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.
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"There's a tradition all over Latin America of people simply squatting in unoccupied land and developing communities," Mr. Ganster says. "They'll come in and build out of whatever materials they can find. Over time, the quality of housing improves and urban services work their way in. Eventually, you get reasonably developed urban communities."Skip to next paragraph
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Typically, electricity arrives quickly, followed by water, though the process can take seven to eight years, Ganster says. Professor Romo and a group of urban-studies students are focusing their efforts on a slum known as San Bernardo that didn't exist four years ago. Now, hundreds of ramshackle homes climb the hillsides of a Tijuana canyon.
"The appearance of the community was shocking to me the first time I visited," says Kristi McCarthy, one of Romo's students. "I've never seen anything like it. The way the houses are constructed, they almost look like cardboard."
Telephone poles bring electricity and phone service to the estimated 2,000 people who live here, but running water is scarce and sanitation systems are nonexistent.
When it comes to rain, San Bernardo's problem is a simple one: gravity. Without pavement or drainage, water simply rolls downhill. On one recent rainy afternoon, roads of deep mud made it almost impossible to drive in or out of the barrio.
On such days, the residents must trudge miles by foot to their jobs at factories that make everything from electronic components to mattresses.
If it follows the typical pattern, San Bernardo may find itself with city-paved roads in a few years. Romo, a Mexico native with close ties to his home country, thinks the permeable pavers are a better idea than traditional pavement because they trap water beneath their surface instead of allowing it to create runoff. The retained water can then be used to sustain plants and supply wells.
Construction workers could make giant slabs of permeable pavement and place them on the roads in San Bernardo. But Romo's project, which will cost $30,000 for the first half mile, is relying upon local residents to create block-sized pavers small enough for them to carry.
"We want them to feel a sense of ownership of this project. As they build them, they might develop a lot of interest in taking care of them," Romo says.
So far, San Bernardo residents and Romo's students from UC San Diego have created about 35,000 of the 70,000 pavers needed, using small grants from both sides of the border. The blocks are in storage awaiting better weather and the installation of a sewer system.
"What Oscar ... and others have looked for are cheap solutions where you can use lots of local labor," says Ganster, the San Diego State professor. If the project succeeds, he says, "it would benefit the people and it would reduce dust and mud and those things that they have to deal with in their daily lives."
Romo and dozens of students from UC San Diego have already made several visits to San Bernardo to help residents make the hexagon-shaped pavers out of gravel, cement, and water. During one visit, just 30 residents appeared. "They were almost embarrassed that more didn't show up," says student Cecilia Gonzalez.
Romo hopes that communities on the US side will see the value of the pavers and start requiring them for areas like parking lots. "We're linked forever," Romo says of Tijuana and San Diego.
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."