Friday, Dec. 8, 2006 | The Tijuana Estuary spreads into the milky, moonlit distance like waves of crushed velvet. The surf’s far-off lull is hushed, soothing, broken only by the occasional screeches of shorebirds and the repetitive crunch of shoes atop gravel.

It is late. Fog is rolling in, drifting across the marsh, giving a ghostly glow to the distant green-and-orange lights of Tijuana. Scott Ketcham, his younger brother and his dog, Hobbes, are walking to the end of the world. This is how Ketcham describes the sprawling 1,800-acre wetland that starts less than a block from his Imperial Beach home.

They are alone. Not another person in sight. Just the watchful eyes of Border Patrol helicopters occasionally overhead. Ketcham is 29, a civil engineer, and a relatively new homeowner. This is his front-yard paradise.

Ketcham hikes to his destination, a mile away: A dew-covered bench at the water’s edge. He keeps Hobbes away from the water and muddy brush. Since seeing dozens of sea cucumbers washed up dead near here two years ago, Ketcham fears this water. He has reason to. A no-swim advisory is still posted on this night, eight days after a recent rainfall.

He came to this realization after purchasing a home in Imperial Beach. The sewage- and pesticide-tainted water pollution that plagues the city didn’t keep him from buying, but it keeps him wary. Despite some progress on water pollution during the last decade, a cure-all has not been found.

As this beach town grows up, it is still grappling with its image as a polluted city. In 2005, Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based environmental group, declared the beaches between Imperial Beach and the U.S.-Mexico border as having the state’s worst water quality. But the area has also been experiencing a housing boom and renewal since a new treatment plant opened there nearly a decade ago. Though the stigma remains, not everyone see it as a negative. That image, some say, has helped preserve the beach town’s uniqueness as others like it have gentrified.

“It’s a trade-off,” Patricia McCoy, a city councilwoman, says of the sewage. “You have to be careful what you wish for. I would love to see the pollution go – if you could fix it so it would remain a bucolic town.”

The city’s dirty-water image has its roots in Tijuana, where thousands of homes lack basic indoor plumbing. Sewage runoff from those homes closed water access in Imperial Beach 83 days last year.

But some say the city’s image is improving. A sewage treatment plant that opened in 1997 has helped staunch the flow of sewage that once closed Imperial Beach’s water during the summertime.

As those summer closures have been eliminated, housing prices have jumped. A single-family home in Imperial Beach costs 268 percent more than it did before the treatment plant opened. At a time of record-breaking increases in house prices, that jump outpaced San Diego County’s average by 50 percent, according to figures compiled by DataQuick Information Systems.

While some areas with similar demographics have seen comparable jumps, many Imperial Beach residents credit the treatment plant with improving their city’s image. Real estate experts and local residents say the reduction in sewage closures played a part in the city’s performance, but is not the sole cause.

“It definitely does have a role,” said Alan Gin, an economics professor at University of San Diego. “Undoubtedly this improvement in the sewage situation did contribute some to the rise in prices. How much is uncertain.”

Ketcham has ridden Imperial Beach’s wave of change. He bought a bigger house there than he could’ve gotten for the same price in Encanto. Since buying in 2002, he watched his home’s value double. The house next door has been sold twice. Families are moving in. Tweakers, as Ketcham calls methamphetamine users, have been moving out. New homes – full of funky angles, white columns and Pacific Ocean views – are replacing nondescript one-story houses.

“There’s nothing like this left,” Ketcham says. “This is like La Jolla in the ’50s.”

The housing-sales boom illuminates a pollution paradox. As summer sewage pollution dropped, home prices rose. It raises questions about the sociological impacts of removing pollution from Imperial Beach’s future.

If the sewage came under control, if winter rainfalls didn’t close the beaches for months, would Imperial Beach change from the working-class town it has always been? Would a rehabbed image attract new generations of residents to the region’s only diverse, blue-collar beach town?

Does pollution keep Imperial Beach affordable?

In Dry Weather

Then-Vice President Al Gore visited San Diego in 1994 to celebrate the groundbreaking of the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The plant, which sits in California and can treat 25 million gallons of Tijuana’s sewage daily, opened three years later. It was criticized before it even opened. The plant treats to an advanced primary standard – which means it filters less out than most American treatment plants.

In Tijuana, estimates say at least 20 percent of the population lacks indoor plumbing. Those residents dump waste in the streets. When it rains, the sewage gets swept into the Tijuana River, north across the border into California and into the Pacific Ocean. But it trickles across the border even in dry summer weather. That’s where the international plant came in.

The plant has helped eliminate dry-weather sewage flows. More than once, that summer sewage had caused Imperial Beach officials to fence off the ocean during the annual U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition.

McCoy, the city councilwoman and a 36-year resident, remembers the summer closures and credits the plant with the improvements. She offers a thought on Imperial Beach’s progress that sounds like a strange motto: “In the dry weather, there’s no better place.”

But McCoy doubts that further improvements, targeting the sewage closures that come in rainy months, would change her city’s demographics.

“I think our danger of being gentrified is exaggerated,” she says. “It’s a very simple community. It’s probably the last blue-collar town left on the coast.”

Mayda Winter, another councilwoman, says the sewage – or the stigma attached to it – has helped maintain that blue-collar character.

“The sewage over the years has been a blessing and a curse,” Winter says. “It may have stymied hotels and businesses because of the stigma that’s been attached to Imperial Beach – wrongly many times. The bottom line is that we can learn from a lot of the mistakes that were made (developing) up and down the coast. That’s been the blessing that’s come to us because of the sewage.”

Other factors have played a role in Imperial Beach’s housing surge. With the exception of a 2004 spike, the city’s per-capita crime rate has dropped since the mid-1990s, according to FBI crime statistics. And the Unified Port of San Diego has spent $10 million on capital projects since 1990, building a safety center, renovating the city pier and adding public art.

Serge Dedina, executive director of Wildcoast, an Imperial Beach-based environmental organization, says the port’s investments are responsible for boosting the city’s image – as is the exodus of biker gangs.

“I call it the surf renaissance,” Dedina says. “All the people I grew up with who surf – beach people – who would’ve moved elsewhere, we decided to stay and raise our families here because Imperial Beach got nicer.”

Dedina acknowledges the international treatment plant’s role in ending the year-round closures. But he thinks pollution has steadily grown worse in the years since its opening, fueled by Tijuana’s rampant growth. Imperial Beach has problems that are not going away, he says.

“But at least we can go down to the beach and not get attacked by a bunch of skinheads,” he says. “It’s a very different place than when we were growing up.”

It’s also different than it was barely 15 years ago. Mayor Jim Janney moved to Imperial Beach in 1991, three years before the start of Operation Gatekeeper, which tightened border security between San Diego and Tijuana. Janney recalls the pre-Gatekeeper era when immigrants on the run hid behind cars at night.

“It made a difference as far as what Imperial Beach is perceived to be,” Janney says of Gatekeeper. “I always thought it was undervalued. I look outside the window and it’s the same Pacific Ocean that Coronado has.”

Traces of that pre-Gatekeeper legacy still exist. Sensitive motion-activated floodlights stand sentry at some of Imperial Beach’s estuary-front homes. Beyond them, deserted muddy clothes and trampled grass concealed behind rows of bushes are a testament to this immigration corridor’s continued use.

This is where Scott Ketcham hikes at night with Hobbes. That he walks through bushes where coyotes pick up waiting immigrants doesn’t bother him.

It’s the water.

The Pollution Threat

In the distance, a Tijuana lighthouse is sweeping across the foggy horizon. Ketcham and his dog are walking home, a path that will take them past glowing security lights and homes with windows hiding behind iron bars.

As he nears his house, Ketcham says his city and neighborhood would look very different if its water were always safe for swimmers. Ketcham imagined a non-polluted future of horse-riding trails and campers and late-night ocean swims.

Bajagua Project LLC, a private company, proposes building a treatment plant to handle 59 million gallons of sewage daily. That would boost Tijuana’s treatment capacity by 34 million gallons a day – enough waste to fill 1,000 backyard swimming pools. The remaining capacity would be used to increase the filtration of sewage flowing through the international plant.

But Bajagua will cost U.S. taxpayers at least $150 million to build, $29 million annually to operate and won’t address the sewage’s source: The thousands of Tijuana homes that lack plumbing.

Many remain skeptical of its prospects. Ketcham questions what effect a new plant will have.

“There would be all kinds of happiness here if there weren’t the threat of the water,” he says. “Getting rid of the pollution would be great. But it’s impossible. There’s no way to fix the Mexican pollution problem.”

Ketcham has surveyed the Tijuana colonias where the sewage originates. He has toured the canyons where sewage crosses into California.

“Come the first (rain) flow,” he says, “that area is just a giant sewer that gets flushed.

“It is what it is.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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