Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Flooded with questions

San Diego Union-Tribune
December 2, 2008

SOUTH COUNTY – In the Tijuana River Valley, horses are standing in mud up to their ankles and fields of watermelons are submerged under muck. Local farmers and ranchers blame the federal government – which is moving massive amounts of earth to accommodate a second border fence – for the mess.

But Border Patrol Agent Mark Endicott said the flooding at Monument Road and Hollister Street near the U.S.-Mexico border is not unusual after large storms.

“Every time we get heavy rain in that area, it floods, even before the construction project,” Endicott said.

The water flows from the high mesas that line the border toward about five large properties that sit in the valley below. A number of those properties host multiple families, individual ranches and numerous horse stables. Those who live there say last week's rains – about 1.14 inches over three days – brought more flooding and trouble than normal.

And they don't just blame the federal government. They say local agencies have failed to clean up debris-filled channels that carry the runoff.

After spending the long holiday weekend raking and clearing mud and debris from their land, property and business owners want answers.

Some locals, as well as environmentalists, are blaming the heavy flooding on an earth-moving project that began in August at a canyon known as Smuggler's Gulch. The canyon is being filled in with dirt cut from surrounding hills to create a 150-foot-tall earthen berm that will eventually allow a second border fence and patrol roads.

“You always get sediment coming off the hills, but this was different,” said Dick Tynan, who owns about 20 acres on Monument Road and Hollister Street. He said a lot more flooding occurred this time with just a small amount of rain.

The fill project is near complete, with more than 1.2 million cubic yards of earth in the canyon. Another half-million cubic yards will soon be added to finish the berm.

The $48.6 million project is due for completion in May, and though erosion-control measures have been taken near the top of the canyon, the sides of the berm have yet to be reseeded with vegetation to prevent sediment runoff.

Oscar Romo, a professor of urban studies and planning at the University of California San Diego, is tracking the construction's environmental effects on both sides of the border. He visited the site Wednesday and Thursday after the heavy rainfall. Already, Romo said, substantial erosion had occurred along the sides of the berm.

Some river valley residents also blame the flooding on San Diego officials for not cleaning out a flood-control channel coming out of Smuggler's Gulch. It is designed to carry runoff but is filled in some areas with at least 10 feet of plastic bottles, as well as debris and trash, including a refrigerator.

Darren Pudgil, a spokesman for the Mayor's Office, could not confirm yesterday whether the problem was the city's.

Tynan's neighbor Jesse Garcia, who owns J&K Earthworks off Monument Road, said Wednesday's rain flooded many of his fields that run along the flood-control channel. Runoff up to 15-feet high breached one side of the channel when three openings under a dirt bridge were clogged.

“I had the bulldozer out here, and I was trying to build up the wall of the channel with topsoil,” Garcia said. “This is the first time this has happened.”

Garcia, who has been farming there 11 years, estimated he lost $10,000 of watermelons because of the flooding.

Romo said he also noticed mud at the bottom of a sediment basin near Goat Canyon, a smaller fence-construction site nearby.

“It was designed to catch only sediment from Mexico,” Romo said. “It is now experiencing a lot more sediment than it used to.”

Environmental advocate Mike McCoy of the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association, who was part of a 2004 lawsuit to stop the Smuggler's Gulch project, said he was alarmed by the reports of flooding.

“It's coming down off that bare construction area. Wait for another rain or so, and it could really become a problem,” he said. “We'll just have to track it closely.”

Tynan, who has owned his property since 1978, had to pump water off his property, where horses and goats in rented stables stood in wall-to-wall mud.

“I haven't seen it like this since 2005,” Tynan said.

Yesterday, Monument Road was still muddy, especially near Smuggler's Gulch and other canyons. Forecasters say they are 90 percent certain San Diego County will stay dry for the next week or so. However, National Weather Service forecaster Mark Moede said a 10 percent chance exists that rain expected to develop far off the coast might head toward land by Sunday.


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