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A Border Patrol agent monitors an area of the U.S.-Mexico border. / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

During President Joe Biden’s January visit to Mexico City, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador thanked him for not building “one meter” of border wall. That soon won’t be true in San Diego. 

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol told Voice of San Diego construction could begin as early as February on about 321 meters of barrier to close a gap across the Tijuana River. Local officials – and federal officials from a different agency – argue the project could have devastating effects on the watershed and interfere with almost $474 million in committed projects in both countries to stem long standing cross-border sewage contamination

The wall across the Tijuana River, which would feature a gate that could be lifted to let the river flow unimpeded, was among a list of projects “to close gaps” in the border wall announced by the Department of Homeland Security in May, including wall construction at San Diego’s Friendship Park that drew public backlash and stalled the project until recently. The Tijuana River project has been on Homeland Security’s to-do list since at least August of 2020.

The Tijuana River flows throughout the U.S.-Mexico border region in San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A white, painted line across the river channel marks the official international border and is where the 30-foot steel border wall ends. It’s also where in 2018 a group of Central Americans attempted to run into the U.S. at once, before border agents fired tear gas canisters into the crowd. 

In an email, Gerrelaine Alcordo, a spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, said the wall across the river would address a “health and safety concern for agents and migrants due to the heavily polluted conditions of the river channel.” Alcordo said Customs and Border Patrol collaborated with other federal agencies to “include solutions for the transboundary trash flow issues that plague the Tijuana River.”

Some local officials worry the barrier will create a trash flow issue of its own.

The Tijuana River is seasonally dry in the summertime, but during the most recent bout of storms caused the river to flow at huge speeds carrying trash and other debris across the border. Chris Helmer, director of environment and natural resources for Imperial Beach, worries the vertical gates planned for this stretch of wall won’t be lifted in time to release the river. 

“If one in the canyon fails, it washes out a couple of roads. But if this happens in the main channel of the Tijuana River, catastrophic flooding will happen in Tijuana,” Helmer said. “Not to mention, if we have a tsunami of flood waters come down it’ll wash out any pollution control projects we have planned right now.” 

The Tijuana River which flows throughout the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Sally Spener, foreign affairs officer for the International Boundary and Water Commission, an agency designated to negotiate water matters between the U.S. and Mexico, said the agency is reviewing the project’s proposed design and plans for operation and maintenance. IBWC wouldn’t be in control of the structure if it’s built, Spener said. 

Helmer joined city of San Diego’s Mayor Todd Gloria and other in signing a Dec. 19 letter to the EPA, urging this border project go through the same federal environmental reviews required of other infrastructure projects impacting a waterway.

But Customs and Border Patrol can skip federally required environmental reviews and studies under a waiver granted by Congress. Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, appointed by former President Donald Trump, declared this border project exempt from environmental review in February of 2019.

Helmer, among others, worry that the same trash and debris could pile up against this river gate, creating a damming effect and causing the river to back up and perhaps even breach the levee banks in Tijuana, inundating downtown. Since that trash would pile up on the Mexican side, San Diego officials wonder who would be responsible for clearing that debris. 

In another nightmare scenario, Helmer says this gate structure could adversely affect millions of flood and sewage control projects the EPA is in the midst of planning. The U.S. committed to spend $330 million granted by Congress under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement to expand the existing an international wastewater treatment plant on the U.S. side of the border to handle and clean more sewage-tainted water that now flows untreated and uncontrolled into the Pacific Ocean. 

The EPA released the final environmental impact statement on that suite of projects for public review in November. That document flags the Customs and Border Patrol’s river wall project as a potential impediment to the river’s flow both upstream and downstream.

“CBP has not made sufficient information available regarding the barrier design … to support an assessment of the potential cumulative effects to river hydrology,” the report states.

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1 Comment

  1. Oh come on Federal Government! Work WITH San Diego and Tijuana to help clean the river while preventing flooding, not creating it. The goal should be to positively impact the environment, and people, by helping them immigrate quickly and with dignity. Surely there has to be more brain power (and will) available in these government orgs to solve these issues!!!

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