Environment and Hope on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Jared Blumenfeld of the EPA inspects a trash pile in the Tijuana River Valley with reporters from Uniivision-San Diego.

Yesterday my Wildcoast colleagues Ben McCue, Paloma Aguirre and I took a tour of the Tijuana River Valley and Los Laureles Canyon in Tijuana with Regional EPA administrator Jared Blumenfeld. I’ve known Jared since the 1990’s when he ran IFAW‘s San Ignacio Lagoon Campaign. He is a very smart guy who is very adept at getting things done.

Tijuana Estuary's Oscar Romo and a City of Tijuana official in Los Laureles.

The tour was reported on in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Our tour included a site visit to a Community Center Wildcoast has partnered with 4 Walls International, Tijuana Calidad de Vida and the Tijuana Estuary on developing with the Las Hormiguitas Community Group. The  point of the project is to use trash as a building material and then train residents on how to manage trash and human waste.
The Southwest’s top environmental regulator toured the southern edge of San Diego County on Wednesday to promote an eight-year plan for improving water supplies, air quality and energy efficiency along the 2,000-mile boundary between the United States and Mexico.
Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency based in San Francisco, didn’t hit the spots that most visitors go. Instead, he stopped at the corrugated metal border fence, a wastewater treatment plant and a garbage pile in the Tijuana River Valley to build support for a binational blueprint.

My colleagues from Tijuana Calidad de Vida and 4 Walls at the Las Hormiguitas Community Center in Los Laureles.

Called Border 2020, it is the latest in a string of cooperative strategies that goes back to a 1983 agreement between the two countries. The expansive document focuses on climate change, children’s health and environmental education among other priorities. Blumenfeld is working with Mexico, ten border states and 26 border tribes to finalize plans.
He was at once upbeat about the potential for solutions and sober about the difficulty of convincing Congress to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on related projects when funding for the U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Program has shrunk by 90 percent since the mid-1990s. Border cleanup advocates said Blumenfeld’s interest is enough to boost hope that seemingly intractable problems will continue to shrink even if they won’t disappear.

This is the community center. 4 Walls built it using waste tires they found discarded in the canyons in Tijuana.

The current Border 2012 program expires next year. It’s credited with helping to reduce flooding, improve estuaries, boost drinking water supplies, remove junk tires and prompt other upgrades in the region where 14 million people live.
“Incremental progress can sometimes feel frustratingly slow,” Blumenfeld said, before ducking into the towering brush that hides streams of trash along the Tijuana River. “The needs remain great.”
In few places are the challenges as clear as they are in San Ysidro, which sits downhill from Tijuana and has suffered from sewage and garbage flowing across the border for decades.
“(Similar problems) have been solved in other places,” said Blumenfeld. “It’s not a question of this being the first place to solve them. … Just the fact that now 90 percent of Tijuana residents have access to wastewater treatment systems is a testament to the fact that it can be done.”

There is also a native plant nursery and vegetable greenhouse, proof that despite abject poverty, signs of hope can be found.

He said the biggest issue is financing as his agency and others try to trim costs.
“The amount of money that was being given to this in the last 15 years will be hard to replicate in the next 15 years,” Blumenfeld said. “The real question is how we focus on things that have to be done and at the same time work out funding sources and streams that are sustainable.”
Border 2020 is supposed to be the central forum for how work priorities are set.
[Draft document and directions for how to file comments about it.]
Serge Dedina, a veteran border cleanup advocate with Wildcoast in Imperial Beach, said Border 2012 set a solid foundation. EPA’s website shows it gave Wildcoast $53,000 last year to reduce trash in Tijuana’s Los Laureles Canyon.
“EPA has been really strong understanding the needs on the ground,” Dedina said. “It’s much more effective to train Tijuana residents to deal with trash instead of paying people in the United States to clean up.”

The conditions in Los Laureles are shockingly dismal--sewage in the streets, garbage and graffiti everwhere and substandard homes and plywood shacks. But hope for the future is important and is what drives people to continually improve their homes and communities.

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