The baritone voice on the other end of the phone sounded stern.

The caller told me his name, Kelly Good, and his title, assistant chief patrol agent.

He’d read something I’d written in late January — one of our first Fact Check posts. In it, I’d said statements made by the country’s top border patrol official, Jayson Ahern, amounted to “huckster propaganda.”

That’s the guy who runs Good’s agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Ahern had claimed, falsely, that plants were growing on the new slopes of the border fence project near the Tijuana Estuary. I’d seen the slopes in the autumn, when the claim was made, and they were plant-free.

Now Good was on the phone, sounding stern.

He said he wanted to take me on a tour. Things were turning green.

♦♦♦

A little background. In 2005, the Department of Homeland Security waived all environmental laws governing construction of a 14-mile section of border fence separating Tijuana and San Diego. Where an old, rusty metal fence had stood, the government wanted to add a second layer of fence — tall, steel mesh — with a paved road for border patrol vehicles.

With no laws to slow them down in court — or to regulate the project’s impacts — the government pushed ahead, completing the fence last year. The work also filled in several cross-border canyons, most notably Smuggler’s Gulch, piling it full with more than enough dirt to fill the Empire State Building.

But as the rainy season approached last autumn, the new slopes were barren, covered only in native plant seeds. That’s a recipe for erosion. Without roots in soil, hillsides are much more likely to wash away in rainstorms. And the Tijuana Estuary, a 2,500-acre salt marsh already threatened by erosion, sat just a few feet away.

♦♦♦

Good’s Chevy Tahoe stopped at the silver gate separating the outside world from the federal no-mans-land between the two border fences — where a newly paved road runs between the old fence and new.

He reached up to the garage door opener on the sun visor, pressed the button, and the fence slowly rolled open.

It’s now possible to drive from one end of the cross-border canyons that feed the Tijuana River Valley to the other — with minimal interruption. They had to use dirt roads before. That ease of movement for Border Patrol agents, Good said, is the project’s benefit. The old fence helped reduce immigrant traffic through the river valley; the new fence helps Border Patrol contain the area with fewer agents.

With the gate’s mouth fully opened, we passed inside, into heart of the $59 million project.

When I last visited in December, the hills around here were brown and plant-free. Which is why we labeled Ahern’s claim “huckster propaganda.” At the time, it was clearly false. But his statement has, slowly, grown to be true. He just had to wait for rain to fall.

As we drove through, the transformation was evident. Winter rains have helped bring the new slopes to life. They look lush: Green, grassy, thriving with plants. For the most part.

On slopes that face north, grassy plants are plentiful. On south-facing slopes, though, white irrigation piping weaves through still-brown slopes that have patchy growth at best. Because they face the sun, south-facing slopes are drier and tougher for plant establishment.

And in a few places throughout the project, car-width swaths of dirt are exposed. Good said border patrol agents had mistakenly been dragging the area — a tracking technique called “cutting for sign” — to allow them to see footprints in the dust. Those areas will be re-seeded, Good said, and surrounded with plastic fence to allow undisturbed growth.

The feds also plan to spend as much as $15 million over the next three years on stormwater prevention. That’s new: The government has long been criticized for failing to say just how much they planned to spend on maintaining the fence.

“We’ve done everything we thought we needed to do to comply,” Good said. “We’re not walking away.”

♦♦♦

While Good and I toured, irrigation was obvious. A water truck slowly rolled down the road, gushing a torrent of water across the hills. The irrigation system sprayed in another area. Good said his agency would continue watering for three to four years and would add irrigation on the hills lacking it if needed.

Good maintained that construction impacts were no different than they would’ve been if federal laws were in place. He said his agency hadn’t watered the seeds on the advice of experts it had hired.

“The purpose of the waiver was to facilitate the timing,” Good said, “not to get us out of the responsibility of [federal environmental laws].”

But the regulators who would’ve overseen the project have repeatedly told me that more would’ve been done if laws were in place. They would’ve required plants to be irrigated and established before the rainy season to ensure no erosion. Instead, the feds put seed down, then left it to wait for rain that fell months later. They started installing irrigation only after local officials and congressional leaders protested.

“Because they don’t have our oversight, they did what they thought would do it,” said Benjamin Tobler, an engineer with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the local water pollution regulator. “They did more than nothing.”

Tobler went down to the fence the same day I did. He said he’d give its progress a B-plus or perhaps even an A-minus. Some erosion occurred during early storms, but nothing significant. He estimates that about 85 percent to 90 percent of the hills are stabilized.

Tobler can’t threaten the federal government with fines, as he would be able to a private, regulated business, but he said he would continue checking on the plants’ progress every three to four months, to ensure they keep growing as the dry summer months hit.

He said he was encouraged by the federal effort and hopes to work cooperatively with Border Patrol. Good is participating in the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team, an ad hoc group of local officials working to address the area’s trash and pollution problems.

“They’ve stepped up,” Tobler said. “We’ll keep nudging them in the right direction.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/robwdavis.

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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