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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