Estuary Series Part 4: Where the Tijuana River and the Pacific Ocean Meet
Air Date: Week of November 13, 1998
Residents on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border are working to save a coastal habitat that's vital to both countries. The Tijuana River Estuary is a natural oasis in the midst of a growing metropolis that is in trouble. Like dozens of other Estuaries in the U.S., it's being choked by sediment and pollution from development upstream. Addressing these problems can be difficult anywhere, but complicating the situation in Tijuana is the fact that while the Estuary is entirely within the US, the river which feeds it and its watershed, are in Mexico. Living on Earth’s senior correspondent Peter Thomson reports in the latest installment in our series on estuaries. He says residents on both sides of the border are working together to save the coastal habitat.
KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. At the southwestern corner of the United States there's a little patch of land notched between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. It's the estuary where the Tijuana River meets the Pacific Ocean. It's also a natural oasis in the midst of a growing metropolis. But the Tijuana Estuary is in trouble. Like dozens of other estuaries in the US, it's being choked by sediment and pollution from development upstream. Addressing these problems would be difficult anywhere, but a solution is more elusive in Tijuana. That's because while the estuary is entirely within the US, the river which feeds it and its watershed are in Mexico. Living on Earth's senior correspondent Peter Thomson reports in the latest installment in our series on America's estuaries. He says residents on both sides of the border are working together to save the coastal habitat.
THOMSON: (speaking softly) The boundary of the United States. Jeez, you can't even read it.
(Louder) On a windswept bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean a few miles south of San Diego, there's a little stone monument. Its inscriptions are worn and weathered by decades of Pacific storms.
(Softly) Something or other to the treaty dated at the city of Guadalupe, Hidalgo, February 2, AD 1848.
(Louder) This is the southwestern-most point of the United States, the beginning of the country's 1,500-mile border with Mexico. At the bottom of the bluff a heavy steel fence rises out of the Pacific. It marches up the bluff, right over the monument and off to the east as far as the eye can see, slicing in 2 the mesas and canyons of the Tijuana River Watershed. This is a story about 2 countries and 1 troubled ecosystem, and it starts just a few miles to the east of here.
ROMO: The city used to be up to here.
THOMSON: Oscar Romo stands on the shoulder of Mexico's Route 1D in a small canyon literally feet from the border. This is the main artery connecting downtown Tijuana to its booming new suburbs to the west.
ROMO: The neighborhood on those mesas were on the outskirts, and all that was undeveloped. We now have lots of residents here. These are some of the most populated areas of Tijuana.
THOMSON: Economic turmoil and poverty elsewhere have sent hundreds of thousands of Mexicans streaming toward the new factories of the border area. But Oscar Romo, an architect, environmental activist, and advisor to Mexico's president, says this unchecked growth is putting tremendous pressure on the environment, and that some of the problems are literally spilling over the border into the US. Mr. Romo says the new neighborhoods here are destabilizing the thin, sandy soil of these hillsides.
ROMO: When it rains, there's a lot of water coming here. Because they built on the slopes, erosion is a big factor here.
THOMSON: Dust from the highway swirls around Mr. Romo, settling on his slight shoulders and his thinning black hair. His dark eyes follow the path of the eroding soil, down the steep canyon, through a channel under the border fence, to the broad, flat expanse beyond. The Tijuana River Estuary in the US.
THOMSON: Less than a mile away the landscape is radically different. The scrubby canyon walls of the Mexican side of the border have suddenly given way here in the US to meandering dry channels and dense thickets of willows. Only a crane from a small construction site breaks the horizon.
ROPER: We are standing here at the entrance to Border Field State Park. The pavement road is completely covered with sediment, sand, dirt.
THOMSON: This is where the stuff that's eroding off Tijuana's hillsides comes to rest, in the Tijuana River Estuary, literally at the feet of Tessa Roper. Blonde, tanned, Tessa Roper looks the part of a classic California surfer. Instead, she splits her days between the local California State Parks Office, which manages part of the estuary, and a small environmental group which looks after it. And she's up to the ankles of her hiking boots in hard, caked sand.
(Footfalls on sand)
THOMSON: So this is -- this is thick.
THOMSON: I mean, I'm digging --
ROPER: Yeah, in some areas --
THOMSON: --through 2, 3 inches of sand here to get to the road.
ROPER: Right. In some areas it can be as deep as 3 feet, maybe even 6 feet potentially.
THOMSON: So what does this kind of sedimentation do?
ROPER: The biggest problem is that it fills in lagoon areas or small estuarine tidal creeks, so that those no longer have any kind of sea water coming in. The tidal flushing effect.
THOMSON: The erosion from Tijuana is slowly destroying one of California's last largely intact estuaries, the vital ecological zones where rivers meet the sea. California has lost 90% of its coastal wetlands, so threats to any of the remaining scraps is cause for alarm. And Tessa Roper says the sediment isn't the only threat here.
ROPER: I think the one that everyone talks about the most is sewage coming into the estuary. There are many people in Tijuana who don't have any kind of municipal sewage hookup at their house, so a lot of that gets washed downstream when it rains. There are also leaks and breaks in the pipelines that go downstream into the estuary.
(A bird calls)
THOMSON: As we talk, the sun sinks lower over the Pacific, flashing off Tessa Roper's mirrored sunglasses and casting an orange glow and long shadows over the marsh. Even people whose eyes glaze over at phrases like estuarine habitat and tidal flushing can probably still see that this is a place worth saving. The 2,500 acres of the Tijuana Estuary are a vast green expanse. No buildings, no highways, no crowds. The last refuge for people from the encroaching concrete sea of a Tijuana-San Diego metropolis. It would be hard enough to protect this place even if the entire watershed were in the US. But Tessa Roper says the fact that it's carved up between 2 countries makes it a conservation problem of a whole different order.
ROPER: It's almost like a diplomatic issue. It's almost something that should be between Washington, DC, and Mexico City, right? International kind of issue. But if you work in that way, everything takes forever. Nothing gets done.
THOMSON: That's because in the big picture of the wary relationship between the US and Mexico, the Tijuana Estuary is barely on the map, and distrust between the 2 countries means that agencies often can't work together, or even spend money on the other side of the border. So Tessa Roper, Oscar Romo, and others who are concerned about the cross-border problems have to be savvy and resourceful. They scrape together money from a few small government agencies, pair up with private environmental groups, and try to educate people on both sides of the border about what they can do to help protect the estuary. But they try not to point fingers at Mexicans for the damage that's being done. After all, the new residents aren't filling up the estuary and dumping sewage into it on purpose. Besides, the Mexicans could point right back, because not too long ago Americans were filling up the estuary and dumping sewage into it, and they were doing it on purpose.
(Bird calls, footfalls)
P. McCOY: You can see the Mexican border there. The Coronado Islands, which are in Mexico, and that is an incredible view.
THOMSON: Patricia McCoy peers out from behind her glasses and points south, across the Tijuana Estuary, from the edge of a subdivision in the city of Imperial Beach. When she and her husband Mike moved here 30 years ago, the view wasn't so nice.
M. McCOY: If you look over to the east here, this area used to be a series of sewage ponds for the city.
P. McCOY: This was a city dump. It used to be all washing machines and car parts.
THOMSON: The estuary was being used as a dump, poisoned by sewage and filled in for farms and neighborhoods. And a project that might have finished off the estuary was literally on the drawing boards.
M. McCOY: This picture conjured up in my mind the end of a very important ecological system that was very poorly understood at the time.
(Gulls calls, followed by other bird calls)
THOMSON: Mike McCoy holds a drawing of a luxury marina that was planned for this part of the estuary in the late 60s. Hundreds of homes and docks, high-rise apartment buildings, all clustered around a broad channel leading to the ocean.
M. McCOY: And when I saw this picture, it just enhanced my desire to make sure this never did happen. I fought it. People here felt that I was almost a Communist. This was against motherhood and apple pie.
THOMSON: Mr. McCoy says his fading red hair and bears suggest his sometimes feisty temperament. And it may have served him well in the long and bitter fight against the marina. At one point, he says, his car was sabotaged, and another opponent was shot. But eventually --
M. McCOY: We won. More than I'd ever dreamed we'd win.
THOMSON: Today the dumps and sewage ponds are gone and the contested land has won government protection as a national estuarine research reserve and a national wildlife refuge.
THOMSON: From the subdivision a sandy trail leads through tufts of deep, green marsh grass, and thin ribbons of blue snake through channels of chocolate brown mud. Hundreds of birds feed in the mud flats, seemingly oblivious to the nearly constant stream of helicopters from a nearby naval training station.
(Distant helicopter rotors)
COLLINS: There's a green heron right over there, feeding, along with a group of willets and dowitchers
THOMSON: Brian Collins is a wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
COLLINS: And I see a snow egret over there. An osprey flew by a few minutes ago. To our left over here is some marbled godwits.
(Birds chirp loudly)
COLLINS: Those are light-footed clapper rails, and it's really an honor to hear them, because they're one of the most critically endangered bird subspecies in the world. They're just right across the channel from us right now.
(Splashing amidst bird calls)
THOMSON: The water in the channel is cool and clear, but after splashing my hands in it I'm told to wash them off. There could be bacteria in the water from the sewage flowing down from Mexico. A lot of progress has been made in restoring this part of the estuary, but the people responsible for it, like Brian Collins and Tessa Roper, fear their efforts here in the US could be swamped by the pollution and sediment from across the border. So, while they try to get Washington and Mexico City to start paying more attention, they're also at work in the local communities.
(Children shouting and running; a dog barks)
THOMSON: Back in Mexico, in one of the canyons outside Tijuana, kids fool around after classes in a dusty schoolyard. A few months ago, fourth and fifth graders here planted trees in the schoolyard and at their homes as part of an environmental education project.
CHILD: [Speaks in Spanish]
ROMO: He's saying that at class they learn about how to reproduce plants, and how the plants and the trees serve the environment by providing with moisture to the soil and to protect the slopes from being eroded.
THOMSON: Oscar Romo, the architect and Mexican presidential advisor, organized this project, together with Tessa Roper from the US. He admits it's only one tiny part of the solution, but he's an optimistic man and he's got bigger plans. He hopes that over time, a lot of little projects like this will help stop so much sediment from washing downstream into the estuary.
THOMSON: Oscar Romo says that when kids and adults here learn about the estuary just across their border, they want to help protect it. And he's confident that projects like this will catch on, because they won't just help the estuary. They'll also help make life better right here. More trees holding down the soil means fewer houses crumbling down the hillsides, and fewer roads becoming impassable with mud when it rains. And he knows that by teaching these kids to plant trees, he may also be planting the seeds of a bigger change.
CHILD: [Speaks in Spanish]
ROMO: He's very proud of the trees he planted. He said that in the spring time he planted some trees and he felt like the rainbow was coming out of the trees, filling the ambience with colors. I was really amazed hearing this kid stating about planting a tree brings the rainbow to my home. Through his eyes, the city changed, because he put a tree on his home, and that's amazing. That's -- I can really rely on them to see that our city would be transformed.
THOMSON: Oscar Romo believed that transforming Tijuana and its sister cities across the border into more sustainable communities is the only way to save the estuary. And he and his colleagues on the US side are also working on other projects to make it happen. For instance, they've built a low-tech biological sewage treatment plant in Tijuana. It keeps some of the city's untreated sewage from flowing into the estuary, and it also keeps the valuable water and nutrients from the sewage in Tijuana.
(Tijuana music plays)
THOMSON: They hope it'll become a model for dozens more like it on both sides of the border.
(Music continues; horns honk. Fade to footfalls and wind)
(Various voices exchange greetings, laughter)
THOMSON: Back at the border monument, a small group of women are gathering at the fence, greeting each other and embracing. Three of the women are standing in the US; one of them is in Mexico. Here on this bluff overlooking the estuary is the only place where the border fence is actually transparent. Instead of solid corrugated steel, it's made of steel mesh. You can touch people on the other side, look into their eyes, even pass things through a couple of small holes.
WOMAN: This is the one where we met.
WOMAN 2: Yeah.
THOMSON: These women started meeting here a few years ago to avoid the hassle of crossing the border. They're part of a group of environmental educators. They work with hundreds of students and teachers a year in both countries, with a special focus on the Tijuana Estuary.
DURASO: The estuary is the sensitive spot where you can actually see and touch and smell the impacts of what goes on in the rest of the watershed.
THOMSON: Laura Duraso, standing on Mexican soil, says that seeing the estuary and learning about its problems changes the way people here think about the relationship between the 2 countries. And she says it's even helped change the way she and her colleagues see the fence itself.
DURASO: What we've tried to do, and I think the estuary has been the inspiration for this, is to see the fence not as a point or a source of conflict, but a point where solutions can be figured out. And not as the place where things come apart, but where things come together.
THOMSON: As Laura Duraso and her colleagues talk, a handful of white US border patrol trucks prowl back and forth behind us. Clearly, there's a long way to go before the border stops being a source of conflict. But the idea that the Tijuana Estuary joins the 2 countries together, and that they'll have to work together to save it, is starting to catch on. The women gathered here at the border even say some government people are looking for ways to work with their counterparts across the border, and have started to talk about the estuary as an area without a fence. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson at the US-Mexico border south of San Diego.
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