Federal, State, & Local Representatives United on Call to Save Friendship Park
By Jill Holslin
SAN DIEGO, CA | On Saturday, November 15, 2008, at 11 AM, federal, state, and local elected officials gathered at Friendship Park to call for an immediate halt to construction of fencing that places at risk a traditional gathering site for families on both sides of the fence. Congressman Bob Filner opened with remarks about the injustice and waste of resources represented in the project. Staff members from offices of California State Senator Denise Moreno Ducheny and Assemblymembers Lori Saldaña and Mary Salas also attended. In addition, Congresswoman Susan Davis will deliver a letter to the President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team to intervene to save Friendship Park. The letter, which has been signed by several elected officials, including Congressman Bob Filner, State Senators Denise Moreno Ducheny and Christine Kehoe, and Assemblymembers Mary Salas and Lori Saldana, and San Diego City Councilmember Ben Hueso, is posted above on this blog.
“We need to ensure Friendship Park lives up to its name, a place that fosters human relations in spite of fences, where families can share meals and greet each other. Instead, there is a real risk that with construction, the hope-filled intent of the park will be lost,” stated Jaime Gates representing Point Loma Nazarene University, and representing the coalition of local groups concerned about the future of Friendship Park.
Elected officials join a coalition of local groups who have decried the construction of supplemental fencing in the area as “an offense to the peoples of the San Diego/Tijuana region.” DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has waived more than 35 federal, state, and local laws and regulations in order to accelerate fence construction for the US/Mexico borderlands. Markers and temporary mesh fencing in and around Friendship Park indicate that demolition is imminent. To the dismay of the public, DHS representatives have not been forthcoming with their plans for the proposed fencing.
History and Environmental Impact
In 1971, former First Lady Patricia Nixon inaugurated the park, crossing into Mexico to shake hands with well-wishers and embrace children, reportedly stating, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.” It is this spirit of friendship and our shared love for this precious beach, park and coastline that have become the legacy of Nixon’s establishment of the park so many decades ago. Over these decades, Border Field State Park and the Tijuana Estuary have enjoyed and benefited from genuine binational efforts on the part of Mexican environmentalists and San Diegans to protect and improve this invaluable resource. Since 1995, the city, county and state have jointly invested over half a billion dollars–$500 million—in acquisition of lands and restoration of this rare and wildly beautiful California coastal scrub estuarine habitat. As California’s coasts are subjected to increasing residential and commercial development—over 90% of Southern California wetland habitat has already been lost to development. Estuaries and natural spaces like this one are becoming more and more rare.
Yet, driven exclusively by a narrow focus on the national security implications of the border fence project, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff waived over 33 environmental laws in April of this year—to fast track the construction of the border fence in the San Diego sector. Decades of knowledge and expertise of our environmentalists and scientific community members have been disregarded, and the local community has not been consulted throughout this process. The result is a misguided effort to grade, flatten and fill in canyons to create a “fence corridor” and 40 foot wide vehicle access road with around a 10% grade along the 4.5 miles from San Ysidro to where we stand here at the beach.
Not only is the spirit of friendship in peril with the loss of accessibility to the park. The border fence project threatens to contaminate and damage the entire Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of only a handful of sites worldwide designated by Ramsar as “wetlands of international importance.” Winter rains will cause loosened canyon walls to erode, and tons of soil and sediment will wash down into the delicate estuary lands. Encompassing 2,500 acres, the Tijuana Estuary is the endpoint of the binational 1,735 square-mile Tijuana River Watershed, three-fourths of which is in Mexico, including most of Tijuana and all of Tecate. The Estuary is an essential breeding, feeding, and nesting area for resident birds and for the thousands of migratory birds moving along the Pacific Flyway. Over 370 species of birds have been documented in the Reserve, some of which are endangered and threatened. The light-footed clapper rail, a resident bird that depends on marsh cordgrass and may be the most endangered bird in Southern California, is found here in numbers unlike any other wetland is San Diego County.
Already we have seen the results of soil erosion in Lukeville, Arizona, where the border fence was built through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, blocking a natural wash and floodplain. Panels in the border fence designed by Kiewit Corp. of Omaha, Nebraska, to accommodate ordinary summer flash flooding did not work—Massive backwater flooding occurred along the border fence, driving rapid flows of water and debris up to 7 feet deep, and severely eroding the foundations of the fence itself. When the winter rains commence in San Diego this year, we can expect the same kind of flooding and erosion that we always have, but weakening and loosening of soil on the canyon walls of Smuggler’s Gulch, Goat Canyon and Yogurt Canyon will bring tons of soil flooding down to this area. In spite of commitments to BLM and other agencies to exercise “Best Management Practices,” Kiewit Corp. has charged forward with the construction in San Diego, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. No funding has been provided by the Department of Homeland Security to mitigate this damage, and San Diego city, county and state resources will be strained in the future for the restoration that will certainly be necessary.
Concerns about environmental damage continue to be voiced by state agencies. In October, the State Water Resources Control Board sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, reiterating their concerns about the environmental impact of the Smuggler’s Gulch in-fill project, a major portion of the San Diego sector VI fence corridor. The letter cites statements of Michael Chertoff, indicating the commitment of DHS to actively solicit public input on the environmental impact of the project and to exercise good environmental stewardship throughout the construction process. Yet, to date, the State Water Resources Control Board notes that they have not seen evidence that these commitments are being carried out. Upon inspection of the site, the board observed complete lack of temporary erosion control measures, failure to implement the storm water pollution protection plan, poor drainage and shoddy grading practices on construction access roads. In addition, there appears to be no post-construction maintenance plan, n
or has DHS been forthcoming about funding such a plan. The board anticipates that a number of consequences will follow including severe erosion when winter rains begin, sediment spill and damage to the estuary, high environmental costs in the form of lost hydrological function in the watershed, and expensive remedial maintenance costs which will no doubt be borne by local, county and state agencies. Perhaps most ironic, the board notes that these problems will create hazards for the border patrol agents using the roads for whom they were designed and built.
Natural habitats know their own boundaries. The Tijuana River Watershed covers 1735 square miles, and two thirds of it lies in Mexico. Three reservoirs in this watershed store precious water for the residents of the San Diego border region. For the sake of our own survival, we cannot afford to destroy this precious resource.