Monday, Jan. 26, 2009 | A mile north of the border fence, Mexico’s garbage stands five feet high in places, a pointillistic rainbow made of plastics. Royal blue oil containers. Green soda two-liters. Lavender fabric softener bottles.

There, in the Tijuana River basin, a wide channel that serves as the main drainage basin for Tijuana’s storm water runoff, a stack of garbage stretches almost a quarter-mile long. The plastic bottles have washed across the border and gotten stuck in plain sight.

Deeper in the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, on land owned by the county of San Diego, the litter dams up creeks, hangs from trees and lurks beneath muddy paths. Tires, two-by-fours and Styrofoam punctuate the mess.

The region’s attention has long focused on the environmental health problems caused by the millions of gallons of raw sewage and sediment that winter rainfalls wash across the border into the United States, southern San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. The litter that comes with it has received less attention — something that activists and government officials alike hope to change.

On a recent afternoon, standing atop a tangle of garbage in the county park, Ben McCue lamented the never-ending cycle that drives the litter to accumulate here. McCue, the coastal conservation program manager at Wildcoast, the Imperial Beach-based environmental group, had joined 200 other volunteers at a June cleanup here to rip out old tires and whack back overgrown weeds. City Council President Ben Hueso, county Supervisor Greg Cox and Assemblywoman Mary Salas joined in and celebrated the volunteers’ efforts.

They filled an oversized dumpster with waste. They returned in October and filled another. They plucked 220 tires from the muck during the two cleanups.

When they were finished, the trail they’d cleaned was passable.

Then, in November, rain fell.

Litter dumped in Tijuana’s streets got flushed. Months of plastic bottles and other debris wound up in the county’s 1,698-acre park. Today, the trail smells rotten — McCue has spotted dog carcasses — and fetid sewage-tainted runoff stagnates in white plastic buckets. Spiders crawl through the bramble.

Trash overwhelms this area each year. And each year, county parks employees wait for it to dry out and then clean it up. But the county can’t address the problem in Mexico, at its source.

The problem falls into the intractable policy gap that often defines the border environment. Local governments in the United States lack the authority to negotiate or invest in solutions in Mexico. While the county’s neighbor is essentially dumping trash on its land, the county doesn’t go to talk to its neighbor about the problem. The federal government is responsible for cross-border negotiations.

“We address the fact after the incident,” said Renee Bahl, the county’s parks and recreation director. Addressing the trash in Mexico “would be a decision outside this department.”

The trash spreads throughout the area. West of the county’s land, volunteers removed 4,000 tires in 2005 from the Tijuana Estuary, a 2,500-acre salt marsh adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, said Clay Phillips, the wetland’s manager. Another two tons of garbage were cleaned out in 2007. But volunteer cleanups in the estuary are infrequent. Organizers don’t want volunteers tromping around in water often contaminated by sewage.

John Robertus, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the local water pollution regulator, organized a coalition of local and state officials that hopes to halt the cycle. Calling themselves the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team, the group has divided into four teams, each with a goal:

  • Developing a way to intercept trash and sediment at the border. The California Integrated Waste Management Board last week awarded $250,000 to install a trash boom — a floating barrier — to stop litter in Goat Canyon, a cross-border canyon that drains into Border Field State Park. But other cross-border canyons still need improvements. The main river channel is among the most problematic.
  • Determining out how much trash and sediment has accumulated throughout the area and then cleaning it up. Phillips dubbed one area “The Plug.” Years of trash have collected and been fixed in place by mud. “I think we’d be amazed at how much trash has accumulated in the river valley,” Phillips said. “Nobody knows how much is there.”
  • Creating a plan for restoring the Tijuana River to a normal, functioning ecosystem. Arundo and other invasive weeds are prolific; sediment that washed across the border from Tijuana’s denuded hillsides inundates the area, eliminating rich wetlands habitat home to several threatened and endangered bird species.
  • Reducing pollution in Mexico. “We can’t deal with it without solving it in Mexico,” Robertus said. Pollution could be reduced in Tijuana by expanding municipal trash service, he said, and cleaning up litter from storm drainage channels before rainstorms.

“The trash and debris that enters the storm drain system” — primarily the wide concrete channel that cuts through Tijuana near the San Ysidro border crossing — “it’s just a real good way to get rid of it,” Robertus said. “Nobody cares because they know it’s going away and going over the border. It takes it away very efficiently.”

While Robertus wants to see an investment made in Mexico, he lacks the authority to negotiate with Mexico or spend state money there. He is turning to Oscar Romo, the coastal training program coordinator at the nearby Tijuana Estuary. Romo has brought two top Tijuana city officials to see the problem up close.

Romo said U.S. officials need to first recognize that their counterparts in Tijuana are willing to work to solve the problem. The answer is simple, Romo said. Bottles tossed into the streets wind up in narrow runoff channels that cut throughout Tijuana’s neighborhoods. Installing and maintaining trash booms in the channels that feed the city’s main river basin would keep trash out, Romo said.

“It’s not a lost cause,” Romo said. “We know exactly where the trash is coming from. It’s a matter of catching the trash before it reaches the river. Technically it’s really easy. Funding is lacking.”

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