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Slowing The Flow

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In this episode: A story about trash and dirt flowing from one side of the U.S.-Mexico border to the other, and two guys’ plan to stop it.

This episode first aired in December of 2019.

About the Show:
“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.

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The hills bleed trash.

At least, that’s what it looks like from Jorge Ibañez’ nursery.

Clip 1 Nursery Dude
"were one of the small nursery that works with native plants, and thats the plant thats used a lot so the canyons don't erode….

Standing on Jorge’s plant-filled perch on a hillside of Los Laureles canyon in Tijuana, there’s a clear view of about a half dozen illegal dump sites. People who live on the mesas above have for decades dumped trash into the canyon below.

Music bump

In the beginning, Los Laurels was a slum where waves of migrants unable to cross to the U.S. have taken up shelter in shoddy shacks they hastily build for themselves. Those dumping the trash from above care little about those below who are forced to live in it.

Over the years, the slum has grown into a recognized Tijuana neighborhood, with water pipes and electricity lines connecting it to the city that once pretended it didn’t exist. There’s even trash pickup now, unreliable, but it’s there.

Nicer houses, taco shops and small businesses like Jorge’s have popped up here, too.

Adela Pinata Clip 0

Adela Bonilla runs a pinata and craft shop near the bottom of the canyon.

Adela Pinata Clip 1
"This is a studio/workshop for recyclables. I work with recycled things. I make artisanal crafts, artistic piñatas….

And yet, no matter how much the neighborhood grows and gets better, the flow of rainbow-colored trash keeps coming… plastic bottles and bags cascading down the hillsides and flowing through the center of town… Other peoples’ junk cutting deep gullies into the eroding earth beneath it.

Natsound: rain

When it rains, the trash is swept up in a swelling stream that runs right through the middle of Los Laureles canyon.

Natsound: flowing water/creak

The flow pushes through the neighborhood, then under the six-laned highway leading from Tijuana to Ensenada.

Natsound: Highway traffic

From there, it cuts through a culvert running underneath the international border fence.

Once the trash and sediment-filled water hits the U.S., it’s in a wildlife reserve.

Natsound from Border Field State Park

The state of California spends $1.8 million annually on a system that keeps that trash and dirt from slipping too far into the park. They use small ponds to catch the sediment and a fence stretched across the ponds catches the plastics.

The Tijuana River Research Reserve, the agency that takes care of the park, says the system has stopped approximately 2 million pounds of debris from entering the environmentally sensitive estuary.

Natsound: Border Field State Park

But the trash just keeps coming and coming... And perpetually managing the pricey problem instead of actually solving the problem seems like the forever plan.

That is… Unless Steven Wright and Waylon Matson’s idea gets funded. The environmentalists want to use repurposed trash from the canyon to build retaining walls and other structures in Los Laureles that would prevent the trash and dirt from reaching the U.S. in the first place.
****Fourwalls 3 Clip 53
...This this tire retaining wall. You see here. This was a really good but I retaining was a really good example of the economics behind it. Right? So the this tire wall has I believe it's 450 or 500 scrap tires in it and about 67 cubic yards of sediment and we built it for $3500 true cost that's including wailing in time if that same quantity of material had crossed into the sediment ponds. It would have been 9,500 to clean up. So therein lies the relatively simple math.
***Fourwalls 3 Clip 54
This is you know, the Border. Yeah, so Why spend dollars if you can spend pesos. Good question.
I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Today, a story about trash and dirt flowing from one side of the border to the other, and two guys’ plan to stop it.

More after the break.

ad

When it rains, ginormous flows of raw sewage from Tijuana often overwhelm the sewer system and end up flushing through the canyons and tijuana estuary, eventually dumping into the Pacific Ocean, washing up on beaches in San Diego.
Newsclip on sewage
It’s a huge problem. But it’s not the problem Steven Wright and Waylin Matson are trying to solve.
The two are laser-focused on solving something different, but intertwined -- the cross-border flow of trash and sediment from Los Laureles canyon.
Natsound of driving in van
Steven and Waylin’s old van kicks up billows of dust as we drive up a steep dirt road in Border Field State Park, a park at the southwestern-most tip of the united states.

Natsound of Border Field State Park
We’re at the place where the border fence dives into the Ocean. And once we get to the top of the hill, Steve points out the views of Los Laureles canyon on the south side of the fence, and the sediment ponds on the north side.
180 View Clip
The Mexican side is densely populated and bustling, filled with people and cars. In stark contrast: The American side is empty, except for a few birds and one border patrol agent sitting in a truck parked below.
Fourwalls 1 Clip 3
Steve: because Spooner's Mesa is the spot where you can. Show people visually geographically why and how work Upstream in Tijuana would directly benefit California in the United States, San Diego.
Steven and Waylin are both tan and leathery from working out in the sun. Their hands are calloused. They look like they work in construction, but sound like Southern California surfers. They love being outside.
Natsound of driving in van
While we drive, Waylin constantly scans the horizon, looking for American kestrels, small falcons that call the park home.

Fourwalls 1 Kestral Sighting
There's one right there….

Waylin named his baby daughter Kestrel. That’s how much he loves the birds.
Natsound of driving in van
Steven and Waylin have spent a lot of time in Tijuana, tromping around Los Laureles canyon. The neighborhoods residents are now close friends.
And there are some things they can't unsee after their time here. The dead pig floating through the middle of the neighborhood, so bloated the little guy looked like he was about to explode. The kids playing next to water so green it looks like it’s glowing. Hypodermic needles and other biowaste washing through the neighborhood. The migrants losing their homes and all of their belongings when it rains because the hillsides cave in.
They finally -- finally -- they think they’ve pinpointed a real, lasting solution.
But It took them some time to get here.
Music bump
Steven and Waylin met on a rugby pitch at college in Riverside, California. They were immediately struck by their similarities.
Fourwalls 1 Clip 23
Steve: Yeah, we're Star Brothers for sure. It's pretty cool.
Born on the exact same day, the exact same year, thousands of miles apart, the two grew up chasing critters and running through forests -- hardcore nature boys right from the start.
Both knew early on that they wanted to save the world. They were early environmentalists.
And the border region hit Steven and Waylin’s radar early, too. Both took family trips to Mexico when they were young. And Steven’s first-ever trip south with his family pressed a firm imprint on his brain. It was one he could never shake.
********Fourwalls 1 Clip 22
Steve: …. my dad's a geography teacher. They challenged me, if I memorized all the state capitals that give me 40 bucks to go buy a whip and some cowboy boots down in Tijuana. And maybe six and so yeah, so I memorized them. I got it. I got the money we went down and that was really the first time I'd ever seen like just crushing poverty. There's a lot of folks on the street. I never really seen anything like that seen a lot of kids my age around the street, and so long story short. I gave all my money away and then my parents thought that was good. They bought me the Whip and the boots anyway,
Those two things -- their love of nature and the border -- would end up shaping the rest of Steven and Waylin’s lives. They just didn’t know it yet….
MUSIC BUMP
The two became close friends in college, but went separate ways after graduating. Almost a year went by, and then Waylin called up Steven on a whim. They got to talking and found out they were both thinking about starting environmental nonprofits.
They met up at a coffee shop with some colored pencils, drew up a logo and wrote down the four pillars of their future nonprofit -- shelter, self-reliance, sustainability and community.
And that was the start of their new thing -- a nonprofit they called 4 Walls International.
At first, they focused on building single-family homes for people in need in places like Mexico and Columbia, teaching themselves and their volunteers how to turn trash into sustainable building materials.
****Fourwalls 1 Clip 26
Steve: And really it's a hell of a thing to unite a whole community and sweat and bleed together and work together and one of the things we've learned, you know, is that well when you're doing that together for a project. Potentially only is benefiting one family. Did it can kind of lead to splintering within those groups are those Community groups of them Community. It's really better as far as a leverage point of entry point if it's a public and that's really where the experimentation with the binational placemaking program.
That right there - the splintering some of their projects were causing in the communities in which they were building -- it led to a big pivot.
They started focusing on public instead of private projects. And they really started involving the community through the entire process, from identifying the need, to planning the design and then actually helping build the thing.
They built a few small public parks. One right near the border fence in Border Field State Park. For that project, they used about 4,000 plastic bottles filled with trash they collected from the sediment basins, plus 250 old rubber tires.

The repurposed trash is covered in plaster that makes it indistinguishable from more traditional building materials.
Fourwalls 1 Clip 2
Steve: It used to be really foreboding place there was two black chain link fences here that pretty much covered everything out and that border field state parks. I was in front and there's just a simple the normal sign and when we were working here, man, you can't you can't imagine how many people would come up and just turn around we thought the place was closed right and we saw a lot of cross-country trips or like north-south trips that there they were planning to end here and they just turned around for the thought. It was closed. So we kind of got charged with the task of opening this up when we took the fences down and we built a bunch of park infrastructure and signage here with trash out of the sediment basins, which was released shortly. Okay. And
And on the other side of the border in Los Laureles canyon, they built some small public projects too -- like an outdoor basketball court surrounded by murals. They also built a small workshop space that some of the women in the neighborhood could use to make crafts and other things to sell.
*********Fourwalls 1 Clip 27
Steve: it really the biggest key to long-term sustainability to these projects. Is that there's a high degree of ownership by the community, you know, the our golden rule is don't do anything about me without me and the second Golden Rule is under promise over perform. because a lot of especially when you work in some of these communities you can't I mean they get too big it made promises all day every day all the time politicians, NGO groups, academic whatever they promises all the time and it is there's not always the follow-through so. So yeah, those are our important rules as far as the. Our building techniques in our strategy and everything we do is sustainable, but for it to really be sustainable. It's got to be the community making the decisions and it financially needs to be sustainable which is led us to that final pivot
Those community projects Steve and Waylin were doing were amazing.
But they were small and weren’t leading to any large-scale, long-term change.
They were using repurposed trash to build nice public places, but then new trash and dirt just started piling up all around these spots. It was frustrating.
So they hit the pause button.
And now, they’ve turned their attention to the thing they think both the people of Los Laureles and the trash problem need most…….money.
*******Fourwalls 1: Clip 28
Steve: We could have been going we could go at the rate we've been going for the next hundred years and not really even make a dent. We knew that it has to go. It has to go way up a level in several levels and very quickly. Yeah.
More on that when we come back.

Midroll Ad

Natsound of driving in van
Steven and Waylin leave Border Field State Park and drive through the international border crossing. Today, there’s a line of vehicles snaking their way into Mexico, so it takes about 20 minutes to make our way through the cameras and speed bumps and the other intimidating infrastructure that makes up the crossing.
Natsound: Crossing through border
After navigating through downtown Tijuana traffic, they drive back toward the border, down a steep, bumpy road into Los Laureles canyon.
Natsound of driving in van
Trash. Is. Everywhere.
But so are examples of people using the trash in creative ways.
Stacks of old rubber tires are common here, mostly serving as retaining walls to stem the erosion.
We drive by a set of tires painted hot pink and serving as a decorative fence in the front yard of a small house.
Across the stream from the pink fence, in the center of the canyon, a retaining wall made of discarded tires is literally holding up a triangle-shaped patch of land underneath a shack that looks like it’ll be wiped out once the rainy season begins.
*****Fourwalls 2 Clip 43
You'll see there's a lot of you knows retaining walls built with tires and stuff is but there's a couple things that could be done engineering wise. They make a little more secure and make them really advantageous and not necessarily dangerous. Some of them can be kind of dangerous. We've been down here like in the winter and walls have collapsed and I crushed houses with people sleeping in them and stuff like that. So,
Our first stop is the shop where Adela Bonilla makes pinatas and other goods, many from recyclables she finds in the canyon. Adela wears an apron and a big smile. She stands below huge pinatas made in the shape of children’s cartoon characters, like Pikachu and Mario.
Natsound: Arriving at Pinata Shop
Clip 3: Those are bottles, transformed into…. (Alan: you could drink wine from em), hahaha no it could be a flower vase or other things……

Clip 4: those are wallets made from old plastic bags, they have no colorants, just the bags.

Clip 5: These are bags made from intimate towels, its made from the wrappers……
A few years back, Steven and Waylin partnered with Adela and other women who live in the canyon to build the shop out of glass and plastic bottles stuffed with trash. The building is beautiful and the only hint that it’s made of trash are the colored glass bottles in the ceiling they purposely left exposed.
Clip about building and cost
There’s more for us to see deeper into the canyon, so we say goodbye
Clip saying goodbye
and pile back into the van.
Natsound getting back into van
Steven and Waylin want to show me and Only Here producers Kinsee Morlan and Emily Jankowski the three areas where they want to build structures to stop the flow of trash and dirt.
Van nat sound
They call the areas “hot spots” and “hardpoints.”
Fourwalls 3 Clip 47
... this is one of those hardpoints. Can you just you see there's clandestine dump sites that use it for this right here is that this will become a whole mound of trash bags for trash pickup. And so what happens is I. As you can tell there's plenty that's left behind and these are all bottles that would float across.
The spot is a total mess. A tunnel the city installed sped up the water flow, which made the erosion here worse. A few old chairs sit at the center of what’s become a large pile of plastic bottles, bags and other junk.
To us, the situation feels overwhelming. But Steve and Waylin see opportunity.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say. In this case, they see building materials….
*****Fourwalls 2 Clip 40
Bottle bricks is what you're seeing, they just haven't been processed yet.
Kinsee: laughs. Ha. That's one way to look at it.
Music Bump
The guys want to transform the trash-bleeding, eroding hillsides of Los Laureles into beautiful terraced landscapes…. terraces built from the very trash currently clogging it up.
And they want to pay the people who live in Los Laureles -- many of them new migrants who got stuck in Tijuana as they tried to cross the border -- to do the work of collecting glass and plastic bottles and stuffing them with trash from the canyon.
***Fourwalls 3 Clip 48 NEW
Kinsee: So….I look at what I see and I just think it's hopeless but that's not what you see?
Steven: No it's not hopeless, man. I Mean, there's like I said, there's tens if not hundreds of thousands of people that would work their ass off to clean up the Watershed, they just need the right opportunities. I mean as long as we're all like going to you know, implicitly uphold this system, then we can all agree that opportunity and upward Mobility are good things, right? So we need to provide everything is just it's like the same problem ever it's access and not you know,
Kinsee: so you look at this and you see jobs?
Waylin: The world is littered with opportunity
Steven: because this shit is everywhere when we can. Transform a relatively simple and relatively cheaply a lot cheaper than digging it out later retroactively. That's for sure.
Steven and Waylin think that once word gets out about trash equalling money, a lot of the illegal dumping problems will be resolved. Trash will be seen as more of a commodity.
*****Fourwalls 1 Clip 9
…. So you very rarely find aluminum can in the river because it has value….
*****Fourwalls 2 Clip 41
Waylin: You know, the only naysayer, I think I've ever heard was what you gonna do when they run out of trash around. Well, they're not just pack up and move on somewhere else. Will they haven't finished their trash situation is kind of nice a comment. I think I've ever heard would be what are you going to do? When someone thinks they can do it better than you and wants to start a competitive business. That's when we say absolutely great. That's awesome. That's all compete for this stuff. Let's overfish it and mind the crap out of it just like we're good at and yeah by all means compete over it, you know Drive the price of it down make it more obtainable and let's just cut the stuff off.
Music fade
Natsound: border field state park
When Steven and Waylin look at the sediment ponds back on the other side of the border at Border Field State Park, they see so many ways to save tons of money, it seems ridiculous.
Because all that trash and dirt that flows from Mexico to the U.S….. every year the state pays to get it scooped up, sifted and then piled up south of the pond.
The price tag for that process is almost 2 million a year.
Nature sound
Steven and Waylin say they can spend a fraction of that money to pay people in Los Laureles to help build structures in the canyon -- and eventually other canyons in Tijuana.
They say the projects could stop most of the trash and sediment from ever getting to the U.S.
*****Fourwalls 1 Clip 7
There's a lot of money spent to clean this up downstream. So kind of working backwards from that we can figure out a value to this stuff...
The idea is straight-forward enough, but the execution is tricky.
MUSIC BUMP: mischief
****Fourwalls 3 Clip 49
Alright, are you guys ready? ready for what? Ahhhh! Oh my god.
Steven and Waylin drive up a steep, narrow dirt road that looks precarious at best.
The hillside it snakes up on is eroding and it looks like our van could be the thing that washes away the road for good.
We’re heading to Jorge Ibanez’s native plant nursery.
Natsound of getting to Jorge’s place, closing car doors Fourwalls 3 17:17 - 18:10
Fourwalls 3 Clip 55
So this is a very first project we ever built in Tijuana. It's was just native plant nursery the that's what to eat this. So this like I said, it's built with about 500 scrap tires. Same thing you saw on that that retaining wall here. It's got Earth. It's packed out with Adobe mud, and it's got an Earthen plaster on it. It's made of cactus juice. Every free minute and then I thought this was about the same size group about 13 people mostly ladies and then build this originally as an office space. It is sort of become like the catch-all shed for all the work that happens here...
Steven and Waylin want Jorge and others here to help stem erosion by filling the terraces they’ll build with the native plants he grows.
Jorge clip in Spanish, Alan translates
Natsound: Saying goodbye, getting back into van
From the nursery, we keep driving into the canyon, where we see another project the guys helped build.
****Fourwalls 3 Clip 52
{chatter in background} This is a little park project Oh, they put a fence up. This was the last Brick-and-mortar project we did in TJ before we decided we weren't going to build anything until we knew we could be here for several years and not stop.
We drive even deeper into the canyon and Steven and Waylin show us two more hot spots where they envision focusing most of their efforts.
The last spot is near a church that serves as a shelter for homeless migrants, many of them from Haiti and Central America.
Clip: Arriving at shelter
Basically we’re going to a place, a migrant shelter. Pastro gustavo has seen it al. the region has become known as little haiti. ...tents jammed up in there. And there’s a lot of kids in there.
The smell here is very intense thanks to a nearby farm and the extremely polluted waterway.
Clip from last hotspot here
Yeah, that’s some funky green right there. Anyway, this is another one of the hotspots….there’s just a lot of need here and definitely a lot of people who’d be willing to work really hard.
Steven and Waylin see the homeless migrants as the perfect workforce. They envision being able to pay them to walk through the canyon and pick up bottles. If they stuff the bottles with trash, they’ll get more money for them. Then they’ll use the bottles as bricks in their erosion-control projects.
******Fourwalls 2 Clip 37
Steve: So we're going to be creating lots of jobs for a lot of people that call this place home. But there's also an opportunity to create jobs for migrants that are being forced to await their asylum claims on this side of the border.
So now, they just need the money.
But getting money from government agencies and grantors in the U.S and spending it on projects in Mexico -- that’s where things get difficult.
Steven and Waylin, though... they think they’ve found a way to get the money flowing from north of the border to south.
Fourwalls 1 Clip 5
Well, The Border impact bond is a way to create jobs and economic incentives upstream in Tijuana to reduce government spending downstream and while improving environmental and Public Health on both sides of the line.
Music bump to give money part momentum
That’s the elevator pitch for the social impact bond they’ve dreamed up.
A social impact bond is basically a contract with a government agency. That agency then pays for better social outcomes in certain areas in need and passes on part of the savings to investors who bought into the bond.
Steven and Waylin have identified a few government agencies that would benefit and save money from a contract like this.
And for investors who buy into the idea, the bond is a way to make some money and pay for something that’s good for the environment at the same time. They can feel warm and fuzzy about how they’re using their money.
Not everyone is able to fully understand the plan, though. It confuses a lot of people.
But that’s why Steve and Waylin take potential investors and reps from government agencies on tours of Border Field State Park and Los Laureles canyon, just like the one we’re on today.
Natsound: Inside Van
Once people see the situation on the ground with their own eyes, the idea starts making a lot more sense.
Fourwalls 1 Clip 15
….. you know Steve I have been doing this for a long time and about four years ago we were introduced to these market-based approaches to conservation which it with impact bonds being one. And we realized right then and there that this the only way that we can scale our work up, is by is a guy by front-loading private impact investment that that there's you know, there's billions of dollars in the ESG Market which is environment sustainability and governance, which is what you know governments around the world companies are all refocusing on in their Investments, you know, people don't want to invest in oil anymore. And so we want to be able to capitalize on that to be able to front-load the cost of these interventions with the idea of then saying repayment would be structured around our performance. So if if we are very successful we would see a higher return rate to our into the investment
Steven and Waylin just got $70k from a federal border program run by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Optimistic music bump

That money will help fund the planning stage of the project. Soon, they’ll begin holding workshops with people in Los Laureles and coming up with designs.
But the last piece of the puzzle has yet to fall in place. They still need a government agency to step up and sign on to the border bond.
They say there’s too much at stake and are confident it will happen.
Fourwalls 2 Clip 38
Steve: because what political entity doesn't want that handshake and photo at the end of it? Fourwalls 2 Clip 39
Steve: This is a bipartisan solution. You have serious measurable social environmental benefits right for the left. Then you have a fiscally responsible reduction in government spending to the right. So those things together. I mean this is conceptually, it's it's a very bipartisan solution to these problems.
Music bump

Next episode teaser

Next time on the podcast…. we continue our border-art series with a story about an opera singer who’s painting a picture of border culture through song.

******Anishka 1 Clip 12
And, uh, I started to realize that this was like. This was a thing. This was a thing that people were interested in and that it felt really good to talk about our border experiences in other places, and that there was fear. And, um, for lack of a better word, ignorance on both sides of the wall.

Anishka Lee-Skorepa wants to break cultural barriers surrounding both the border and opera music.

Show credits

Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming.

KPBS podcasts are made possible by listeners like you. Go to kpbs DOT org to make a donation or become a member today.

Only Here podcast branding

Only Here

“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.