Tijuana River: a controversy runs through it

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.

by Lori Saldaña
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 and Game.
The valley covers 3,000 acres and includes some of the last undeveloped coastal wetlands in San Diego County.

Disappearing wetlands

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 operations.
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 Society.
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 future disasters.
"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.

The debate

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.

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 the coast.

Returning waste

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 needed.
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 major concerns."
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 expansion."
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.

More talk

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 issues.