Smuggler's Gulch project a 'disaster' for estuary, critics say

This article is part of an occasional series on the environmental impacts of the new border fence being constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border.

IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. -- Newly filled with 1.3 million cubic yards of hard-packed dirt, Smuggler's Gulch, long a conduit for illegal immigration and drug trafficking, may need a new name.

Once a haven for traders in contraband of all kinds -- first, Prohibition-era bootleggers; later, drug smugglers and immigrant-ferrying "coyotes" -- the gulch now echoes with the sounds of earth-moving bulldozers, dump trucks and Border Patrol jeeps.

Over the next few months, contractors will finish building a 15-foot-high steel mesh fence along the spine of the new berm and another, smaller earthen bridge across Goat Canyon, just to the west. Dirt roads will run along either side, and in most places, the primary barrier will be reinforced with a 10-foot-high chain-link fence on the north side. The new fencing joins a decades-old corrugated metal vehicle barrier a few hundred yards to the south; together, the three fences will create a three-tiered barrier between the United States and Mexico.

From below, the massive berm now bridging the mesas on either side of the 300-foot-deep gulch is an intimidating sight: massive, impenetrable.

That is exactly what Customs and Border Protection and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, were aiming for.

"That old fence was never meant to keep people out," said CBP's Jerry Conlin, looking down on the rusty vehicle barrier from the edge of the new berm, where the next section of new fence will soon be erected. "It was never meant to provide the sort of security that our country needs now."

Until now, Border Patrol agents have had to pursue suspected illegal border crossers down treacherous switchback dirt roads that are cut into the sides of the canyons. Now, with the berms bridging two canyons, agents will be able to drive straight across, providing much quicker response times and a much safer route, Conlin said.

But while the berm -- as high as some of the West's concrete dams -- and the fence it will support may stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers, it is expected to increase the flow of sediment into the Tijuana River estuary, habitat for several threatened and endangered species and the target of a multi-decade restoration effort. Like the other drainages in the border highlands, as the stretch of rugged terrain along the last few miles of the U.S. border with Mexico is called, Smuggler's Gulch and Goat Canyon funnel streams from Mexico northward into the United States, into the river and its estuary.

Part of a larger, $127 million plan to construct 14 miles of new barrier spanning the westernmost part of the San Diego sector, the Smuggler's Gulch project was delayed by legal challenges and regulatory hurdles. In the end, CBP was able to undertake the project without adhering to any state or federal environmental laws due to waiver provisions in both a 1996 law pertaining just to the Smuggler's Gulch area and the REAL ID Act of 2005, which applied to other areas, as well (Land Letter, Sept. 22, 2005).

'A wall of shame'

Environmental groups, state regulatory agencies and managers of the 2,800-acre Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve have warned DHS and CBP that the project would cause extensive erosion and send tons of dirt downstream, choking the estuary and undermining decades of work restoring ecologically important wetlands. The estuary encompasses a national wildlife refuge and state parklands and is home to a number of endangered bird species, including the light-footed clapper rail, the California least tern, the least Bell's vireo and the American peregrine falcon.

"Frankly, from our perspective, this project was just a disaster," said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, which regulates development in the coastal zone. "Not only is it a wall of shame, but to override the protections after the state spent tens of millions of dollars to restore the estuary and to just come in and blast the place ... it's just shameful."

The Tijuana Estuary Tidal Restoration Program, which calls for restoring 520 acres of inter-tidal wetlands, is one of the largest wetland restoration projects in the country.

Even though the project is proceeding under the waiver, the California Division of Water Quality is pressing CBP to keep environmental damage in check. In a letter to CBP and the Army Corps of Engineers written after a tour of the area in the fall, the agency warned that poor road design and planning would harm the estuary.

"This project will have significant adverse impacts, especially permanent loss of wetlands and riparian habitats," wrote Darrin Polhemus, the division's deputy director.

"Most road segments observed exhibited poor grading practices and will likely erode if normal rainfall occurs," Polhemus added. "This will create environmental costs in the form of lost hydrologic function in the watershed and sediment deliveries to the estuary below. It will also create costs in the form of expensive remedial maintenance and will create hazards for the agents using those roads."

CBP is crafting a response to the letter. The agency has said it is building retaining walls, culverts and other erosion-control infrastructure to help protect the estuary. Some of those measures were on display during a recent tour of the project site, although some areas appeared to lack erosion controls.

On a warm afternoon this week, Jim Peugh, conservation chairman of the San Diego chapter of the Audubon Society, stood a few feet from a new section of the fence just east of Smuggler's Gulch and pointed to a rivulet crossing a section of new road. Bigger, more damaging gullies will cut through the project area as San Diego County's winter rains continue, he said.


Jason Price, project leader for the Army Corps of Engineers' Engineering and Construction Support Office, which is helping to coordinate construction of the fence, said the company contracted to do the work is following a stormwater pollution prevention plan and is to repair any areas damaged by heavy rains. After the project is completed, responsibility for erosion control will be handed over to CBP when it assumes operation and maintenance duties, he added.

In his letter, Polhemus of the California Division of Water Quality told CBP and the corps that mitigation and long-term monitoring will be needed to help offset the damage to the estuary.

Along the slopes rising from the roadcuts in the mesas on either side of the gulch, fiber rolls have been put in place to help reduce erosion, and in some areas, green seedlings can be seen sprouting in the dirt between the erosion barriers. Those plants -- the native rayless gumplant, according to Price -- replace the laurel sumac and black sage that once grew on the site.

"In the Smuggler's area, it's been decided not to have the high vegetation that would obstruct our visibility," Conlin explained.

Need for project questioned

Peugh and other critics have called for a project with a smaller disturbance footprint that would rely more on increased patrols and more underground sensors and remote cameras.

"They didn't need to have a triple fence, they needed to have a real fence," Peugh said. "There were areas where the existing fence has fallen down because of erosion. And people would use pieces of fallen fence to get over the standing fence."

But Conlin said CBP had already gone as far as it could with manpower and technology under Operation Gatekeeper in the 1990s. What was missing was a more efficient route for both the fence and the patrol roads, he said.

"The terrain just doesn't allow for the type of manpower that would be needed, to cover areas with difficult terrain, with high brush, with low to zero visibility," Conlin said, slowly driving a white government-issue Suburban toward the saddle of the Smuggler's Gulch berm as construction workers in orange safety vests worked on a new section of steel fence in the distance. "This whole project is about the right combination of personnel, technology and infrastructure."

When the project is done, Border Patrol agents will have a more or less straight throughway paralleling the fence from the San Ysidro Point of Entry east of Smuggler's Gulch to the shoreline 5 miles away.

"Raising Smuggler's Gulch will allow us to respond to any threats to the area -- and rescues in the area -- much better than before," Conlin said.

In the 1980s, the area of the border south of Imperial Beach, including Smuggler's Gulch, was one of the busiest -- and most dangerous -- sections along the border. In the early 1990s, about half a million people crossed into the United States from Mexico illegally in the San Diego sector, more than anywhere else on the entire border.

After a crackdown by the Border Patrol during the mid-1990s under President Bill Clinton's "Operation Gatekeeper" initiative, which doubled the number of Border Patrol agents and provided more cameras and sensors, apprehensions fell by more than three-quarters, dropping from 480,000 in fiscal 1996 to 100,000 in fiscal 2002.

Since then, apprehensions have risen slightly, to about 152,000 in fiscal 2007 and about 162,000 last year. "It's been going up little by little since 2002," Conlin said.

A project years in the making

The mandate to construct 14 miles of new fencing in the San Diego sector dates back to 1996, predating the Secure Fence Act by a decade. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, authored in part by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of San Diego, called for the U.S. attorney general to "provide for the construction along the 14 miles of the international land border of the United States, starting at the Pacific Ocean and extending eastward, of second and third fences, in addition to the existing reinforced fence, and for roads between the fences."

The law's authorization to waive the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act to allow for "expeditious construction" set the stage for the waiver authority granted to the DHS secretary in the REAL ID Act in 2005, which expanded the authority to apply to all state and federal laws. Under the REAL ID Act, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff waived a host of laws to complete various portions of the fence, including the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Clean Air Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Without the waivers, it seems unlikely that the Smuggler's Gulch project would have been constructed in its current design. In 2004, environmental groups sued to stop the project, and the same year, the California Coastal Commission concluded that Customs and Border Protection had not demonstrated that the project was consistent with the California Coastal Management Program, a state program approved under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act. It warned that the new fence project would harm the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research and Reserve, further imperil state and federally listed species and compromise lands in the border highlands set aside for protection under San Diego's Multiple Species Conservation Program.

Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, said there is little the state can do to get CBP to repair the damage. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), nominated to be the new Department of Homeland Security chief under President-elect Barack Obama, has criticized the border fence, offering hope to some critics that the new administration will attempt to repair some of the environmental damage from the fence, or even reshape parts of it. But Douglas is doubtful.

"I think the damage is done," Douglas said. "I don't know how you go back and undo it."

The ongoing construction project at Smuggler's Gulch, expected to be finished in May, is one of a handful of border fence projects that have extended beyond Chertoff's deadline of Dec. 31. While Chertoff said in August that the agency was on track to complete its goal of 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers by the end of the year, only 563 total miles have been built, according to Lloyd Easterling, a spokesman for CBP in Washington. But Easterling, who attributes the delays to the increased price of fuels and steel, said he expects the administration will hit the 670-mile mark before Bush leaves office next week.

"We're still committed to the 670-mile goal," Easterling said, adding that contracts have been secured for all the remaining projects.

April Reese is based in Santa Fe, N.M.

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