Showdown on the Rio Alamar

Enviros try to stop channelization in Tijuana's Colonia Chilpancingo.

In the town of Campo, springs and creeks trickle south across the border and join at Arroyo Tecate. The Tecate and the Cottonwood form a stream that, once it reaches the outskirts of Tijuana, changes names to Rio Alamar.
  • In the town of Campo, springs and creeks trickle south across the border and join at Arroyo Tecate. The Tecate and the Cottonwood form a stream that, once it reaches the outskirts of Tijuana, changes names to Rio Alamar.
  • Image by Bill Jaynes

We park near the adobe bullring. The breeze picks up a little, here on the outskirts of Colonia Chilpancingo, a neighborhood in Tijuana. Nearby, a woman washes clothes in a concrete sink with water from a yard hose. Chickens scratch in the dirt around her earthen-walled home. She does not stop, nor does she look up as we pass.

“My grandparents used to fish here.”

“My grandparents used to fish here.”

Aníbal Mendez steps carefully down a dirt embankment, avoiding a trickle of fluid that seeps from under the foundation of the bullring. He leads the way through stands of scrub and willow that eventually open out onto a small creek. This is the last remaining wild stretch of the Rio Alamar, he says — the Alamar River — and its days are numbered.

A steel and concrete channel will replace the Rio Alamar’s open space.

A steel and concrete channel will replace the Rio Alamar’s open space.

If things go as planned, this patch of raw nature will soon be bulldozed. The stream will be encased in cement, and the remaining floodplain will be filled and graded for a new highway. This is phase three of a government works project in which the entire length of Rio Alamar, one of Tijuana’s last natural streambeds, is being channelized. “The original plan,” Mendez says through an interpreter, “included the government cleanup of this natural site, meaning the clearing out of all of this garbage and so on.” Apparently, the Alamar is also the town dump.

Trash pickup along the river

Trash pickup along the river

First, some clarification: in spite of its name, Rio Alamar is a creek and not a river proper. It presents a shallow cascade of rock-strewn cataracts and swirling pools, a slim thread of moisture that spools southwest from the Tecate-Tijuana border, running downhill through dust and poverty. Surrounding the creek is a mess of discarded tires, rusted-out auto-body panels, scrap, junk, and trash. Three bony cows graze among the ditch weeds on the shore opposite, separated from us by water that is a man-made stew of effluent and wastewater from Tecate. The Rio Alamar should in summer be a dry creek bed. But thanks to industry, it now runs year round.

Nearly completed river channel

Nearly completed river channel

Mendez, 30, lives in Imperial Beach and works as a community organizer for the Environmental Health Coalition. Though we are hiking the river bottom, he wears stylish jeans and a dress shirt and leather shoes. He feels baited and switched by a Mexican government subcommittee that initially agreed with environmentalists to restore and preserve the open space, but instead razed everything in sight and filled the arroyo with steel and concrete. Eventually, this will impact San Diego. The cross-border implications of channelization, Mendez says, is for even more sewage and mess to funnel into the United States. Rio Alamar is a major tributary to the Tijuana River. It represents almost one-third of the entire watershed.

Phase three is where Mendez and a coalition of environmentalists have drawn a line in the sand: they aim to save this last stretch of river. “We filed an injunction to stop the building here and to force a sit-down with the authorities to make it into a better plan. It is difficult,” he concedes, “due to the fact that Mexican local and federal authorities are involved.”

On March 28, a petition to stop the construction was filed in Tijuana’s ninth district court. Due process calls for each side to present experts to bolster their arguments. The environmentalist coalition has produced theirs, but the Mexican government has yet to submit their own list of experts to the court. Mendez says that, under Mexican law, there is no deadline to file such a response. “And there will be no hearing until they produce the list.” Meanwhile, the channelization of the Alamar proceeds unabated.

“But we are getting ready to file a different amparo [legal protection] under Mexican constitutional law to protect phase three,” he says. This time around they will have financial support from the Environmental Health Coalition.

Diane Takvorian says, “The history of our involvement in Tijuana goes back 25 years.” Takvorian is the executive director and a co-founder of the coalition. Two years ago, President Obama appointed her to the Joint Public Advisory Committee of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. “Our concerns have been around the Chilpancingo community and the impact of the maquilas in that community.”

Takvorian says air and water pollution from the factories has impacted the area’s natural resources and the health of its residents, and she echoes fears that increased problems in the Tijuana watershed will impact the U.S. “We share the watershed, and Rio Alamar is part of it. The border fence is meaningless when it comes to ecology.”

The waters that flow through the Rio Alamar both begin and end on American soil. In the eastern San Diego County town of Campo, a modest network of springs and creeks trickles south across the U.S.-Mexico border and joins forces at Arroyo Tecate, Tecate Creek. In a dozen kilometers or so, the Tecate gains another infusion of cross-border water, this time from Cottonwood Creek. Together, the Tecate and the Cottonwood form a stream that, once it reaches the outskirts of Tijuana, changes names to Rio Alamar. By then, the once-pure Campo/Cottonwood spring water carries with it a staggering load of pollution.

A 2005 water-quality study, “Biological Assessment of Tecate Creek,” by Volker Luderitz, published in the scientific journal Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, says that sources of pollutants include urban runoff, output from a sewage-treatment plant, slaughterhouse runoff, continual discharge of water laced with organic compounds from the Tecate Brewery, and the release of effluent from maquiladoras (or maquilas), the factories that operate in Mexican free-trade zones.

“Before NAFTA,” (the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994) says Mendez, “people could fish and bathe in the Rio Alamar. Before the maquilas came in 1986, you could actually drink the water.”

It is no longer news to anyone in San Diego that during winter storms, sewage-laden floodwaters from the Tijuana River overwhelm both the Tijuana estuary, one of the most important salt-marsh ecosystems left in the U.S., and the Pacific Ocean. The winter waters off Imperial Beach become a hellish broth of contaminants and raw sewage, and area beaches are known to remain closed to the public throughout the season. This sewage spill has a name: the Tijuana River plume, and it is tracked by the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Interesting stuff. It's difficult to write about Tijuana issues without drawing direct comparisons to how things operate in the U.S., everything is totally different here. In both countries, the government will get its way, except that the path to that end is entirely different. This creek will go away, economics is more important than ecology, this is what happens. That would happen in the U.S. as well, just differently, with the same exact concerns and the same ignorance by the government.

By the way, the vast majority of the Tijuana River was not paved in the 1960's. From the Rodriguez Dam to 5 Y 10 was all dirt when I came to live here in 1992 - in fact, most roads went through the River and their were no bridges East of 5 Y 10. During the big El Niño storms in 1993, the Dam overflowed and the floodgates were eventually opened for safety reasons and the flooded River killed countless people illegally camping/living in the way of the water. Directly afterwards, the government paved the river all of the way back to the Dam, many believe that bodies of victims still lie entombed underneath the concrete.

But to summarize, all governments do what all governments do, which is whatever they want to do.

Thank you for covering such an important issue in our region, Dave.

The fight to save Arroyo Alamar from channelization is not over. Learn more on Environmental Health Coalition's website and sign up to receive emails from us on this topic:

And please answer this petition on our blog about the Arroyo Alamar:

Cheers- Jamie Ortiz

About six years ago, the president of our College of Architects was on the air to lobby for the remediation of the Tijuana River canalization project. In his professional opinion, he said, all that cement was engineering overkill but, now that it's been built, at least we might make its floor porous, to help our water table, and maybe cover over some of the bleakness with public architecture.

There has been no remediation. Instead, we now use the canalization to house people kicked out of California prisons, to park police cars, and to shoot off city-sponsored fireworks.

What a shame it is to see that the Alamar has already been canalized in that same over-engineered way. Doesn't the International Boundary and Water Commission have anything to say in the matter?

I'm surprised there hasn't been more commentary on this very important story. What happens with the Alamar has a major impact on San Diego as well. With the Reader having taken a (somewhat specious) ribbing recently in San Diego CityBeat for its cover articles, it's all the more gratifying to see such a detailed and comprehensive cover story that tackles an important issue affecting all who live in southern SD and TJ --

Log in to comment

Skip Ad