A TED (the acronym stands for Trade and Environmental Database) case study, #147, titled “Tijuana River Pollution,” placed a substantial portion of the blame for all that pollution on the maquiladora program. NAFTA, they say, provided paychecks, but in turn encouraged the migration of thousands upon thousands of job-seekers to Tijuana in advance of any sort of infrastructure. In other words, humans outnumbered toilets. Much of the workforce simply squatted in makeshift encampments on the banks of the Alamar. The maquilas themselves, some 3000 factories and assembly plants, generate additional toxic waste and sewage.
Mendez says that practicing environmentalism in the midst of such third-world abuse is difficult. “You never really know where the Mexican government is at, what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it. It’s hard to get documents.”
He takes one last look around the pitiful arroyo and the Alamar before we leave, but one senses that he sees something aside from the results of years of dumping. “It is a great opportunity,” he finally says, “to clean the air with all these trees.”
“Tijuana is a coast city. We’re a river city.”
Margarita Díaz is the director of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental A.C. (Border Environmental Education Project) in Tijuana. Proyecto Fronterizo is one of a list of binational environmental agencies, governmental agencies, and nonprofits that have a stake in the outcome of the Rio Alamar project.
She calls from her office in Playas. “But the [Mexican] government doesn’t see it that way,” she says, “and even we don’t see ourselves as a river city. I tell people that we have a river running through the middle of our city. That’s not a river, they say. That’s a tunnel.”
The Tijuana River originates in Mexico and crosses the international boundary into the United States near San Ysidro. The majority of the river was channelized and run into a concrete straitjacket during the late 1960s. The channelization of creeks and rivers and seeps and above-ground springs is an old-school engineering solution to seasonal flooding that dates back to the 1930s and possibly earlier. Channelization does exactly what it is supposed to do: it provides a concrete fast track through which large volumes of water can move out of a given area at a high rate of speed. On paper, it seems like a good solution, if, that is, one doesn’t mind the total loss of nature that comes with the process.
But channelization has also been identified as a major source of ocean pollution. Along with water, urban channels transport anything and everything that happens to be in them, including, sometimes, humans. In spite of the best engineering intentions, people have drowned in such culverts during storm events.
“Channelization is always bad for a river,” says Travis Pritchard, a chemist who monitors water quality for San Diego Coastkeeper. “Six months ago I went down to Tijuana and met with Margarita Díaz.” They observed what remained of the Rio Alamar. “It’s super sad. I felt like I was watching the death of a river before my eyes.”
Los Angeles is possibly the most channelized city in California. Eric Bowlby, who served on the San Diego Wetlands Advisory Board for a decade, says that Los Angeles city planners have learned over time that natural streams are better cleaners of the environment than was thought by generations prior. Wetlands slow the spread and the velocity of water, allowing it to percolate into the soil before it becomes ocean runoff. Wetland plants uptake nitrogen. Most viruses die upon exposure to sunlight, and soil acts as a filter.
“The irony,” he says “is that natural filtration by riparian streambeds would even allow for the harvesting of some of the water. It’s the best filtration you can get, and it takes care of itself.”
These issues and more were taken into consideration by the committees on both sides of the table in Tijuana when signoff on the first Rio Alamar restoration project took place in 2009.
“The issue to channelize has been going on for 12 years or something like that,” says Díaz. In the original plan, channelization would proceed, but it would be of an eco-friendly form, with permeable side walls and bottoms that allow for natural filtration. There were to be greenbelts, trees, parks, even a basketball court.
“The [Mexican] government did a project design with an ecological approach,” Díaz says. “Everybody was very happy. They were going to save the river and restore the area. But in 2011, they came back and they said they had the money [to proceed], but that they had made a new environmental report.”
Restoration was now out. The Rio Alamar, against all advice, would be put into a concrete channel, just like the Rio Tijuana. There were additional plans for a superhighway to run parallel to the banks on either side of the channel, one that would eventually connect to a new border crossing. No greenbelts. No trees, no parks. No basketball courts.
Díaz says, “The fed gave money to the state, and the state said, ‘We are going to put hands to work.’” And that they did. The government gave the contract to a Baja-based construction company called Ark of the Pacific. The Mexican government’s sudden change of direction was met with protest, as was their choice of contractor.
On September 5, 2011, a Zeta Weekly reporter named Luis Alonso Pérez Chávez wrote an investigative story about the Ark of the Pacific and their dealings with the Mexican government. I fed the weekly’s Spanish text into Google Translate, and this is part of what I got back:
“The channeling of Alamar Creek, a work of 550 million pesos [over $4.1 million], was tendered by the National Water Commission to a consortium of construction companies led by the Ark of the Pacific, [with] full consent of the PAN governments of Baja California.”
PAN is an acronym for the “National Action Party.” Chávez goes on to say that the builders got those contracts in spite of complaints about defects in previous construction projects.