Friday, November 28, 2008

Border gulch fill-in faces the wet test

San Diego Union-Tribune
November 27, 2008

Three months after border fence construction began in a coastal canyon known as Smuggler's Gulch, crews have all but filled in the once-deep breach.

Since mid-August, contractors have cut more than 1.2 million cubic yards of dirt from surrounding hills and deposited it into the canyon, creating a 140-foot-tall earthen berm that vehicles can now drive across.

While the fence has yet to be built, Border Patrol officials estimate the controversial fill-in is about a week from completion.

The project was for years contested by environmentalists who feared sediment runoff could damage the Tijuana River estuary, a claim countered by federal officials who promised to re-seed and stabilize the site to prevent erosion.

Now, with start of the winter rains this week and more rain expected, observers on both sides will get to see how well the massive project holds up.

“This is the first test,” said Oscar Romo, a professor of urban studies and planning at the University of California San Diego who is tracking environmental impacts of the construction on both sides of the border.

While there has been some seeding and other erosion-control measures at the top of the canyon, the sides of the berm have yet to be replanted with vegetation that can slow runoff.

The fence project, which the fill-in is part of, is not due to be completed until May.

Romo, who spent yesterday afternoon checking the site and a nearby sediment channel for erosion following the previous night's rainstorm, isn't optimistic.

“I saw what I had expected to see,” he said. “Everywhere you look at the berm, there is erosion going on.”

Romo said future rainfall could create enough runoff to reach the estuary unless steps are taken to halt erosion.

On Tuesday, before the rain began, Border Patrol special operations supervisor Jim Swanson stood at the edge of the canyon and pointed out nearby coastal sage scrub and other native plants that will eventually be replanted at the site.

“The people opposed to this don't like to hear this, but it's actually adding acreage of coastal vegetation,” he said.

A planned freeway-style retaining wall will also help, he said. By the time it is finished, the berm will be 150 feet tall and made from about 1.7 million cubic yards of earth.

Swanson, a 22-year veteran of the agency in San Diego, said Smuggler's Gulch has been a particularly dangerous place to patrol, especially in fog, with narrow dirt roads clinging to the sides of the canyon. An agent was killed in a rollover accident there in 2002.

Once the new fence is in, paved roads on either side will allow agents to zip across in seconds.
“This area needed something like this,” Swanson said.

The Smuggler's Gulch fence project is part of a federal plan dating to the mid-1990s that calls for 14 miles of contiguous secondary fencing running inland from the ocean.

The federal government is spending $60 million to complete approximately 3½ miles of secondary fencing that had yet to be built across the canyon, in Border Field State Park and in surrounding areas.

At a cost of $48.6 million, Smuggler's Gulch is by far the most expensive, and controversial, part of the project. Plans for the massive fill-in led to a February 2004 lawsuit against the federal government by environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the San Diego Audubon Society.

That same month, the California Coastal Commission stalled construction after concluding it would cause environmental damage to the estuary, which had cost millions in state and federal tax dollars to restore.

The next year, however, Congress passed legislation that enabled the Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws standing in the way of building the fence. The environmental lawsuit was dismissed in December 2005.

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