Visit the Tijuana River Valley and the area feels serene. Perhaps it’s even forgotten, with a total population of 42.
But attend a community meeting with groups such as the Tijuana River Valley Equestrian Association or WildCoast and you’ll experience the passionate pleas of equestrians, hikers, mountain bikers and conservationists who have a vision for this area.
Then take a look at a map of the Tijuana River Valley and you’ll notice a head-spinning checkerboard of government agencies that own this land alongside a few private ranchers. The County of San Diego since the 1990s has become a primary land owner.
Interestingly, the story of the Tijuana River Valley is about bipartisan visions to preserve and recover the natural habitat along the U.S.-Mexico border. It started in the 1980’s when activist Mike McCoy and conservative County Supervisor Brian Bilbray both wanted to retain this space as open parkland.
Mike McCoy protested against the Helix Corporation that wanted to construct an upscale marina at Border Field State Park. He also worked with Pete Wilson to make sure a concrete channel wouldn’t run through the Valley.
Brian Bilbray‘s vision was a little different. He wanted to turn the Tijuana River Valley into a multi-use parkland that would also mitigate the problems of pollution.
It’s often hard to believe now, but in an interview conducted by historian Susan Walter, Bilbray recalled that when he was growing up during the 1960s, Tijuana was to the east. “It hadn’t grown over the hills and so the Tijuana River Valley area on the Mexican side was almost totally grazing land. The only barrier was a single strand of wire between the two countries.”
The valley was a massive strawberry growing area. The Tijuana River (which today is dry) was a tidal zone where people would have to swim across. There were massive herds of cattle. There were ponds with ducks. There was also a campsite for the Boy Scouts. Bilbray joked with Susan Walter that he was the illegal border crosser during those days. The Mexican side only had dirt roads and kids would play along the boundary line.
During the 1970s and 80s, things started to change. Coyotes cut trails and Bilbray said illegal migrants would cross over in the thousands every night, which had a major impact on the valley. The trash was also a large problem. Bilbray recalls that the coyotes would give migrants large trash bags to wrap around their legs as they waded through the Tijuana River and its sewage. Then the bags would be left strewn all over the river banks.
He said that he grew up crossing the polluted water and wanted to do something about it. When he was young, he almost went to jail over the issue of trying to force government agencies to address the pollution problem. When he became County Supervisor he fought for a regional park that would preserve the balance of historic uses, such as agriculture, and address the “cross border toilet outflow.”
The County Spent A Decade Acquiring Property
Bilbray got graduate students to do an extensive study of the area. They made many recommendations for parkland, which included an International Peace Park. Their work was published in a cover story for Landscape Architecture in November 1991. The article said, “The Tijuana River Valley is polluted by raw sewage. And illegal immigrants use it as a corridor into the United States. Those two problems are points of contention in a valley stretching between two cultures: affluent San Diego, California, and poor, overcrowded Tijuana, Mexico. Tension has been growing for 30 years.
“Devised mainly by students, this plan could turn the valley into an ecological model of cross-cultural cooperation. The San Diego County Parks and Recreation Department selected this valley for a new regional park, then chose a project team of graduate students and faculty from California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) at Pomona.
The team’s most pressing problem was how to tackle what is termed “cross-border toilet outflow.”
While I visited the County offices, Chief of Staff Pamela O’Neil recalled more of the history. “Brian wanted that as a regional park. What happened is it started with some graduate students, they did a whole report of why this should be a parkland. Then we spent 10 years in acquisition. Every time we could find a funding source, we kept buying land. It was always envisioned as a regional park that would have some natural resources because it’s part of the Great American flyway and everything. But then it would also have recreation because there’s a large equestrian community down there. Then later it evolved into community gardens, butterfly gardens and all the other things. There was sort of something for everybody.”
Supervisor Cox Tells More Of The History
And indeed, today the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park is a unique blend of recreation, farming and habitat preservation.
Supervisor Cox is very familiar with the recent history of the Tijuana River Valley. He and his staff also have a larger vision for the area that includes a future equestrian center, a campground and possibly a recreational complex.
Supervisor Cox tells a bit more of the history, saying, “There was a Tijuana Valley County Water District in place. It was a very unique organization. It had a five member board of directors. They had a horrible problem: they didn’t have any water, but then they didn’t have any customers either. They basically existed and collected a property tax and built up a lot of money and then said, you know, ‘This is silly. We don’t have any customers, we don’t have any water, so why don’t we just phase ourselves out.'”
According to Supervisor Cox, they then gave the County somewhere around a million and a half dollars and it was probably the first funding the County used to buy some of these properties.
“That was in the early ’90s and then over the ensuing years we’ve acquired a total of about 1,800 acres of land, which constitutes the current composition of the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park. We lost some of that property when the Border Patrol came in and basically confiscated the property along [the border] to build the triple fence, which is really a double fence.”
Confiscation Of Property By Border Patrol
Supervisor Cox explains, “We worked out the final settlement on the confiscation of property. I think the federal government took 129 acres.”
“Most of these properties, I should say, have been acquired through various Bond Act funds through the State of California. Prop 84. Prop 40. Prop 14. Some of these are going back to the early 90’s. We’ve been able to piece together properties from willing sellers. We’ve never used any condemnation and I think from the very beginning, we said, ‘Okay, we’re not going to use condemnation. We’ll buy property from willing sellers.’ It created this approximately 1,800 acre regional park.”
When the federal government wanted to buy land along the U.S.-Mexico border from the County, they both haggled over price. The federal government wanted to pay a very low amount, so the County filed a lawsuit. Negotiations went back and forth. The lawsuit dragged on, but eventually the County received settlement money.
The Supervisor recalls, “It was seven and a half million dollars. In theory all of that money would have gone to the State of California to be reimbursed back into those various bond acts that we tapped into to buy some of these parcels down along the border.”
He says, “I got my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to commit, I guess it was seven million… We committed that we would put all of that into those 22 miles of trails that everybody had agreed to: the resource agencies, the people of the valley. There was about seventy miles of trails that were just going literally all over — through habitat, areas where they shouldn’t be. And so we got everybody to agree that there would be a total of 22 miles of trails.”
According to the Supervisor, those trails will be finished by next February. “It will be one of the first regional parks where we can say we completed all the trails we originally envisioned.”
More Envisioned Thanks To Community Input
Supervisor Cox explains that after the County bought the property, his staff reached out to the community. After various meetings, community members expressed interest in the following four priorities:
Create Active Recreation Centers. Supervisor Cox explains, “The Southwest Little League had some ball fields that got flooded out probably about 1993-1994, and so one of the things we started working on was trying to come up with the baseball complex, which we put in off of Sunset and International.”
The County bought 70-acres of land that was once owned by Danny Marshall. They then leased the property to Suzie’s Farm. Some of the area, however, became a new baseball field with some soccer facilities as well.
Across the street from Suzie’s, the County has a a plan that is already approved to build a recreational complex. “It’s probably going to be a 25-30 million dollar complex. We do not have the money to built it at this point. In fact, we’re willing to work with somebody in a partnership. If somebody wants to come in and build the facilities, we’ll work out an agreement with them where they can use them for organized leagues and things like that as long as it’s a commitment to free public usage for a percentage of the time.”
Supervisor Cox also hopes that one day recycled water from the South Bay Water Reclamation Plant will be used to irrigate the ball fields.
Provide Equestrian Trails. “We have a very active equestrian community, so the second thing we wanted to do was provide for the equestrian components… It’s very unique because I don’t think there’s anywhere else in Southern California where you can actually go on the trail systems all the way out to Border Field State Park. You can actually ride your horses on the beach. I don’t think there’s anyplace South of San Luis Obispo where you can do that in California.”
Maintain The Agricultural Tradition. The Tijuana River Valley was once a very rich agricultural area. The County still maintains that tradition by leasing their property to Suzie’s Farm and Wild Willow Farm. The County has also been involved with creating the Community Garden in collaboration with the UCSD Extension Home Garden.
“We have 90 different plots right now and if you drive down there, you’ll see all sorts of things being grown… A lot of people from different minority communities that are growing fruits and vegetables. It’s really fascinating. We’re trying to work right now to see if maybe we can expand that.”
Preserve The Habitat. “Obviously if you measure out by acreage, probably 95% of the land down there is set aside for habitat purposes, as it should be.”
A Campground And Equestrian Center
The County continues to purchase property as it becomes available and with those funds, they additionally envision a campground and an equestrian center.
Supervisor Cox explains, “We came up with 100,000 dollars from my allocation of neighborhood reinvestment funds and we were actually able to leverage that with 100,000 dollars from the State Coastal Conservancy to come up with a plan for this entire area as far as some economic development opportunities. Obviously most of this is going to be left in habitat. But we do want, in addition to having this active recreation area, to see if there is a place where we can do a campground. A lot of people in South County maybe can’t afford to go to the Coast and stay in a $250, $350 a night hotel room, so we would like to come up with an appropriate site. We’re also looking at the environmental reviews to see if we can put in an equestrian center.”
What About The Silt Problem?
Silt has been a major issue ever since the double fence was built in 2008 (or even before). As a landowner in this region, the County only has certain responsibilities. Although they do not have storm water responsibilities, for example, like any other property owner, sedimentation affects their land and the County must address the issue.
As yet, no entity, including the County, has any solution to the sedimentation problem. However, several government entities are keeping abreast of the issue.
Supervisor Cox says, “Then you’ve got the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board that is really kind of driving the ship on a lot of things that need to be done because of the water quality. So we work very closely with the folks over at the Regional Water Quality Control Board to figure out how can we cut down on the silt. How can we do restoration plans that are going to be productive and have a chance to survive.”
Thank you, Supervisor Cox, for your time and your information about the County’s work on Parks and Recreation!