San Diego aims to fix a pollution problem by helping a Tijuana slum
A US team wants to clean up a river estuary by improving living conditions across the Mexican border.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
A river, a wildlife-filled estuary, and the sea are all victims of this rainy-season menace, the product of a sprawling Mexican city where the poor often live without paved streets, running water, or sanitation.
Now, a cross-border team hopes to stem the tide of US-Mexican tensions and turn a Tijuana slum into an example of environmental activism. Their goal: Convince the community to devote its own time and effort to pave the roads in San Bernardo, a bustling neighborhood that becomes a bleak, muddy lake during heavy rains.
The plan, at least its initial stages, is to cover dirt roads with concrete blocks designed to hold water and allow it to seep into the earth. Residents, mainly women, are making the 70,000 "permeable pavers" needed for just the first half mile of road.
There are obstacles. For one, support by locals has been spotty. For another, the project is aiming to link both countries in a region long divided by language, disparities in wealth, and age-old resistance to cooperation.
Still, the project has plenty of potential beyond the small neighborhood. "The intent is to create an example," says Oscar Romo, an environmentalist and professor at the University of California at San Diego who's leading the effort. "I don't have the resources or the will to start paving the [entire] city. What I'd like to do is convince authorities on both sides of the border that this is an environmentally friendly way to pave the roads."
Differences aside, San Diego and Tijuana do have plenty of similarities: rapid growth in recent decades, massive sprawl, and tourism. But while San Diego is known for its sun-kissed beaches and world-famous zoo, Tijuana still carries the reputation it developed in the 1920s and 1930s as a place where Americans can let loose at free-wheeling bars and restaurants.
While still a haven for certain kinds of vice, "TJ" has turned into a huge and crowded city devoted to manufacturing in the form of factories known as maquiladoras. It's also become a "staging area," a place where immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America wait to cross into the United States, says Paul Ganster, director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.
As a result of its role as both destination and way station, Tijuana's population has skyrocketed from 235,000 in 1964 to more than 1.5 million today. Along with the growth has come acres upon acres of slums, known as barrios or colonias.
Polluted estuary threatens animals, plants, economy
Estuaries, where rivers divide into tentacles as they reach the sea, are supposed to act like giant strainers.
"They're Mother Nature's filter," says Clay Phillips, reserve manager of the Tijuana River Estuary. "They're where the pollutants are filtered out before they get to the ocean."
But here, the filters are clogged.
Thousands of discarded tires try to make the trip from Tijuana to the Pacific Ocean each year, along with countless aluminum cans, mattresses, and corrugated cardboard boxes. Once, a refrigerator floated for a full mile past the border through shallow streams.
The rising tide of pollution is threatening dozens of species of birds, animals, and plants, not to mention the local economy. While much of the junk doesn't make it to the nearby shoreline, plenty of sewage does, leading to closed beaches and slumping tourism.
Government agencies are spending millions to change this story: Two sediment basins designed to catch silt and debris cost $4 million. But half of the 2,500-acre estuary remains in poor condition, Mr. Phillips says.
"My prediction is that we'll slowly but surely see improved development practices in Mexico," Phillips says, "which will equate to less sediment in the estuary. Then we'll be in the position where we can begin to restore the southern half. But it will be very slow and it won't happen overnight. The problems are so big that the solutions end up being very big, too."