge, they drive north to Half Moon Bay and Maverick's, or South to Ensenada Harbor and Todos Santos Island. Or they simply put on their wetsuit and try to ignore the fact that they're paddling directly into the resting spot of millions of gallons of Tijuana sewage.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

State Acts Quickly to Clean Up Tijuana River before Winter Rains: Trash from Mexico is flowing into sensitive California wetlands and estuary

SACRAMENTO--The California Integrated Waste Management Board awarded $250,000 in grants to expedite the installation and establishment of a trash capture and removal system along the California-Mexico border before the arrival of winter/spring rains.
The affected area is in the Tijuana River Valley and Goat Canyon Estuary in Border Field State Park, 15 miles south of San Diego. It is located entirely within the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, an important wildlife habitat managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
“The tires and trash flowing from Mexico pose an environmental threat to the Tijuana River Valley, the estuary, and one of the few remaining tidal wetlands in Southern California," said Board Chair Margo Reid Brown. "This cleanup grant, and our partnership with California State Parks, will help protect the pristine beauty of this environmentally sensitive area."
Today's action will allow Waste Board and State Parks contractors to immediately install a trash boom collection system in the Upper and Lower Goat Canyon tidal basins for use in this wet season. State Parks had previously designed and purchased the boom system for the basins but did not have the resources or funds to expedite its installation for use this winter.
The contractors will also assist in the initial removal of trash, tires, and sediment. State Parks will provide site access and will be responsible for long-term operation and maintenance of the system.
The Waste Board and State Parks will work closely with other State and local agencies, as well as nonprofits, to ensure that the sand dunes and salt marshes that give refuge to critically threatened endangered birds will continue to be a viable environmental resource.
“The California Integrated Waste Management Board should be commended for its support and contribution to the continuing effort to protect and restore the beneficial uses of water in the lower Tijuana River,” said John Robertus, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. “This is a positive result of government agencies and stakeholders working together to identify a threat to the environment, develop solutions, and provide funding to help correct the problems.”
The grants awarded today come from the Waste Board's Solid Waste Disposal and Codisposal Grant Program, which funds the cleanup of sites when a responsible party cannot be identified or is unable or unwilling to pay cleanup costs. The grants accelerate timely cleanup of dump sites that pose a risk to public health or the environment.
Watch a video story on the grant, and B-Roll is available for media outlets.