Tijuana River: a controversy runs through it
by Lori Saldaña
On a spring afternoon, the Tijuana River Valley appears tranquil. Wildflowers
perfume the air. Hawks hover a few feet over the ground, hunting in the
salt marsh. Horseback riders amble down narrow roads. Only the U.S. Border
Patrol driving 4x4's, trying in vain to stem the tide of illegal immigrants
flowing in from Mexico, seem to be in a hurry.
he valley lies immediately north of the U.S.-Mexico
border, between San Ysidro and Interstate 5 to the east, the Pacific Ocean
to the west, and pushed up against the tract homes and suburban spread of
Imperial Beach and Nestor to the north. The river running through this broad,
green landscape receives its water from creeks, streams and other small
tributaries draining some 1,700 square miles. More than 70% of that land
is in Mexico.
The river crosses the international border east of Interstate
5 and meanders northwest for about five miles before reaching the ocean.
A land ownership map of this region looks like a patchwork quilt. The river
winds its way thought lots owned by private parties, the city and county
of San Diego, and various state and federal resource agencies, including
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish
The valley covers 3,000 acres and includes some of the
last undeveloped coastal wetlands in San Diego County.
Statewide, less than 10 percent of native wetlands still
exist. Most of the state's original estuaries (partially enclosed coastal
bodies of water filled with a mix of rain, river water and salty ocean tides)
and their surrounding vegetation communities (known as salt marshes) have
been lost to dredging and development. This practice has created deep-water
harbors such as San Diego Bay, and recreational parks and marinas, such
as Mission Bay.
Many of the natural estuaries that remain, such as the
city-owned Famosa Slough in the Loma Portal area, have been placed in permanent
reserves to prevent further loss. The Tijuana River's estuary has been permanently
protected under the National Estuarine Sanctuaries program.
Other parts of the river valley, upstream of the estuary,
are still subject to a variety of uses and development. These include sand
dredging and gravel mining operations, horse boarding stables and agricultural
The loss of wetlands throughout the state has meant
the loss of critical habitat for native fish, birds, mammals, and plants.
Still, as one drives into the Tijuana River Valley, there are no obvious
indications of its biological importance. The only signs posted at the entrance
along Dairy Mart Road - printed in both English and Spanish - warn against
illegal dumping. Less than a mile away, in violation of these signs, 50-gallon
drums and stripped car chassis lie rusting along the road.
Several miles west, near the entrance to Border Field
State park at the southern edge of the estuary, one finally finds interpretive
signs and maps explaining the importance of wetlands. Beneath an illustration
of a salt marsh is the following message: "If we destroy our remaining
coastal wetlands ... we would lose an important source of food. Two-thirds
of fish and shellfish found in coastal waters and eaten by humans spend
part of their lives in estuaries such as this one.
"Finally, we would lose the myriad plants and animals
that live in the wetlands and that enhance our sense of the quiet beauty
of nature. By preserving marsh habitats we protect our quality of life and
well being - the spark of wildness that exists in us all."
It's a powerful message - but no one seems to be listening.
Overflows and floods
Despite these warnings, population increases and the
resulting development in both the United States and Mexico have created
problems in the valley, its estuary and the Pacific Ocean. More than 1.2
million people live in the city of San Diego, and an estimated 2 million
people live in Tijuana. During the previous 10 years, Tijuana's population
has substantially exceeded its sewage system capacity.
As a result, raw sewage mixed with industrial and agricultural
wastes regularly overflows into the canyons surrounding the city. These
canyons carry the flows across the international border and into the United
States, along the southern edge of the valley. The wastewater flows into
the river, contaminating the estuary, and occasionally forcing beach closures.
Besides contaminating the valley, these excess sewage
flows have become expensive to manage. A 1993 report from the San Diego
City Manager's office reports that, since October 1991, the city had collected
an average of 13 millions gallons of Mexican sewage per day. The sewage
is treated at the Point Loma wastewater plant at a cost to the city and
state of nearly $500,000 per month.
Flooding during heavy winter storms has also been a
problem. In the 1970s, Mexico constructed a concrete channel to control
flooding through Tijuana, but the channel ends at the border. Its planned
connector on the U.S. side has never been completed due to concerns over
destroying habitat for endangered species, including birds such as the least
Bell's vireo, light-footed clapper rail, and California least tern.
Throughout most of the 1980s, Southern California experienced
extremely dry winters. But in 1993, the combination of heavy winter storms,
overgrown vegetation, illegally constructed berms and piles of fill dirt
caused winter floodwaters to shift the river's course, destroy a bridge,
and flood neighborhoods to the north for the first time.
Plans for survival
Today, few obvious signs of the floods of 1993 remain
in the valley. The waters have receded, and a temporary Bailey bridge has
replaced the one destroyed by the high waters. Its single lane now carries
cars into the valley, crossing the river along Hollister Street. At night,
the sounds of flowing water, frog calls and buzzing insects fill the air;
owls fly silently overhead.
Not so obvious is the way in which flooding and contamination
have weakened the wetlands throughout the valley. Wetlands have always had
to adapt to seasonal fluctuations, but these more recent additions of pollution,
increased freshwater runoff, and development along their margins has made
them more vulnerable to rapidly changing conditions. The wetlands may now
require human interventions - specifically, the completion of a flood control
project, and the construction of an international wastewater treatment plant
- in order to survive.
Predictably, some believe these plans will be the valley's
salvation, while others worry that shortsighted, poorly-designed solutions
could lead to even worse ecological conditions. Consequently, both the flood
control and sewage treatment plans have been proceeding slowly, working
their way through various stages of the public review, environmental assessment
and design process.
Collectively, these projects will cost taxpayers hundreds
of millions of dollars and take several years to construct. But for the
people who live, work and recreate in the valley, they appear to be the
answer to decades of problems.
Flood control task force
Planning for San Diego's latest flood control project
began in 1993, after heavy rains and flooding caused an estimated $25 million
in damages throughout the valley. Mayor Susan Golding, County Supervisor
Brian Bilbray, and U.S. Congressman Bob Filner convened the Tijuana River
Valley Task Force.
Members included representatives from public resource
agencies such as California Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife; city,
county and state elected officials; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
and conservation and environmental organizations such as the National Audubon
City engineer Frank Belock was appointed chairman of
the Task Force. Belock currently is the city's Assistant Director of Engineering
Design. His job has three components. First, he was to evaluate what had
gone wrong with existing flood control measures. Second, he was charged
with making improvements and repairs to restore basic services in the valley
as quickly as possible. This would allow residents to return to their homes
and businesses. Third, he was to come up with a long-term plan to prevent
"Initially there was a lot of yelling and crying
and things like that," Belock recalled in a recent interview, "but
meetings settled down once the rains stopped.
"I think now that the City and the Task Force has
gotten a lot of things done down there, they see that something is happening."
The meetings are now much calmer, more cooperative affairs.
During the winter of 1993 the city organized and conducted
immediate clean-up efforts, and later that year hired BSI Consultants, an
environmental design firm, to come up with several possible long-term flood
control plans. In January 1994, after months of analysis and study, BSI
Consultants presented the Task Force with ten sets of plans, ranging in
cost from $0 (the "Do nothing at all" alternative) to $160 million
(the "100 year earthen channel" alternative - meaning it could
control a huge flood that might occur every 100 years). Three of these plans
are now under final evaluation.
Another alternative, designed by WEST Consultants of
Carlsbad at the request of the Tia Juana Valley County Water District, has
also been accepted for further review. This project has an estimated cost
of $31 million and would construct an earthen channel sufficient to control
a 25-year flood.
Whatever plan is selected, disagreements over which
activities will be allowed to continue in the valley and which will need
to be phased out remain to be settled.
Task Force member Jim Peugh is on one side of the debate.
Peugh is President of the local chapter of the Audubon Society and represents
the city of San Diego's Wetlands Advisory Board. He thinks it is possible
to maintain some of the existing agricultural and recreational businesses
in the valley, such as sod farms and riding stables, but doesn't believe
a massive flood channel should be seen as the final solution to protecting
larger business investments.
"We need to use [the valley] understanding floods
are likely and realizing no matter how much infrastructure we put in down
there, floods are still a frequent and serious risk," he said recently.
"If a person is going to put enough of an investment in that they feel
uncomfortable about the occasional flood, then that particular application
isn't good for that area."
Meanwhile, Task Force member Carolyn Powers wants to
keep the valley available for the outdoor recreational businesses and users
who have lived and played there for decades. She represents Citizens Against
Recreational Evictions (C.A.R.E) and worries that environmental considerations
may be used to force some people out of the valley.
Powers believes many recreational activities, such as
horseback riding and mountain biking, are completely compatible with the
river and its endangered species. As an example, she claims that "The
least Bell's vireo grew up around the horse trails as their habitat grew
up around the horse trails" over the last twenty to thirty years, when
many agricultural businesses ceased operations and native riparian vegetation
moved back into vacant fields.
The final decision regarding which alternative will
be selected, and what parts of the valley will be impacted, will be made
later this year by the San Diego City Council. Belock estimates it will
be another one and one-half to two years before construction begins, following
approval of the project by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of
Engineers, and other natural resource agencies.
River of chemicals
Each night, as the cat-and-mouse game of illegal immigration
plays itself out along the hillsides, wastewater flows into the valley from
Tijuana's overburdened sewage system, rushing through the narrow canyons
and eventually flowing into the river and estuary. At Goat Canyon, the water
runs through a shallow concrete channel over Monument Road. It has a strong
odor, redolent of human waste and chemicals.
Wetlands researchers and water district employees call
these "renegade flows." In addition to carrying household wastes,
they are filled with industrial contaminants such as PCB's, and agricultural
chemicals, including DDT. Small rocks, dislodged by the water, tumble down
the hillside and litter the roadway.
As the population of Tijuana has increased over the
last 10 years, the city has improved its water delivery services to homes,
but its sewage treatment system has not been able to handle the increased
demands. The result is that more and more of this wastewater has poured
into the Tijuana River and its estuary, polluting the waters, diluting the
saltwater, and disturbing the balance of the salt marsh.
As delays over flood control and sewage clean up continue,
the anger and frustration of at least one property owner has been expressed
publicly on several crude plywood signs. They were erected in the spring
of 1993, but still stand, their words painted in capital letters with red
and black paint.
The signs carry messages such as "WELCOME TO THE
TIJUANA RIVER VALLEY WHERE BIRDS FLY AND PEOPLE DIE." One horse corral
fence supports a sign reading "ENVIRONMENTALISTS DESTROY HUMAN LIVES
AND RUIN BUSINESSES."
EPA plant approval
On April 1, final comments on a massive International
Wastewater Treatment Plant and Ocean Outfall plan were due in the Los Angeles
office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Despite questions
about this plant's ability to remove toxics, the lack of an ocean outfall
for the first three years of operation, and its enormous construction, operation
and maintenance costs, the plan was approved on May 6.
According to the project's Final Environmental Impact
Statement (FEIS), the proposed plant and outfall will take three years to
construct and cost $266 million, with expected annual operational and maintenance
costs between $8 and $10 million. Congress has allocated only $239 million
for the project, but it is expected that the city of San Diego will contribute
funds for the outfall (which they retain rights to use) and the government
of Mexico will contribute $16 million originally budgeted for a treatment
plant in Tijuana. The state of California will contribute $10 million.
The plant - scheduled to begin operations in 1995 -
will collect wastewater overflows from Mexico, and initially treat 25 million
gallons of sewage per day, reaching advanced primary treatment levels by
using "activated sludge" and mechanical treatment methods. By
1998, it will treat wastes to secondary levels as required by the Clean
Water Act before releasing the effluent (treated wastewater) back into the
Pacific Ocean via an ocean outfall pipe tunneled under the estuary. The
remaining solids, called "sludge," will be loaded into trucks
and returned to Mexico for disposal.
The ocean outfall has been designed to carry 258 million
gallons of effluent out to sea each day, with the city of San Diego eventually
using the bulk of this capacity. The "lead agencies," sharing
responsibility for the project, are the United States Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) and the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).
While the plant is a definite improvement over the existing
conditions, questions have been raised regarding its effectiveness in detoxifying
the wastewater it collects. Numerous highly toxic chemicals have been identified
in this runoff. If these chemicals collect in the sludge, they could create
a toxic waste handling and disposal problem. If they are allowed to pass
through the ocean outfall without more dilution than is currently called
for in the proposed plan, they will continue to contaminate the waters off
Technically, some of these industrial wastes should
be disposed of in their country of origin, and that may in fact be the United
States. Under the La Paz Treaty of 1983, signed by President Reagan and
Mexican President de la Madrid, hazardous wastes produced by an industry
operating in one country must be returned for disposal to the country that
owns that business, or disposed of in an approved hazardous waste site in
Mexico. Thus, the treaty requires that American-owned industries operating
in Mexico (commonly known as "maquiladoras") manage their toxic
waste in an environmentally safe way.
However, because of lax enforcement, operators often
dispose of these wastes illegally in landfills in Mexico. This is the belief
of Martha Rocha Rodriquez. She lives in the Playas neighborhood of Tijuana
and for the last five years has worked with an environmental organization
known as MEBAC, the "Movimiento Ecologista de Baja California."
Last year, MEBAC forced a company to dismantle and remove
a proposed waste incinerator plant scheduled to operate just south of Tijuana,
arguing that it would create a health risk for nearby neighborhoods. However,
another division of the plant - owned by Chemical Waste Management de Mexico,
and located less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean - continues to recycle
solvents from maquiladoras.
Rodriguez believes it is possible to reduce the amount
of wastes now being produced by American-owned maquiladoras in Tijuana,
but that high program costs and a lack of enforcement of existing laws by
SEDESOL (Mexico's Secretariat of Social Development, similar to the United
State's EPA) have made this unlikely.
Still, the Final Environmental Impact Statement for
the new wastewater treatment plant describes a plan that will reduce these
toxic wastes through pretreatment and source reduction programs in Mexico.
It's not explained who will fund and enforce these pretreatment programs
or when they will be enacted.
Art Letter, General Manager of the Tia Juana Valley
County Water District, says his organization "would encourage the International
Boundary and Water Commission to work with Mexico to treat the water to
the highest possible standards we can get."
Yet another question about this plant involves the time-line
for completion of the ocean outfall. The plant is scheduled to begin operating
at advanced primary treatment levels as early as 1995, but the ocean outfall
will not be completed until 1998. The FEIS does not explain what will happen
to the millions of gallons of effluent produced during those three years.
Art Letter discussed the possibility of injecting the
effluent back into the valley to recharge the groundwater supplies. He claimed,
"that's better water, even at Advanced Primary standards, then the
water running off from Mexico right now, which of course is totally untreated."
But when it was pointed out that the toxics might contaminate this water,
used by residents for drinking and irrigation, he conceded more study was
Dave Schlesinger is the Director of the Metropolitan
Wastewater District for the City of San Diego. He reviewed the treatment
plant's Final Environmental Impact Statement and submitted comments for
the city. He also doesn't know exactly what will be done with the effluent
before the outfall is constructed, but he suggested a few alternatives.
"There are ways you can do it. You can have live-stream
discharge, you can have a groundwater application, you can try to send it
back to Mexico. But ... that's not addressed in that environmental document
[the Final Environmental Impact Statement], and that's one of the city's
Schlesinger also noted this factor has raised questions
- and a possible legal challenge - from the San Diego chapter of the Sierra
Club. He noted that "The Sierra Club is threatening to sue over that
document. I understand that the [federal agencies] now say they may issue
a supplemental environmental document to address the discharge issue."
When asked if this supplemental document will also address
the removal of toxics, he replied, "We sure hope so."
A golden pond?
In April, after the public comment period for the plant's
FEIS had closed, the EPA convened a panel of sanitary engineers to evaluate
another sewage treatment design, called "Advanced Integrated Ponding
Systems," (AIPS) and consider its feasibility for use at the border
treatment plant. AIPS treats sewage via a series of interconnected ponds,
using a combination of bacterial, algae and anaerobic decomposition systems
to remove biological and industrial wastes. Toxics are absorbed by algae
or settle into the sediments on the bottom of the ponds.
One advantage to this system is that it is more efficient
at digesting wastewater solids and can operate for years without producing
large quantities of sludge. In contrast, mechanical plants require daily
disposal of tons of sludge, which are then dried and, in the case of Tijuana,
dumped in landfills.
An April 25 report on this system, sent to the City
of San Diego, noted that "The major advantages of the AIPS system are
its very low initial and operating cost, simple system operation, and presumed
good stability against anticipated toxic loads. Disadvantages of the system
included limited data availability on the existing plants, variable effluent
quality, and the high land area required for the facilities."
According to the Engineering Feasibility Team Study,
an AIPS plant would cost approximately $100 million less in capital construction
expenses than the proposed plant. The report also noted that "without
an effective pretreatment program in Tijuana, the activated sludge process
will be frequently upset, and permit limits [on toxic discharges] may be
exceeded with some regularity. The advanced primary plant will produce poorer
quality effluent than the ponds, and it will allow soluble toxic compounds
to be discharged directly to the ocean."
Nonetheless, on April 27, the Policy Committee for this
project rejected the ponding alternative, deciding to proceed with the plant
as originally designed. Notes from this meeting show, "It was agreed
that ponds will be dropped from further consideration for the initial phase
of the International Treatment Plant, but will be considered for any future
Critics of this decision point out that the AIPS study
cost $51,000 and took less than a week to conduct. In contrast, the EPA
and IBWC have spent millions of dollars and devoted years of study to the
design of the chosen alternative.
Examples of treatment ponds in an Advanced Integrated Ponding
System, part of the St. Helena Wastewater Treatment Plant in Napa Valley,
CA. Wastewater progressing through five ponds is progressively broken down
before release. Proponents quote cost savings as well as environmental benefits
over traditional mechanical plants.
The complicated nature of cleaning up this valley continues
to frustrate residents, land use managers, and city, state and federal officials.
While these two latest plans appear promising, they are several years away
from providing solutions for the flooding and sewage problems that threaten
the valley each winter. And the Sierra Club is still considering filing
a legal challenge to the wastewater plant, arguing, among other things,
that the ponding system alternative was not given a full evaluation.
Still, Frank Belock remains optimistic. He has worked
on this project for over a year and appreciates the challenge of creating
a solution that works for everyone. At the end of our interview he concluded
that, "Our purpose is to provide an alternative that hopefully balances
the needs of the people that live in the valley, with the various habitats
that exist there, such as the riparian, wetlands, least Bell's vireo, and
the habitat in the estuary itself. That's part of what we're working with
- trying to balance all this."
Lori Saldaña. a regular contributor to Earth Times, is a writer,
public speaker and photographer who specializes in conservation and environmental