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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