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.
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.
“The company [is] owned by the engineers and Eduardo Aranda and Armando Miranda, brothers of the Secretary of State for Social Development, Jorge Aranda. [It] has in its [history] a series of works defects, among [them] the collapsed parking [lot] of the State Government in Mexicali, and a cracked bridge in Chaparral in Tijuana.”
Magdalena Cerda, the Environmental Health Coalition’s campaign director (and my driver during the site inspection in Tijuana), says, “They [the Ark of the Pacific] do work all over the state. There are many pending lawsuits, because they don’t deliver quality.”
In 1983, president Ronald Reagan…
…and Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid promised to cooperate in eliminating cross-border pollution. They worked out a progressive cleanup plan called the La Paz Agreement. Some of the results were impressive: in Tijuana, the agreement mobilized the removal of a veritable mountain of toxic lead left behind by a maquila car-battery recycler. In other areas of Mexico, air pollution was reduced and sewage treatment plants were constructed. But in spite of best intentions and the building of treatment plants in Tijuana, even more prodigious amounts of sewage continued to run downhill into the U.S.
In answer to the worsening conditions, the International Boundary Water Commission opened a sewage-treatment plant at San Ysidro in 1997. Steve Smullen is the area operations manager for the plant. He explains how it is that Tijuana sewage still infects the estuary and the Pacific. The commission’s plant, he says, treats TJ sewage only, but with this caveat: sometimes, during the dry season, water is diverted from the Tijuana River and sent to the treatment plant.
“But in the winter, after a big storm, the diversion capacity is exceeded and the water flows right out into the Pacific Ocean. Part of this is urban runoff,” Smullen says, addressing the fact that there are still numerous homes in Tijuana without sewer hookups. “At times, the water is fairly clean, and at other times, it is fairly dirty.” Still, he claims the situation has improved. “Ten years ago it was bad. The Mexican government built more sewage-treatment facilities, and now, a lot of what’s running down the Tijuana River is secondary effluent.”
Effluent is liquid waste or sewage discharged into a river or the sea. Secondary effluent is the term for treated effluent. It is not drinkable. It requires additional treatment just to make it usable for non-potable applications, such as irrigation.
Paloma Aguirre agrees that the water coursing through the Tijuana River channel is indeed secondary effluent. Aguirre is the U.S. Mexico Border Coastal Program manager at WILDCOAST. She calls from her office in Imperial Beach. “The problem is this,” she says. “There’s no place to put all the treated water. And there is no way to redirect it, either,” meaning various gray-water applications, “because the plumbing infrastructure doesn’t exist.” The solution for now, she says, is that municipal water trucks carry the effluent off-site and dump it.
“But they don’t have enough trucking capacity, so the majority of the effluent flows into the Tijuana River and down the channel, and that’s what you’re seeing.” There’s more: “I’ve done [maquila] site inspections myself, and I’ve seen water coming out of the factories being piped right into the Alamar. What is in it is anybody’s guess. We do know that the river is being impacted by industrial contaminants, but we don’t know by what. We don’t really know what’s in the water.”
This is a statement that I will hear over and over from the environmentalists in Mexico — that they don’t know what’s in the water, but they suspect that it’s bad.
Aguirre says there are only eight government inspectors for the maquilas. (Diane Takvorian will later confirm this number.) Aguirre has petitioned the Mexican water commission Conagua for water-quality information and for Rio Alamar project updates. “They just say no.” She says there is only one way left to get answers. “We will have to go to El Paso, where their headquarters are.”
Rick Gersberg, PhD, is a professor at San Diego State. He teaches courses in water quality, risk assessment, and hazardous-waste management. In the late 1990s, he was involved in water-testing in Tijuana and along Tecate Creek. He still handles heavy-metals testing for Coastkeeper. “If I ran a few tests on Rio Alamar and a few on the Tijuana River,” he says, “that could cost 10,000 dollars. That’s just the testing. Someone’s then gotta write the report.”
Toxicity tests are even more expensive. “That’s where you’re putting little critters into the water, like water fleas, and seeing how many of them die.”
In Mexico, the high costs of such testing means it doesn’t get done.
“I have seen fumes coming from the ground…
…at the Rio Alamar where toxic materials have been dumped,” says Oscar Romo, 64, the watershed coordinator of the Tijuana River National Estuary Research Reserve. He has been interviewed many times over the years about pollution and flooding and the dark side of Tijuana’s municipal sewers. He is aware of the original plans to restore habitat along the Alamar and to eco-channelize the creek. “But that project was abandoned,” he says. “The desire to control flooding, and to gain access to land to develop the highway, and to gain land to develop to make money for the city and the state replaced the old plan. Eco-channelization required a bigger footprint, and it cost more money.”
He describes a politicized hotbed fraught with complexities. “Different people were claiming ownership of the [Rio Alamar] land, and in many cases, they were bringing many loads of trash to fill in the riverbed. The Paleo-channel was being filled at a pretty fast rate by industry, and by developers.” This is a big business, he says, in particular for a notoriously radical Mexican movement known as antorcha campesina, or the “farmers’ torch.”
“This group is famous for what they’ve been doing. They take land from the government by invading. This is a huge business. This group is probably the most wealthy in the country. They claim they’re turning the land into viable real estate. They have been taking land in the Alamar River by that process, by dumping. And they were making money by charging other people to dump. If you go to the landfill, it costs what, 60 dollars per ton? At the Rio Alamar, they were charging only 5 dollars per ton.”
Romo says the Alamar is a prime example of the abuse of private and federal land. “You have different things going on here: the claiming of the land, making money off the dumping, and then reselling the land. It’s a profitable business.” Not to mention the fact that a new highway is coming. “After that, the value of the land will increase 20-fold.” It is a reverse Robin Hood situation: “‘Farmers’ torch’ claimed the land was being taken for farmers and immigrants.” Instead, Romo says, the movement sold the land to developers for profit.
“The residents want Rio Alamar restored. But they’re not addressing the issue of water quality. And unless you improve the water, restoration makes no sense. This information is not being taken into account by the defenders of the river. If the water is improved, then it makes sense to develop the rest of the wetlands. But if it is not, then the government can say that the people are being exposed to pathogens in the water, and that they will protect them by putting it in a tube or a pipe.”
This is exactly what the Mexican government is doing. Romo, like others, says it will compound the problems at the end of the line. “It will be the same amount of water, but it will carry more energy. This will lead to more flooding and erosion farther down in the Tijuana River Valley.”
Will the pollution coming out of the Tijuana River system likely increase this winter as a result of the Alamar channelization?
“For sure,” he says, “it will.”