The Voyage of the Kiri is moving along and has reached the Tijuana River watershed before even leaving the U.S. city of San Diego.
Location: at the reserve for the Tijuana River Estuary on the U.S. side of the border.
Conditions: Windy and cool, 6 p.m. Representatives of different nonprofit organizations from both U.S. and Mexico are meeting to establish a binational network to protect the Tijuana River watershed and estuary.
Discussion: I never thought about it, but Mexico actually starts in San Diego County.
Not because a big Mexican flag can be seen flying on clear days in Tijuana. Not because 31 percent of the San Diego population is Hispanic. It is a physical, watery connection: A watershed splits both countries at the border.
What exactly is a watershed? It is a drainage basin where a collection of creeks and rivers end up in one place. Human and natural communities that share a watershed are inexorably linked. In this case, rain falls on both sides of the border and collects in creeks that feed into the Tijuana River, which then meanders through its namesake city and ends up on the U.S. side of the border.
An international wastewater treatment plant was installed in the mid-'90s in Tijuana with help from U.S. funds. Even though new upgrades are planned, thus far, huge amounts of trash and sewage continue to flow into the river. Alicia Glassco, a marine debris expert at the San Diego Coastkeeper, told me this morning, "Luckily the estuary is protected and acts as a huge natural filter for pollutants, but storm runoff brings everything from plastic bottles to car tires — and a lot of hepatitis A." Surfers, swimmers and border patrol officers are all getting sick from diseases in the area.
In Imperial Beach at the Tijuana River Estuarine Reserve, I attended a meeting to establish a network from both sides of the border to protect the watershed. Representatives from nongovernmental organizations such as Mexico's Alter Terra, the U.S. Surfrider Foundation, and the binational group Wild Coast/Costa Salvaje, among others, were discussing how to join forces. It was exciting to see them tackling this trans-border problem that few people know about, but which affects millions of people in San Diego and Tijuana.
A place that is heavily stressed by pollution can only become more stressed by climate change — that is the conclusion of a 2008 EPA report on adaptation for "climate sensitive ecosystems" such as estuaries. The Tijuana River network is not yet looking at the effects of climate on its area; after all, it has more pressing issues to address, such as getting Tijuana households on the sewage system. But the EPA report implies that cleaning the watershed right now is doubly important — to give the estuary a fighting chance when pressures from climate (less rain, species loss) take hold.
I reflected on our own health: We are doubly weakened if we are unlucky enough to get an injury and the flu at the same time. For the estuary, pollution is the injury, and climate change is the flu. When both are attacking the watershed's "immune system," it will be hard-pressed to do its natural filtration duties. And swimmers at Imperial Beach will be hard-pressed to fight off the notorious hepatitis A!