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Rain in Tijuana fouls up San Diego coastline

For most of San Diego, recent rain has meant little more than an inconvenience. But in the county's southwestern-most corner, millions of gallons of brown polluted water spills out of the Tijuana River into the ocean...fouling the coastline from Imperial Beach north to Coronado. It's become a regular occurrence and presents a major public health risk on both sides of the border. KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson traced the polluted water back to its origins in Tijuana.

Perched on the rickety front stairs leading up to Tomasa Lopez's house is a black oil drum filled with gray soapy water.

Lopez: "It's the water from our baths and the laundry. The water collects in the barrel. We wait until the road is dry, and then we dump it in the street.

Lopez's house is not connected to the sewer system. She does not have running water. She steals power from a messy tangle of cables the locals call diablitos , or little devils.

The house is perched on a silty hillside. Another row of houses sits above. A cinder block retaining wall holds them up and holds the cliff back from Lopez's place. She says she's often afraid the wall will give way.

Lopez: " . .and we'll go sliding down the hill. But hopefully God will protect us."

The canyon Lopez lives in is called Los Laureles. It's about seven miles south of San Diego. 20-years ago it was pristine ranch land and home to about 50 families. Today, there's 70,000 residents in 60 different neighborhoods. Most are illegal squatters who came from Mexico's interior in search of better jobs.

Many of the women work at a Korean-owned maquiladora perched on the ridge above for eight dollars a day.

Most of the houses in Los Laureles are made out of discarded materials from the United States. Tires make foundations. Old garage doors become walls. Car parts, pieces of furniture and wooden pallettes also get put to good use.

And like Lopez's house, most don't have plumbing.

Oscar Romo runs the Tijuana Estuary Reserve in San Diego and is trying to educate decision makers on both sides of the border to help clean up the area. He says arrive early in the morning, and you get a real sense of the problem.

Romo: "There are human drops all over the place. It is sad...some are building a little shack, like there. But there is a pipe coming out and the water goes into their neighbors'. So it is quite nasty.

Romo says then the dogs drink water from the streets.

Romo: "They get sick. They pass all these conditions to the kids So everybody in the neighborhood is sick. They have skin conditions. They have stomach problems. It is a big problem here.

The water also swallows the land.

The hillsides have been stripped bare. The ground is even finer than sand. So even a little bit of rain or discarded wastewater erodes the soil, undermines foundations and carves deep gulleys in the dirt roads.

Further down the canyon toward San Diego, is another squatters' neighborhood called Divina Providencia, or Divine Providence. The irony of the name is matched by the view of downtown San Diego's skyline and the Marriott Hotel.

Juanita Castaneda has lived in Divine Providence for nine years. She says when it rains the stench is disgusting and you sometimes get stranded in the mud.

Castaneda: "We're the most forgotten neighborhood. We've been here for a long time and there's no help."

The road is a soggy mix of mud, trash and dog droppings. Wastewater gushes out of houses from makeshift plastic pipes. Tires are the chief erosion control.

Everything in this canyon ends up in San Diego, less than seven miles away.

Back across the border in the Tijuana River Valley in San Diego, U.S. state and federal agencies have spent tens of millions of dollars to catch and treat Tijuana's fetid runoff. But the volume of the polluted flow often overwhelms the pumps and catchment basins.

With just the little rain that's fallen in San Diego this year, Romo says the sediment basin at the bottom of Los Laureles Canyon is already a quarter full.

Romo: "My criticism to the designer was that they did not consider the dynamics of what was going on in this canyon on the Mexican side of the border. They used data that was outdated."

Romo says the pollution that escapes the basins runs directly out to sea. Last year, swimming and surfing were prohibited in Imperial Beach for 200 days. Over the years, the silty sediment, plastic bottles, tires and household goods that have washed down from the colonias has choked 2,500 acres of the world-renowned estuary to death.

Romo used to blame the problem on Tijuana's lack of infrastructure and the city's inability to manage its growth. But he says what city could keep up with 2000 new workers arriving everyday who don't pay property taxes?

Romo says the U.S. is also at fault for not addressing many of the consequences of free trade agreements like NAFTA the very agreements that draw workers north to the maquiladoras.

Romo says it would cost $80-million to clean up the estuary on the U.S. side. But he says investing a fraction of that in infrastructure in Tijuana could help take care of the problem for good.

Romo: "It is a much better idea to work at the beginning of the pipe. Not the end of the pipe. Amy Isackson, KPBS News.

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