Over the decades, Border Field State Park and the Tijuana Estuary have enjoyed and benefited from genuine bi-national efforts on the part of Mexican environmentalists and San Diegans to protect and improve this invaluable resource. Since 1995, the city, county and state have jointly invested over half a billion dollars—$500 million — in acquisition of lands and restoration of this rare and wildly beautiful California coastal scrub estuarine habitat. As California’s coasts are subjected to increasing residential and commercial development — over 90 percent of Southern California wetland habitat has already been lost to development — estuaries and natural spaces like this one are becoming more and more rare.
Not only is the spirit of friendship in peril with the loss of accessibility to Friendship Park up at the top of Monument Mesa. The border fence project threatens to contaminate and damage the entire Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of only a handful of sites worldwide designated by Ramsar as “wetlands of international importance.” Winter rains will cause loosened canyon walls to erode, and tons of soil and sediment will wash down into the delicate estuary lands. The Estuary is an essential breeding, feeding, and nesting area for resident birds and for the thousands of migratory birds moving along the Pacific Flyway. Over 370 species of birds have been documented in the Reserve, some of which are endangered and threatened. The light-footed clapper rail, a resident bird that depends on marsh cordgrass and may be the most endangered bird in Southern California, is found here in numbers unlike any other wetland is San Diego County.
Already we have seen the results of soil erosion in Lukeville, Arizona, where the border fence was built through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, blocking a natural wash and floodplain. Panels in the border fence designed by Kiewit Corporation of Omaha, Neb. to accommodate ordinary summer flash flooding did not work. Massive backwater flooding occurred along the border fence, driving rapid flows of water and debris up to 7 feet deep, and severely eroding the foundations of the fence itself. When the winter rains commence in San Diego this year, we can expect the same kind of flooding and erosion that we always have, but weakening and loosening of soil on the canyon walls of Smuggler’s Gulch, Goat Canyon and Yogurt Canyon will bring tons of soil flooding down to this area. In spite of commitments to BLM and other agencies to exercise “Best Management Practices,” Kiewit Corp. has charged forward with the construction in San Diego, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. No funding has been provided by the Department of Homeland Security to mitigate this damage, and San Diego city, county and state resources will be strained in the future for the restoration that will certainly be necessary.
Concerns about environmental damage continue to be voiced by state agencies. In October, the State Water Resources Control Board sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, reiterating their concerns about the environmental impact of the Smuggler’s Gulch in-fill project, a major portion of the San Diego Sector VI fence corridor. The letter cites statements of Michael Chertoff, indicating the commitment of DHS to actively solicit public input on the environmental impact of the project and to exercise good environmental stewardship throughout the construction process. Yet, to date, the State Water Resources Control Board notes that they have not seen evidence that these commitments are being carried out. Upon inspection of the site, the board observed complete lack of temporary erosion control measures, failure to implement the storm water pollution protection plan, poor drainage and shoddy grading practices on construction access roads. In addition, there appears to be no post-construction maintenance plan, nor has DHS been forthcoming about funding such a plan. The board anticipates that a number of consequences will follow including severe erosion when winter rains begin, sediment spill and damage to the estuary, high environmental costs in the form of lost hydrological function in the watershed, and expensive remedial maintenance costs which will no doubt be borne by local, county and state agencies. Perhaps most ironic, the board notes that these problems will create hazards for the border patrol agents using the roads for whom they were designed and built.
Natural habitats know their own boundaries. Encompassing 2,500 acres, the Tijuana Estuary is the endpoint of the bi-national 1,735 square-mile Tijuana River Watershed, three-fourths of which is in Mexico, including most of Tijuana and all of Tecate. Three reservoirs in this watershed store precious water for the residents of the San Diego border region. For the sake of our own survival, we cannot afford to destroy this precious resource.