Thursday, October 29, 2009

Volunteers Haul 600 Tires, Trash Out Of Tijuana River Valley

About 300 volunteers from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border hauled more than six tons of trash out of the Tijuana River Valley last weekend. Volunteers want to help prevent flooding this winter and keep trash from washing out to sea.

Surfers, ranchers, U.S. Navy Seals, students and volunteers from Tijuana pulled around 600 tires out of San Diego's Tijuana River Valley. They filled two 40-foot-long dumpsters with trash.

Ben McCue is with the conservation group Wildcoast that helped organize the clean up. He says the volunteers even dragged out a few refrigerators.

"Everything we hauled out would have been swept down further into the estuary and into the ocean eventually with the next big rain."

Rain washes garbage from Tijuana neighborhoods that don't have garbage collection across the border into the Tijuana River Valley.

The waste combined with sediment blocks drainage channels. Last winter, that caused flooding.

There's worry the newly built border fence could exacerbate flooding this winter by depositing more sediment in drainage channels.

By Amy Isackson

2009 Paddle for Clean Water Video Re-cap

Click here to check it out.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Barren Promise at the Border

Had anyone else built this hillside near the U.S.-Mexico border, it would look nothing like it does. The barren hill would be alive with native plants, the earth would be solidly rooted and not a threat to tumble down into the Tijuana Estuary, a lush, 2,500-acre salt marsh that starts 600 feet away.

But along the newly constructed border fence near the Pacific Ocean in Border Field State Park, inch-thick tan clumps of seeds and mulch still blanket the ground. They haven't been watered, so no plants have grown.

Were it anyone else's project, state regulators would've required irrigation to ensure that plants grew. But the federal government is responsible for the $59 million effort to complete and reinforce 3.5 miles of border fence separating San Diego and Tijuana. The Department of Homeland Security exempted itself from eight federal laws and any related state laws that would have regulated the project's environmental impacts.

Because the project is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act, state water regulators have no jurisdiction.

Homeland Security officials sought the waiver power in 2005 to accelerate fence construction in San Diego and across the Southwest, saying that national security needs trumped environmental concerns. That power has accelerated construction from San Diego to Brownsville, as the agency has waived laws across 550 miles of the border. To date, 633 miles of fence have been built at a cost of $2.4 billion.

The department made the same promise each time it waived laws like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act: Though we're now exempt from federal and state environmental regulation, we're still committed to the environment.

But as construction continues across the Southwest, the project's impacts in Border Field State Park and in another federal reserve further east raise questions about the sincerity of the government's commitment.

Clay Phillips, the California State Parks superintendent who oversees Border Field and the estuary, said that promise hasn't been fulfilled there. Mitigation of the fence's environmental impacts has "failed miserably," Phillips said.

Phillips worries that winter rains will wash soil off the hills into the nearby estuary he oversees, which is home to several sensitive species and already filling with sediment swept in from Tijuana. Sediment raises the level of the ground, stopping the twice-daily tidal flushing that keeps the wetlands wet.

Army Corps of Engineers contractors completed the fence separating San Diego and Tijuana in July. They filled in the notorious cross-border canyon known as Smuggler's Gulch, added a second layer of steel fencing and built a road for Border Patrol vehicles running parallel to the fence. The gulch, once a deep canyon, is now filled with an earthen berm more than 100 feet tall.

Though native plant seeds were sprayed across the berm and other newly created hillsides in Border Field State Park, Phillips said the federal government never irrigated them. Only a handful of plants grew. Other hills have none.

"They sprayed it (with seed) and hoped for the best," Phillips said. "It was a waste. A token gesture."

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, Jenny Burke, said the project was built to Caltrans' erosion standards. The agency will "monitor the situation and is considering other actions as required."

John Robertus, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the local water pollution police, said the project doesn't have all the safeguards his agency would've required. He said if the board had jurisdiction, it would've required temporary irrigation to ensure plants grew. Robertus said he, too, is concerned about the project's potential impacts on the estuary.

Fence construction has left a mark on other areas in San Diego County greater than what would've been allowed without the waiver. Further east in the federally protected Otay Mountain Wilderness, a road built along a new four-mile section of fence also left barren hills, said Joyce Schlachter, a wildlife biologist with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area.

"When we get any rain, it's going to be an erosion nightmare," Schlachter said. Seeds have been sprayed there, too, but not watered, she said. No plants have grown.

The impacts on Otay Mountain stretch beyond possible erosion. Phalanxes of dump trucks going to work on the fence have rumbled up and down a dirt road, spreading clouds of dust as far as 30 feet away, blanketing Tecate cypress, a rare tree found only on three peaks in San Diego County. (Its range extends into Mexico.) The tree, a bushy evergreen, provides food for the Thorne's hairstreak butterfly, a rare thumbnail-sized insect that feeds only on the cypress and that has been suffering from too-frequent fires on the mountain.

Construction crews cut down more than 100 cypress that survived a massive 2003 wildfire to widen an existing road for construction vehicles, Schlachter said.

If laws hadn't been waived, the Bureau would have required construction crews to minimize their impact on the trees, she said. Homeland Security officials consulted with the Bureau, Schlachter said, then didn't follow all of its advice.

"When it came right down to it, they did what they wanted to do," Schlachter said. "And they knew they couldn't be stopped. We did not have control over it."

Kathy Williams, a San Diego State biology professor studying the butterfly, said the dust poses "potentially a really serious problem" for the Thorne's hairstreak and the cypress.

Williams has reared a small number of Thorne's caterpillars on both dusty and clean leaves in her laboratory. Results from the on-going experiment so far indicate that more caterpillars survived on clean leaves, she said.

Before construction began last year, Williams said the roadside habitat looked much healthier. She saw more butterflies last year than she did this year, though she noted that population sizes vary annually.

"Now it's obviously degraded habitat," she said, noting that rainfall may help clean the leaves. "The appearance of the quality of the site is strikingly different."

Burke, the Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, said the agency consulted with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials about the Otay project and routinely wets the road to keep dust down. She said Customs and Border Protection will monitor the dust and maintain the roads "to their construction standard," and could periodically apply "dust-control agents," which include sap.

Those efforts haven't always worked well. Sap was sprayed on trees beyond the road's edge, Schlachter said. Dust stuck on top of the sap, she said, making the trees' survival questionable. "They're creating more risk to the plants," she said. "That's an issue."

On at least one occasion, crews didn't water the road -- even though they had the necessary equipment on hand. One morning in June, a water truck escorted dump trucks to the work site but didn't spray any water. As the trucks wound through the wilderness past Tecate cypress, choking clouds of dust followed.

U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, whose district includes Border Field State Park, said in a statement that she wants more done immediately to address the fence's environmental impacts.

"Many people, including myself, expressed strong concerns about the border fence and the implications of exempting the construction of the fence from environmental laws," Davis said. "Unfortunately, those concerns are becoming a reality. I hope the Department of Homeland Security will continue to work with Congress and local officials in finding an immediate solution and work toward a permanent one."

A representative of an environmental group that opposed the fence because of concerns about erosion said its construction reinforced the reasons for his opposition. Jim Peugh, conservation chairman of the San Diego Audubon Society, said he hopes the fence serves as an example of why environmental laws should never be waived.

"The idea of building something without seeing how you're going to maintain it -- it's just going to fail," Peugh said. "That's an insane thing to do. And this project proves that beyond a doubt."

By Rob Davis

Thursday, October 22, 2009

WiLDCOAST Leads First Ever Bi-National Cleanup of San Diego's Tijuana River Valley

WiLDCOAST, Tijuana Calidad de Vida, and Surfrider are organizing volunteers and organizations from both sides of the border to clean-up the Tijuana River Valley before the first rain event flushes plastics, tires, and trash into the ocean.

Every winter San Diego's Tijuana River Valley is inundated with trash carried by the bi-national Tijuana River. Each rain event brings tons of ocean-bound trash and solid waste through the valley and the protected Tijuana Estuary. This poses serious environmental, health, and economic threats to our region. The event's message is clear: the only way to clean-up the Tijuana River is through cross-border collaboration.

Families, students, ranchers, surfers, Navy Seals, farmers and environmentalists from both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border ranging in age from 7 to 77 will be working side-by-side to clean-up the Tijuana River Valley by hand.

9 am - 12pm on Saturday, October 24th, 2009 (The event is also part of the International Day of Climate Action and is one of 3000 events across 159 countries to protect our environment and take a stand for a safe climate future.)

2220 Dairy Mart Rd. - West of the Dairy Mart Bridge

Take Interstate 5 South exit on Dairy Mart Rd; Make a right onto Dairy Mart Rd; Continue straight on Dairy, pass Camino de la Plaza; Make a right onto first dirt road visible on right hand side.

Great Waves and Big Crowd for WiLDCOAST's 6th Annual Dempsey Ocean Festival and Surf Contest

With more than 180 participants, the 6th Annual WiLDCOAST Dempsey Holder Memorial Ocean Festival and Surf Contest was the largest surfing competition ever held in South San Diego County. On Sunday October 18 on the south side of the Imperial Beach Pier, more than 500 spectators lined the beach to watch surfers from all over San Diego County surf beautiful 2-4' waves.

"We were absolutely stunned by the record number of participants who turned out and the amazing Aloha spirit of the crowd," said Serge Dedina, Executive Director of WiLDCOAST. "This was by far the most successful event we've run so far. And we were blown away by the spirit of giving by the County of San Diego and Billabong and by community members and businesses who sponsored dozens of children who able to participate free of charge."

The annual event was made possible by support from Billabong, whose CEO Paul Naude also donated a beautiful Rusty surfboard. A County of San Diego Community Enhancement Grant was made possible thanks to the support of County Supervisor Greg Cox who made an appearance to meet contest participants. Additional major sponsors included TNT Surfboards, Novak Surfboard Designs, Morey Boogie, Pacific Realty, Emerald City Boarding Source, Adept Process Services and Alan Cunniff Construction. Additional supporters included Katie's Coffee, Cowabunga, Surf Hut, Oakley, Volcom, Osiris, GoPro, and many others.

In a competition presided over by Dempsey's son and honorary event chairman Peter Holder, surfers battled it out in the mixed swell sets that poured in all morning. Groms and adults surfed the clean morning conditions Although the wind turned less favorable in the afternoon; competitors were not deterred from ripping to the top in each of the 50 heats that went down on Sunday.

An early stand out was El Cajon's Vito Roccoforte who, despite not advancing his Junior Men's heat, nearly pulled a radical reverse on a south site left-hander. In the Junior Men's final, Mason Darleux dropped a 7 with two powerful forehand cracks on a pier bowl right but it wasn't enough to catch Jay Christenson who also won the Boys division final. Former Women's Longboard World Champ, Kristy Murphy, made two finals; winning the women's division and placing 5th in the Open SUP. Vincent Claunch was a standout in the Menehune Boys Expression Session with stylish lip blasts and fin hucks. Mike Gillard made three finals, placing 2nd in the Masters, 1st in the Longboard and 3rd in the SUP. Drew Erichson won the stacked bodyboard division and Jahvin Bowman took home the top rated amateur award and a year sponsorship with Morey Boogie. Erik Leksell won the top rated youth award and a slew of gear from Morey and Churchill.

This year the Dempsey highlighted the progress that has been made along the U.S.-Mexico border to clean up the coast. With a new sewage treatment plant under construction on the U.S. side of the border, three new sewage plants operating in the Tijuana-Rosarito Beach region, and the signing of legislation by Governor Schwarzenegger to fund cleaning up Tijuana, the WiLDCOAST "Clean Water Now" campaign has made a significant contribution to protecting our coast and ocean.

One of the highlights of the event that demonstrated the true Aloha Spirit of the Dempsey came during the awards ceremony, when young men's standout Jay Christenson donated one of two surfboards he had won to Imperial Beach grom Robert Tschackert a longtime WiLDCOAST volunteer. "I was blown away by Jay's generous spirit," said WiLDCOAST staffer and WQS competitor Zach Plopper. "He really showed us why the Dempsey is more than just a surfing event but a festival to celebrate our positive community-based coast and ocean conservation movement."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Effort to Block Emergency Cleanup of Tijuana River Valley Fails

SAN DIEGO - An effort to halt the city's emergency work to clear clogged flood control channels in the Tijuana River Valley to prevent flooding in advance of winter rains was rejected today by a judge.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor denied a temporary restraining order sought in conjunction with a lawsuit by attorney Cory Briggs, who argued the project didn't comply with California's environmental laws.

At a morning hearing, Taylor found that the flood control project met an exemption for emergencies in state environmental law, according to Alex Roth, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders.

Sanders said he was "gratified" by the judge's decision.

"Last year, with just two inches of rain, we had a very dangerous situation where we lost livestock and nearly lost some of the ranchers down there," Sanders said.

"If it hadn't been for our swift water rescue team, there probably would have been loss of life, and we want to avoid that this year," he said. "That's why we have an emergency situation."

Last week, work began to remove trash, debris, sediment and overgrown vegetation from clogged flood control channels in the Tijuana River Valley. The work is expected to be completed by Feb. 15.

The San Diego City Council declared a state of emergency for the Tijuana River Valley last month and authorized $4.4 million in stormwater funds to dredge the drainage channels.

Last winter, floods inundated the Tijuana River Valley with contaminated water, caused substantial property damage and contributed to the death of horses and other livestock.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Law firm seeks to stop cleanup of Tijuana River Valley

SOUTH COUNTY – A law firm suing the city for declaring a state of emergency in the Tijuana River Valley and authorizing the removal of tons of debris will seek a temporary restraining order Thursday to stop the work.

Cleanup began last week on the river's flood-control channels, which are filled with sediment and trash after years of accumulation. The work is aimed at preventing a repeat of last December's devastating floods.

The suit alleges that the project did not constitute an emergency under San Diego's municipal codes and that the sole-source contracts awarded for the cleanup work violated city law.

Attorney Mekaela Gladden, on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government, notified the city Wednesday that the group would be asking a judge to stop the cleanup while its Sept. 17 lawsuit is being decided.

San Diego spokesman Alex Roth said the lawsuit is baseless. He said a provision in state environmental law contains an exemption for emergencies.

Gladden works for Briggs Law Corp., whose owner, Cory Briggs, has sued to stop the $21 million cruise-ship terminal at Broadway Pier and the redevelopment of the Navy's downtown San Diego headquarters.

Neither Gladden nor Briggs returned a call for comment. Others were dismayed by the suit.

“It's inconceivable that special interests would oppose clearing the original river channel, damning nearby properties to certain destruction and likely loss of life,” said John Gabaldon, president of the Tijuana River Valley Equestrian Association.

Union-Tribune Staff Writer

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bare Dirt Along New Border Fence A Flood Worry

State parks officials are worried the federal government's failure to grow plants on slopes where it built new sections of the border fence could mean floods on both sides of the US Mexico border this rainy season. Smuggler's Gulch is a major area of concern.

About four years ago, the US federal government waived all environmental laws along the US Mexico border in order to build the border fence. The head of the Department of Homeland Security promised, even so, the government would control erosion to protect the Tijuana River Valley and estuary.

Clay Phillips is with the California Parks Department and manages the estuary reserve. He says the bare slopes that run the length of the new fence construction are a stark contrast to the promise.

"You wouldn't find a Jack In the Box where they're adding a parking lot that would be left in this condition."

The federal government has tried to grow plants on the slopes to control erosion without success. Phillips says moderate rain will erode the bare dirt. That could clog the Tijuana Estuary and cause floods in Tijuana and San Diego.

By Amy Isackson

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Imperial Beach group helps pass tire bill

— Environmentalists praised Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for signing a bill Sunday that lets the state's solid waste agency spend money on projects in Mexico aimed at reducing the number of old tires polluting the border area.

Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, sponsored Senate Bill 167 to address the environmental hazards created by thousands of used tires that wash into San Diego County during storms. The legislation frees up fees collected for tire recycling so they can fund programs designed to keep tires in Mexico from entering California's waste stream.

“(It) will allow California to work upstream in Tijuana, at the root of the problem, to stop the flow of used tires,” said Ben McCue of the conservation group WiLDCOAST in Imperial Beach. “This is a victory for the environment and a great deal for California taxpayers.”

McCue helped write the bill as part of a graduate school program at the University of San Diego. He and his classmates lobbied for its passage in Sacramento.

Union-Tribune Staff Writer

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Crews clean clogged Tijuana River channels

TIJUANA RIVER VALLEY – Emergency permits in hand, crews are cleaning out clogged Tijuana River channels that in December caused nearby ranches and farms to flood and animals to drown.

The San Diego City Council last month declared a local state of emergency for the river valley, which allowed the city to spend up to $4.4 million to clean out the river and channels choked with sediment, vegetation and debris.

But the work couldn't begin until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the cleanup plan.

That approval came this week.

“I'm confident the work will make a difference,” said Mayor Jerry Sanders Friday at a news conference Friday in the river valley where horses and goats drowned. “This is a short-term solution. We're working on a long-term solution with a master clean-up plan. We'll take care of it annually.”

Last December, storms caused the river and channels to overflow. Some blamed the clogged river and channels on a border fence built along a large earthen berm that lacks drainage and erosion controls. Other blamed a combination of debris and trash from Mexico and sediment from the fence.

River-valley horse and property owners say with the rainy season approaching, they are relieved the work has begun.

“It's about time,” said ranch owner Dick Tynan. “It's way past due.”


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Water exec is leaving legacy of teamwork

Agency alliance works to clean Tijuana River

As the San Diego region's top water cop walked through the Denver airport in December, his eye caught a disturbing photo at the newsstand. Front pages from around the country showed a woman chest-deep in muddy water leading a horse to higher ground.

“I thought, ‘I know exactly where that is,’ ” said John Robertus, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. “That kind of hit home.”

The photo was taken in the Tijuana River Valley, the often-neglected southwest corner of San Diego County that for more than 70 years has been fouled by raw sewage, garbage and mud when rains cause the clogged waterway to flood. Homes, horse ranches and farms dot the largely undeveloped area.

That moment in the airport cemented a mission now dominating the final months of Robertus' 14-year tenure with the water board.

Robertus, who will retire in December, has forged an alliance of more than 30 agencies focused on fixing some of the most persistent problems with the county's most polluted river.

Regional environmental leaders credit him with crafting a unified vision for restoring the watershed, using his regulator's badge to make people listen and helping to attract more than $2 million in grants during recent months from state agencies.

“John is really the visionary on this,” said Carl Nettleton, a San Diego-based consultant on public policy and business issues and co-chairman — along with Robertus — of the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team.

“We have always said, ‘It's not our trash. It's not our sediment. It's coming from the other side of the border. Shouldn't folks there do that?’ ” Nettleton said. “The (Robertus) approach is, ‘That would be great, but what could we do on this side?’ ”

The U.S. portion of the Tijuana River runs about six miles from near the San Ysidro port of entry to the Pacific Ocean south of Imperial Beach. Even in its degraded state, the surrounding greenbelt is widely viewed as an environmental prize because it's one of the largest intact estuaries in California.

The recovery team is working to intercept pollutants by installing trash screens, sediment collection basins and garbage-transfer stations. It also plans to remove decades of built-up silt and garbage so the estuary can function as it did before it became clogged.

Those projects will complement efforts made in recent years to improve sewage control and treatment on both sides of the border.

In August, Mexican officials celebrated the addition of wastewater pumps, pipes and processing plants in Tijuana. Meanwhile, the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission is expanding its sewage-treatment facility in San Ysidro, which handles wet-weather flows from the Tijuana River.

The first decade of the recovery team's work is expected to cost at least $100 million — similar to the projected bill for a major cleanup of tainted sediment in San Diego Bay. Maintenance projects would continue indefinitely.

Robertus said the federal government should cover the bulk of the tab because most of the pollution problem comes from Mexico and it's made worse by the United States creating steep, erosion-prone hillsides for the border fence.

The need for upgrades in the valley is clear.

“If you come here after the first big rain (of the season), it looks like snow in those trees as far as the eye can see because of plastic bottles,” said Clay Phillips, a top State Parks official in the river valley.

The area's residents and visitors fear not only more property damage from floods, but also the chances of a public-health emergency from diseases carried in the muddy flows.

“The issues are so complex that nobody has really figured out a way to untangle them,” said John Gabaldon, president of the Tijuana River Valley Equestrian Association. “Without someone as strong as John Robertus in there, I see it falling back into becoming impenetrable.”

For Robertus, 63, the Tijuana River initiative caps a lengthy tenure atop one of the region's most powerful agencies. The board is among nine similar panels statewide that regulate water pollution.

Robertus' no-nonsense approach makes him an archetypal executive officer, said John Lormon, an attorney for Ametek, which recently was fined by the regional water board. “He's not political. He's about water quality.”

Lormon was on the agency's governing panel in 1995 when it hired Robertus, who had just left Camp Pendleton after a 28-year career with the Marine Corps.

In his 20s, Robertus was immersed in studying the Clean Water Act at the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Belvoir, Va., where his class was among the first to get training in the 1972 law.

He admired the regional water board's work over the decades and saw the executive-officer position as a natural fit for his technical expertise along with his love of rivers, lakes and streams.

“As an engineer, I was trained in the art of development. When you encountered water, you could improve it — fill it in and get rid of it,” Robertus said. “I now believe that if you encounter a water body that is natural . . . then leave it alone. It's a rare, valuable asset.”

Robertus understands the Tijuana River Valley's problems better than most. His agency sued the federal government in 2001 to improve sewage treatment at the wastewater plant in San Ysidro, which doesn't meet Clean Water Act standards.

The lawsuit eventually prompted the federal government to give $88 million for various plant improvements that started in January.

Buoyed by that success, Robertus leveraged his long list of contacts to grab the attention of officials involved in the valley.

“I said, ‘Come to these meetings or I am going to issue a cleanup and abatement order,’ ” Robertus said. “They all came.”

By early this year, he met with San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, the head of a U.S.-Mexico water commission, and representatives from congressional offices, environmental groups and local universities.

Leaders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California State Parks, San Diego County and other agencies meet monthly as part of the river recovery team.

Many of the groups had spent years addressing pieces of the valley's pollution problem without much coordination. They sometimes competed for money. Now, they help each other — something Phillips called the “first huge practical benefit” of the alliance.

The team's emerging plan focuses on three major areas of pollution: the main channel of the Tijuana River, a canyon called Smuggler's Gulch and another known as Goat Canyon.

Proposed fixes include placing screens along the international border to stop trash from clogging the valley's lower reaches. Those devices would be complemented by basins designed to collect sediment where it can be removed quickly.

In addition, scientists are trying to quantify the volume of sediment and trash deposited over the decades before they begin removal. They also are looking for places where existing sediment can be transferred — perhaps to the nearby shoreline — for relatively little cost.

Besides the domestic projects, the recovery team is working with agencies in Mexico to minimize and capture pollutants at their origin.

Robertus said he is confident that momentum for the coordinated cleanup strategy will continue after he retires.

“I intend to bring my grandkids down there some day, and I want them to see the unspoiled beach, the coastal river and the estuary” free of debris, he said.

Union-Tribune Staff Writer

Friday, October 2, 2009

Pink Waves Roll in Imperial Beach

See the Following Flow of Pollutants post from Sept 22 for more info and click here to check out the colorful surf.