We park near the adobe bullring. The breeze picks up a little, here on the outskirts of Colonia Chilpancingo, a neighborhood in Tijuana. Nearby, a woman washes clothes in a concrete sink with water from a yard hose. Chickens scratch in the dirt around her earthen-walled home. She does not stop, nor does she look up as we pass.
Aníbal Mendez steps carefully down a dirt embankment, avoiding a trickle of fluid that seeps from under the foundation of the bullring. He leads the way through stands of scrub and willow that eventually open out onto a small creek. This is the last remaining wild stretch of the Rio Alamar, he says — the Alamar River — and its days are numbered.
If things go as planned, this patch of raw nature will soon be bulldozed. The stream will be encased in cement, and the remaining floodplain will be filled and graded for a new highway. This is phase three of a government works project in which the entire length of Rio Alamar, one of Tijuana’s last natural streambeds, is being channelized. “The original plan,” Mendez says through an interpreter, “included the government cleanup of this natural site, meaning the clearing out of all of this garbage and so on.” Apparently, the Alamar is also the town dump.
First, some clarification: in spite of its name, Rio Alamar is a creek and not a river proper. It presents a shallow cascade of rock-strewn cataracts and swirling pools, a slim thread of moisture that spools southwest from the Tecate-Tijuana border, running downhill through dust and poverty. Surrounding the creek is a mess of discarded tires, rusted-out auto-body panels, scrap, junk, and trash. Three bony cows graze among the ditch weeds on the shore opposite, separated from us by water that is a man-made stew of effluent and wastewater from Tecate. The Rio Alamar should in summer be a dry creek bed. But thanks to industry, it now runs year round.
Mendez, 30, lives in Imperial Beach and works as a community organizer for the Environmental Health Coalition. Though we are hiking the river bottom, he wears stylish jeans and a dress shirt and leather shoes. He feels baited and switched by a Mexican government subcommittee that initially agreed with environmentalists to restore and preserve the open space, but instead razed everything in sight and filled the arroyo with steel and concrete. Eventually, this will impact San Diego. The cross-border implications of channelization, Mendez says, is for even more sewage and mess to funnel into the United States. Rio Alamar is a major tributary to the Tijuana River. It represents almost one-third of the entire watershed.
Phase three is where Mendez and a coalition of environmentalists have drawn a line in the sand: they aim to save this last stretch of river. “We filed an injunction to stop the building here and to force a sit-down with the authorities to make it into a better plan. It is difficult,” he concedes, “due to the fact that Mexican local and federal authorities are involved.”
On March 28, a petition to stop the construction was filed in Tijuana’s ninth district court. Due process calls for each side to present experts to bolster their arguments. The environmentalist coalition has produced theirs, but the Mexican government has yet to submit their own list of experts to the court. Mendez says that, under Mexican law, there is no deadline to file such a response. “And there will be no hearing until they produce the list.” Meanwhile, the channelization of the Alamar proceeds unabated.
“But we are getting ready to file a different amparo [legal protection] under Mexican constitutional law to protect phase three,” he says. This time around they will have financial support from the Environmental Health Coalition.
Diane Takvorian says, “The history of our involvement in Tijuana goes back 25 years.” Takvorian is the executive director and a co-founder of the coalition. Two years ago, President Obama appointed her to the Joint Public Advisory Committee of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. “Our concerns have been around the Chilpancingo community and the impact of the maquilas in that community.”
Takvorian says air and water pollution from the factories has impacted the area’s natural resources and the health of its residents, and she echoes fears that increased problems in the Tijuana watershed will impact the U.S. “We share the watershed, and Rio Alamar is part of it. The border fence is meaningless when it comes to ecology.”
The waters that flow through the Rio Alamar both begin and end on American soil. In the eastern San Diego County town of Campo, a modest network of springs and creeks trickles south across the U.S.-Mexico border and joins forces at Arroyo Tecate, Tecate Creek. In a dozen kilometers or so, the Tecate gains another infusion of cross-border water, this time from Cottonwood Creek. Together, the Tecate and the Cottonwood form a stream that, once it reaches the outskirts of Tijuana, changes names to Rio Alamar. By then, the once-pure Campo/Cottonwood spring water carries with it a staggering load of pollution.
A 2005 water-quality study, “Biological Assessment of Tecate Creek,” by Volker Luderitz, published in the scientific journal Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, says that sources of pollutants include urban runoff, output from a sewage-treatment plant, slaughterhouse runoff, continual discharge of water laced with organic compounds from the Tecate Brewery, and the release of effluent from maquiladoras (or maquilas), the factories that operate in Mexican free-trade zones.
“Before NAFTA,” (the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994) says Mendez, “people could fish and bathe in the Rio Alamar. Before the maquilas came in 1986, you could actually drink the water.”
It is no longer news to anyone in San Diego that during winter storms, sewage-laden floodwaters from the Tijuana River overwhelm both the Tijuana estuary, one of the most important salt-marsh ecosystems left in the U.S., and the Pacific Ocean. The winter waters off Imperial Beach become a hellish broth of contaminants and raw sewage, and area beaches are known to remain closed to the public throughout the season. This sewage spill has a name: the Tijuana River plume, and it is tracked by the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System.