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February 14, 2011

Using Trash to Track Tijuana's Trash

Unusual study's goal: To determine sources of cross-border flow of garbage
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By Mike Lee

February 13, 2011 

San Diego Union Tribune

It’s one of San Diego County’s most intractable blights: Streams of garbage that flood the Tijuana River Valley after heavy rains.

An unlikely pair of activists — a professor and a former real estate agent — are attacking it in a counterintuitive way, by adding more garbage. They call it tracking trash with trash.

It involves scattering bright blue plastic jugs at dozens of informal garbage dumps on the northwest edge of Tijuana. About 500 gallon-sized bottles were deployed Friday, and another push this week should bring the total to 2,000.

Each contains a radio frequency identification tag that will help researchers track the flow of debris downhill through Los Laureles Canyon, across the international boundary and into one of the most biologically important estuaries in California. The tags should allow them to document specific spots where trash starts, how it travels through the canyon system and where it lands.

Each contains a radio frequency identification tag that will help researchers track the flow of debris downhill through Los Laureles Canyon, across the international boundary and into one of the most biologically important estuaries inCalifornia. The tags should allow them to document specific spots where trash starts, how it travels through the canyon system and where it lands.

“When you see something so big, you can get paralyzed and do nothing. I do not think that is the right approach,” said study leader Oscar Romo, who teaches urban studies and planning at the University of California San Diegoand the watershed coordinator at the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, a state and federal partnership in Imperial Beach.

Environmental leaders said solutions will take a combination of cleanup programs in San Diego County, better policing of environmental laws in Mexico and reformation of the trash collection system in Tijuana. Romo’s data are expected to help identify top-priority trash deposits for removal and possibly prompt better urban planning in Mexico.

“Everybody knows trash flows this way, but unless they have documentation they are saying they cannot do anything to correct the situation,” said Jennifer Leonard, watershed program intern at Romo’s research outpost.

At about seven square miles, Los Laureles is one of more than two dozen canyon systems in Tijuana that drain downhill into the United States. They have been urbanized in recent decades, often by factory workers building lean-tos from whatever they could find. There is weekly trash service, but it costs extra so canyon residents commonly recycle their garbage or burn it.

Each year, a large catch basin in the United States collects some 60,000 cubic yards of mud and junk from Los Laureles that costs roughly $1 million to remove. Leonard and others would rather see the money spent preventing garbage at the source than cleaning it up later.

A 2010 study for California’s garbage agency showed that building materials, tires, plastic bottles and Styrofoam were among the largest categories of trash in the U.S. section of the Tijuana River Valley. Those materials dot the landscape, particularly where shrubs have stopped their movement in floodwaters.

n recent months, Romo and Leonard have documented more than 100 open trash dumps on the upper edge of Los Laureles Canyon and determined that the roughly 70,000 people who live in makeshift homes on the steep slopes aren’t the chief source of the garbage. Instead, it mainly comes from businesses, hospitals, manufacturing plants and other sources outside the canyon.

“The residents want the dumping ended,” Leonard said. “They are actually embarrassed to see their trash flowing across the border.”

Efforts to reach land use officials in Tijuana last week were not successful. Romo said they have not funded the research but have shown interest.

So has Carl Nettleton, a San Diego-based consultant and a leader of the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team, made of about 30 agencies and groups on both sides of the border. The team is still in the planning stage, but garbage already is a leading concern.

“If we could stop trash and sediment from coming in, we could be successful in cleaning it up and ... we could restore the valley,” Nettleton said. “Oscar is an innovative guy and I am intrigued to see what the results are.”

So far, Romo’s garbage project has been paid for through a $135,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Most of that money is targeted at sediment studies and Romo hopes to attract roughly $150,000 in grants to continue assessing debris for years.

Leonard said she quit a career in real estate a few years ago when she became frustrated by the impact of development on coastal habitat. She entered UCSD’s urban planning program as an undergrad and asked Romo for an internship. She graduates in a few months but hopes to stay with the project, perhaps as part of a master’s degree.

“I can’t just walk away,” she said.

Romo and Leonard initially wanted to use cell-phone technology, like researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology did a few years ago when they started tracking urban trash movement in Seattle and New York.

But at $300 per device, that approach turned out to be too spendy and the pair settled on radio tags that can be “read” by a specially made wands.

The blue bottles were chosen because they stick out in the flood of clear and green plastic bottles. The containers are designed to protect radio tags from the beating that trash takes as it courses through the canyons. Each tag-bottle unit costs about $1.50.

Once the rains come, researchers and volunteers will crisscross downstream areas with reader devices that will upload the original location of each bottle and the place it was found — another step in the long struggle to clean up the Tijuana River Valley.

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