February 6, 2009
by Jason Beaubien
As the Department of Homeland Security finishes installing more than 600 miles of new fence along the southern border with Mexico, one of the final stretches has been the most controversial and most expensive.
Federal contractors have filled Smuggler's Gulch — a canyon about two miles from the Pacific Ocean between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego — with almost 2 million cubic yards of dirt.
Environmentalists call the project a disaster. Federal officials say it's necessary to eliminate a notorious smuggling route into the United States.
At the site on a recent day, bulldozers marched up and down the steep slopes of what looks like a huge, earthen dam.
In the past six months, crews have built a half-mile-long berm across the gulch. The pile of dirt is about 180 feet high and almost 800 feet wide at its base.
When the berm is finished, a Border Patrol road will run across the top of it. At night, stadium lights will flood the area. And instead of one rickety old barrier, there will be three lines of new fence.
Smuggler's Gulch got its name decades ago, as every type of contraband imaginable from cattle to moonshine to cocaine flowed through here.
In the 1990s, this rugged canyon became a symbol of an out-of-control border. Nightly, dozens of illegal immigrants would duck in and out of the steep slopes to skirt a few outnumbered Border Patrol agents.
Weighing Environmental Concerns
Jim Peugh of the San Diego Audubon Society, which has vigorously opposed this project, acknowledges that the government faced huge challenges in patrolling Smuggler's Gulch. But he says filling it with dirt was overkill.
"The big threat to the environment that I see is the erosion from that berm and the slopes they've cut to borrow soil for that berm," he explains.
This project was originally proposed 12 years ago. Opponents held it up for years. Eventually, the Bush administration granted the Department of Homeland Security authority to override all local and environmental regulations to move forward with building the border fence.
Historically, Smuggler's Gulch has been a major problem for the Border Patrol, says Mike Fisher, the agency's chief agent for San Diego.
"We did not have easy access into that area, nor did we have easy access across that gulch," Fisher says.
"As a matter of fact, unfortunately we lost a Border Patrol agent in that area on patrol one night because of the rough terrain. And the smugglers were exploiting that vulnerability," he says.
Despite the waiver of environmental regulations, Fisher says environmental concerns are being addressed at the berm. A huge culvert is being installed, and the slopes are being seeded for erosion control.
Border Threats Persist
In addition to the new triple fencing, the federal government is also deploying remote sensors, new cameras and hundreds of additional officers along this section of the boundary.
Many human smugglers have given up trying to cross here and moved west into remote parts of the Arizona desert.
But Fisher says the threats here remain real.
"Every day, there are people who wake up and think about nothing else [other] than to do harm to this country," he says. "We are talking about narcotics smugglers; we are talking about potential terrorists whether they be operatives, financiers or facilitators. ... Our job — that one of border security — is as real, and those threats are as real, today as they were five years ago."
Fence To Change Landscape
The filling of Smuggler's Gulch is part of a $60 million project to install triple fencing along the final 3 1/2 miles of the San Diego-Tijuana border. The new barrier will extend all the way into the Pacific, and it's changing the landscape of the border.
Mike McCoy, of the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association, started lobbying to get this area set aside as a wildlife refuge back in 1971. Looking out over an expanse of bulldozed earth and half-finished fence at Smuggler's Gulch, McCoy says this project is destroying a fragile coastal ecosystem.
"At first, I didn't want to come back here again. Now, I sort of come back, but I don't really see it the same as it was," he says.
For decades, McCoy has worked to clean up and restore the Tijuana River estuary.
"We are seeing a lot of erosion right here … and that adds up to disaster when you start transporting that down into a river system," he says.
The river carries sediment to the estuary, and if that tidal coastal zone fills with sediment, McCoy says native plants and animals won't be able to survive.
McCoy seems most irked at the heavy-handedness of the federal government in overriding all environmental rules to push forward with the fortification of the border. The Department of Homeland Security argued that those rules could have blocked the new fence indefinitely.