Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tijuana River Valley residents prepare for second storm

Click here to see the video

Friday, December 18, 2009

Solving border pollution woes

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, in the aftermath of the recent massive rainstorm that hit Southern California, is the debris trail — used tires, plastic bottles, plywood, and discarded dolls. It starts in the canyons of Tijuana and ends up along U.S. beaches from Imperial Beach to Coronado, and on the ocean floor. There is no other outlet along the Pacific Coast of North America that sends more plastic, sewage and urban refuse into the ocean than the Tijuana River during a rainstorm.

Thanks to the foresight and advanced planning of agencies working along the border, there has never been a greater effort to reduce the amount of sewage and garbage flowing into the Tijuana River Valley and into the Pacific Ocean. Much more still needs to be done, however, to finally put an end to the devastating flooding and cross-border pollution that plagues the communities and beaches of South County.

A recently dug city of San Diego pilot channel saved ranchers in the Tijuana River Valley from being hit by mudslides caused by the Department of Homeland Security’s massive earthen border barrier. Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Ben Hueso had the foresight to secure emergency permits to save valley homes, farms and ranches from the damage associated with the inexpert earthen border barrier engineering.

One of the growing problems that plagues the Tijuana River Valley after it rains is the glut of thousands of used tires that wash across the border. These tires are imported into Mexico from California by the millions each year. The recent signing of SB-167, sponsored by State Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will permit the state of California to begin to work with Mexican agencies to develop cost-effective solutions to halt the tidal wave of tires that clogs sewage collector systems, recreational areas, sensitive wetland habitat and eventually ends up in the ocean.

Under the leadership of recently retired Regional Water Board chief John Robertus, the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team has brought together the multiple government agencies that oversee the valley. Under the recovery team, for the first time these agencies have developed a joint work plan in tune with the needs of South County residents to clean up and restore the Tijuana River Valley. At a recent workshop during a “Green Borders Conference” held at the Tijuana Estuary Visitor’s Center, task force members and University of San Diego staff led an effort to bring residents and government officials from both sides of the border together to make the much needed planning effort one that is truly binational.

There is still much to do. U.S. agencies should support the efforts of the city of Tijuana and the state of Baja California Norte to expand their new system of low-cost sewage treatment and water reclamation plants. At a cost of between $10-15 million each, these plants represent the best hope for stopping the flow of wastewater across the border and into the ocean. Additionally the International Boundary and Water Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can help Mexico finance efforts to permanently stop the flow of treated sewage into the ocean at the San Antonio de los Buenos site six miles south of the border. That wastewater way makes its way north to Imperial Beach during the spring and summer south-swell and south-wind season.

Ultimately, agencies and elected officials will have to be even more creative and visionary if we are to solve the most pressing environmental problem in California and along the entire U. S-Mexico border. They should look north to efforts in Los Angeles to make the concrete and garbage-laden Los Angeles River more of a natural waterway. Cross-border engineers need to apply a resource conservation ethic to managing the Tijuana River watershed. The concrete Tijuana River in Mexico should be restored into a revitalized urban green space and waterway that integrates the need for flood control, pollution reduction and creating more desperately needed recreational space for Tijuana residents.

After all, on a sunny morning before winter rains hit, there is no more stunning location in San Diego County than the mouth of the Tijuana River. The river mouth is where I often surf beautiful waves with my two sons, lifelong friends, leopard sharks and a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins. That piece of our wild coastline, and the watershed that gives it life, are surely worth restoring and preserving to benefit generations to come in both Mexico and the United States.

By Serge Dedina

Farmers, ranchers assess damage after rains

— As the Tijuana River Valley dries out during a respite from two late-fall storms, city officials and border-area farmers and ranchers are assessing the damage.

Last weekend’s storm added to the pools of water, mud and debris in the river valley lingering from a Dec. 7 storm. That downpour was one of San Diego’s heaviest in years, dropping record-setting amounts of rain throughout the county. Fortunately, it wasn’t a repeat of last December’s devastating flooding from moderate rain that resulted in ruined crops, hay, equipment and the deaths of livestock.

Most people escaped without much damage from the most recent storms and said it could have been worse. They credited the city of San Diego for clearing trash and vegetation from clogged flood-control channels and preventing a repeat of last year. City crews also dredged sediment, which flowed down a large earthen berm recently built by the federal government.

However, at least a few locals say they suffered damage to fields and are losing money on property that can’t be rented while under water. Both say flooding from the recent storms came from a “pilot channel” off Hollister Street near Monument Road that breached its berm. City officials have not yet cleared out that section.

Wide stretches of the Kimzey Ranch on Hollister Street at Monument Road, including stables and pens where four horses and nearly a dozen goats drowned last December, were under about a half-foot of water or filled with mud this week.

“It wouldn’t have happened if the city would have cleaned the pilot channel out first,” said rancher Dick Tynan, who is losing about $2,600 per month in rent on land that’s “mucky.”

Farmer David Egger, who is suing the city for damages from last year’s flooding, said 10 acres of topsoil were ruined by Dec. 7 flooding. He estimates the loss at up to $100,000.

“Without the pilot channel cleaned out, it backs up and gets higher and higher and gets to a point where it goes over the top of those berms,” Egger said.

City crews began clearing out Tijuana River Valley channels in October after receiving emergency permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Tony Heinrichs, director of the city’s Storm Water Department, said before the early-December storms, crews had been working seven days a week to clear out the 1,600-foot Smuggler’s Gulch flood-control channel. He said they had nearly completed the western portion of the 5,400-foot pilot channel but still must complete the eastern side.

“Had the rains not come, we thought by the end of this month we’d be finished,” Heinrichs said. “But now we have to wait a few days to dry out. If we have a week’s worth of good weather, we’ll be able to get back out there definitely by next week.”

Heinrichs said city crews’ top priority will be to clear the rest of the pilot channel and the sediment from Smuggler’s Gulch.

Horse owner Kim Warriner and her husband, Kirk Coles, checked out the Smuggler’s Gulch channel last week. It sits below an earthen berm made from 1.5 million cubic yards of dirt, the site of a new border fence. Homeland Security waived federal and state laws for the fence construction last year, including for drainage and erosion controls.

“This was 10 feet deep,” Warriner said. “Now, it looks like it’s been filled with 4 feet of sediment.”

The National Weather Service expects warm, dry conditions through at least Sunday. Long-range forecasters believe that a wet season is likely because of the emergence of El Niño conditions in the central Pacific. The heaviest rains may come in February or March.

Heinrichs said getting the work done quickly is the city’s goal. The emergency permit expires Feb. 15.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Tire Runs Through It

Beneath a bridge on Dairy Mart Road in the Tijuana River Valley, a lonely soccer ball races by, tumbling end over end with the flow of the river. It's made a quick journey across the border today and within moments, will disappear behind a group of trees and high weeds.

It's lonely now, but it won't be for long. Coming right behind it is a two-liter Coca-Cola bottle -- then a tire, a jar of whey protein supplement, a piece of Styrofoam and a mattress.

They're all headed north. On this rainy day, when downpours fall across Tijuana, too, the water awakens dormant litter that's been tossed aside in Mexico.

Eventually, when the water recedes and the flooding signs are put back on the side of the road, the magnitude of the litter will be clear. In January, reporter Rob Davis and I visited the Tijuana River Valley to see the impact that hard downpours have on the area.

Mounds of trash consumed a once clean valley. At the time, Davis put it this way:

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.

Monday, nearly a year after photographing the aftermath, I waded through the mud and pouring rain to see firsthand how the trash arrived.

At first glance, the garbage flow seemed unremarkable. An old doll here, a paper plate there. But then, clusters of plastic bottles came past. Within a 10-minute span, at least 20 tires floated through the cross-border canyon called Smuggler's Gulch.

The slow trickle of litter adds up. But the scale of the problem won't be as clear until the water dries up. Then the job can begin -- yet again -- to clean up the valley that can't escape the rain.


Click here for more photos.