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Beach Cleanup Meets the Border Fence

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Flying a found-materials "eco-kite" by the border fence | Photo: Brooke Binkowski/KCET

Daniel Watman stood on the south side of the US-Mexico border wall, building kites out of string and plastic bags on a beach in Tijuana. Music blasted behind him, and crowds came and went as they picked up trash from the beach. Across the fence, volunteers in the United States did the same, talking to him through the bars as border agents kept a sharp eye on them.

The border that separates southern California and northern Baja California is a wall reinforced with chicken wire that juts out onto the beach and into the water. Here, volunteers in San Diego and Tijuana met on Saturday to pick up trash, chat, and to fly what they called "eco-kites," made out of found objects. This year's slogan was "¡Manda la basura a volar!" or "Tell trash to fly away!"

Volunteers all over southern California came out to the beaches Saturday morning for the annual Coastal Cleanup Day event. People filled buckets, and eventually dumpsters, with pounds, then tons of nonbiodegradable trash they plucked from the waves and sand. On this stretch of beach, the coastal cleanup became binational, joining up with a related effort called Salvemos La Playa on the Mexico side of the international border.

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"There were fifteen or sixteen cleanup sites in Tijuana, Mexicali, Tecate, Ensenada,"said Watman, a member of Salvemos la Playa's organizing committee. He said the event has been going on for fifteen years. "We've been doing this Tijuana River Action Month, and that month-long effort is truly binational."

Saturday's event was the Action Month's 2015 kickoff, said Shannon Tunks, a volunteer coordinator with the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, which partners with state and federal governments to maintain coastal systems around the United States.

Tunks, who was managing cleanup about a mile north, in San Diego County, said that this time of year is dedicated to major educational outreach and stewardship programs in both Mexico and the United States, supported by a coalition of community groups and nonprofits. Other events during this time of year include butterfly releases, invasive plant removal, and installation of plants native to the region.

[Watch KCET's video on the Tijuana River estuary.]

"Nesting season just ended for the western snowy plover and the California least tern," said Tunks. "So between mid-September and mid-October, we put as many cleanup efforts and restoration efforts as we can into the Tijuana River Valley to try to restore it between nesting season, when we can't do anything because we don't want to disturb the birds, and rainy season when we can't do anything because of contaminated runoff," Tunks said.

This year had a sense of urgency because of a predicted giant El Niño, which could wash even more garbage and offal from creeks and streams into the ocean. Picking up waste throughout the watershed could prevent that, said Tunks.

The Tijuana River watershed covers more than 1700 square miles across two countries, and contains four reservoirs and a wide and complex variety of habitats and microclimates. It's considered a world biodiversity hotspot, although that extraordinary diversity is lessening, threatened by development on both sides of the border.

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In the shadow of the border fence | Photo:Brooke Binkowski / KCET

Hastily built homes on hillsides with bad drainage, poorly managed runoff during storms, and the border wall itself impede natural drainage in the region, and create flooding in new areas. This means the region has its own unique problems with international trash and sewage, complicated by shifting border policy.

In other words, it's not uncommon to find empty snack packets with brand names in both English and Spanish, water bottles, abandoned clothing, and cigarette butts clogging the marshlands: international trash.

"I think it's a really good, eye-opening experience to see how of our trash, that we think won't end up over here on the beach, actually does end up on the beach," said Salvador Castillo, 16, a junior at High Tech High in nearby Chula Vista. He had come out as a volunteer for California Coastal Cleanup Day with a group of classmates.

"I have a lot of family in Tijuana," said another High Tech High student, 16 year old Alyssa Hernandez. "It's not Tijuana's fault, but there's a lot of trash there too, and it would really help if this cleanup was more over there, too - kind of spread out."

Overall, volunteers picked up more than 300 tons of trash throughout California, and 7 tons in north Baja California. The next mass cleanup event in California is scheduled for next September, and Salvemos la Playa's next Baja California cleanup will take place in March.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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