Report Sheds Light on Ditch Project

Times Staff Writer

The proposed 4.2-mile-long ditch along the U. S.-Mexico border began as a 6,000-foot water drainage project but expanded when the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service saw an opportunity to add a barrier against illegal immigration into the plan, San Diego city officials said Monday.

When the International Boundary and Water Commission reported its new plans to a Mexican government agency, it mentioned only the drainage aspects, leaving out the INS’ interest in the project, according to the report from the city’s Intergovernmental Relations Department.

The city report, which sheds some light on the murky origins of the controversial ditch proposal near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, was prepared to help the City Council discuss whether to ask President Bush and the federal government to postpone construction of the project.

Delayed Action

The council delayed action on the resolution, voting instead to invite leaders of the boundary commission, the INS and Tijuana Mayor Federico Valdes Martinez to an April 19 hearing on the matter before the council’s Rules Committee.

Plans for the ditch, which is intended to channel Otay Mesa water runoff and deter illegal vehicle traffic and drug smuggling across the rugged border area, were revealed in January. But the plan’s status and genesis have remained murky.


Patricia Tennyson, director of the city’s Intergovernmental Relations Department, said she obtained information about the ditch from Bob Ibarra, an official with the boundary commission in El Paso who briefed council members last week about the proposal. Ibarra could not be reached for comment Monday night.

In her conversation with Ibarra, “the statement was made that we told them about the drainage ditch,” Tennyson recalled. “I’m pretty sure that we asked the follow-up question of whether they were told of the INS involvement and we were told no, they were not.”

Tennyson told the council that the project began in 1985, when city staff members asked the relatively obscure boundary commission to coordinate review of a runoff system proposed by developers of Otay International Center with the Mexican Comision Internacional de Limites y Aguas .

The boundary commission declined to approve the system, which consisted of a retaining wall parallel to the border with small, spaced holes to disperse storm runoff, but the city’s engineering department allowed it in June, 1986.

The Mexican commission immediately protested that the wall was insufficient, and suggested that the United States build a ditch or pipe to handle the runoff. In a November, 1987, meeting at City Hall, IBWC Commissioner Narendra Gunaji told officials from both sides of the border that the best alternative was a 6,000-foot-long ditch, running east of the Otay Mesa border crossing, according to Tennyson’s report.

But, in the spring of 1988, the INS approached the IBWC with a proposal to build a 12,000-foot-long concrete barrier east and west of the border crossing. The boundary commission believed that the barrier would add to the drainage problem, so the INS proposed using its funds to excavate the drainage channel.

The INS felt the ditch might serve the same purpose as a concrete barrier, the report says. The IBWC agreed with the INS to cooperate on its construction.

When the IBWC approached the Mexican commission in the fall of 1988, it “discussed only the drainage issue with their counterparts and did not go into INS’ added uses of the ditch,” the report says.

In February, the Mexican Foreign Ministry formally protested the plan for a 5-foot-deep, 14-foot-wide ditch, and demanded that the United States cancel the project because “solutions to bilateral problems must be found through mutual decisions and not taken unilaterally.”

The council members delayed their decision Monday despite acknowledgement from city staff members that planning for the ditch is proceeding and that local officials have found it extremely difficult to obtain information from the agencies proposing the project.

With the federal government conducting an environmental impact assessment of the ditch, construction could begin within 60 days if a more detailed environmental impact statement is deemed unnecessary, said Ellen Mosley, a senior planner for the city.

Elsa Saxod, director of the city’s binational affairs office, told reporters that she had very little information from the IBWC or the INS and could not guarantee that the two agencies will not proceed with construction plans before the council’s April 19 hearing.

“I don’t think that they will, now that they know there is so much opposition,” Saxod told reporters. “But we don’t know.”

She said IBWC and INS officials declined to attend Monday’s council meeting.

Might Prove Futile

Some of the land for the ditch would have to be purchased from the city, but attempts to delay the project by holding up the sale might prove futile, because the federal government could condemn the land and quickly acquire it, Deputy City Manager Severo Esquivel said.

Councilman Bob Filner, who represents the Otay Mesa area and was the lone dissenter in Monday’s vote, urged the council to immediately register its dissatisfaction with the way the project is being handled.

“We can have a full hearing and we can get those facts, but the process is proceeding without that respect for this city,” Filner said.

But the council sided with Councilman Ron Roberts and Mayor Maureen O’Connor, who said she wants to obtain more specific information about the project.

Saxod said she will invite IBWC Commissioner Gunaji, INS Commissioner Alan Nelson and Tijuana Mayor Valdes to the meeting.