The federal government is installing a temporary irrigation system to encourage plant growth on the barren hillsides created by the new U.S.-Mexico border fence near the Tijuana Estuary, a lush, 2,500-acre salt marsh south of Imperial Beach.

The irrigation system, set to begin operating soon, will provide water to plants in three areas near the estuary, said Jenny Burke, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman. More seeds will again be sprayed on hills without plants, she said.

The work is part of the $59 million effort to complete and reinforce 3.5 miles of border fence separating San Diego and Tijuana. The project added a second layer of fence, filled in the notorious cross-border canyon known as Smuggler’s Gulch and built a road for Border Patrol vehicles. The gulch, once a deep canyon, is now filled with an earthen berm that’s more than 100 feet tall — and mostly plant-free. Irrigation could be used for three to four years, Burke said, to ensure that plants grow.

That step means the federal government’s project will be using a common practice to control erosion by promoting plant growth. (Plants’ roots hold soil in place.) Because the feds waived environmental laws to clear the way for construction, they didn’t have to do that. But pressure grew after estuary officials and U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, asked Customs and Border Protection to do more.

Clay Phillips, superintendent of Border Field State Park, where the fence project was built, said he’s seen irrigation being installed in Smuggler’s Gulch, on a nearby mesa and on several barren slopes. “That’s very good news,” he said.

Phillips said the late autumn rains have caused some erosion around the fence, but that it hadn’t been widespread.

— ROB DAVIS

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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