Danny Moreno (center), Carlos Moreno (right), and Jimmy Saldovar (left) walk through a flooded area in San Ysidro on Jan. 16, 2023.
Danny Moreno (center), Carlos Moreno (right), and Jimmy Saldovar (left) walk through a flooded area in San Ysidro on Jan. 16, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

The Tijuana River swells and drains to the Pacific Ocean whenever it rains, but this month’s deluge hit a handful of horse ranches and farms along the way, an outcome their owners say could have been avoided. 

Ranchers in San Ysidro’s Tijuana River Valley say Mother Nature is not only to blame, but also the local governments that once routinely dug the river a clear path to the ocean through compounded layers of silt, vegetation and refuse flowing over the border from Mexico.

“The channel is all clogged up with dead trees, trash and the sediment built up,” said Terry Tynan who has live along Hollister Street since the 1970s.

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Dorte Dresher from Dresher Ranch said she remembers dredging used to happen every year with heavy machinery digging deep enough that the water had a place to go. But the dredging stopped a few years ago. Now the sediment has built up so much it has almost created a ramp leading the water straight to their properties.

“It’s disgusting. I had to get a hepatitis shot this morning,” said Dresher, who spent days cleaning up the inundated property she has leased since 2008. “We lost so much stuff.” 

Voice of San Diego photographer Ariana Drehsler captured the scramble of ranchers moving horses and dogs through chest-high water Monday to escape the flood. 

A pile of trash can be seen at Smuggler’s Gulch on Jan. 15, 2023. / Photo Courtesy of Dorte Dresher

Dresher shared photos she took on Sunday near an old bridge along a trail where she often rides her horse. It’s close to a place called Smuggler’s Gulch, a notorious drain hole through the canyons that also serve as a natural border between Mexico and the United States. Federal officials manage a metal gate opened across that passage during heavy rains allowing water, and garbage, to pass through. It’s another key point where the watershed drains into the U.S.

Rancher Danny Moreno, whose property is also near flooded Hollister Street, said he intentionally built up his property over the summer with two feet of extra dirt to prevent floodwaters like this from destroying it. This time, it worked. In fact, his property served as a refuge for other ranchers’ horses during the most intense days of the flooding. 

“I love my animals and I just don’t want them to go through something like that,” he said.

Anthony Santacroce, the city of San Diego’s spokesman for the stormwater department, said the city has done extensive work in the area in recent years. But did not immediately have details on the history of San Diego’s responsibilities there. 

The city has been sued in years past for doing too much emergency dredging to protect those properties without conducting proper environmental assessments back in 2013, according to reporting from the San Diego Reader. At that time, the former director of the city’s storm water division, Gus Brown, said the lack of dredging made drainage channels to guide the river to the ocean “almost useless.” 

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