San Ysidro businessman Joseph Garcia looks at the 40 acres he leases in the Tijuana River Valley and sees a litter-strewn, sewage-swamped breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Ecologists and government officials cast their gaze over the same landscape and see an environmentally sensitive area battling for its life, a place that some call the richest riparian habitat in the southwestern United States.
Lately, those officials have told Garcia they want him to see things their way--or else.
A coalition of county, state and federal agencies have targeted Garcia and his landlord, Nelson & Sloan sand mining company, because their activities are believed to threaten two obscure man-made ponds that are nesting sites for an endangered bird, the least Bell's vireo.
These officials, some who eventually hope to transform the ponds and the surrounding land into a 2,900-acre regional park, say Garcia has shown blatant disregard for the wetland area by illegally grading and building a parking lot about a mile from the ponds. And they are threatening to take legal action to keep him and his landlord, who is mining in the area, from grading in the future.
But Garcia, who runs an international trade center on his landlord's property in San Ysidro, says he is being singled out unfairly. In contrast to the many people who use the estuary as a dump, he says he has tried to improve his parcel--despite the confusing, and sometimes conflicting, advice he has received from competing bureaucracies.
"I was told by the city (San Diego) to clean up my property and proceeded to do that. Then the state Fish and Game Department came by and stopped me from picking up the trash," he said. "Have they seen the ponds and the area around them lately? People dump oil and other trash in them . . . . There are dirt roads leading to the ponds that are heavily traveled by people who aren't suppose(d) to be there. Nobody bothers to stop them."
Regulatory officials admit there is some confusion over who is responsible for the ponds. Owned by the state but managed by the county, the ponds have attracted a tangle of advocates from various bureaucracies, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to the state Fish and Game Department to the County Parks and Recreation Department.
They also admit that Garcia's allegedly illegal grading and leveling is just one of many problems that plague the area. Rene Langis,a researcher with the Pacific Estuarine Research Laboratory, which studies the Tijuana River Valley, said that sewage contamination and mounds of trash are threatening the delicate balance of what he calls one of the most ecologically sensitive salt marsh areas in California.
"The main problem is the sewage inflow, which is diluting the salinity of the marsh," said Langis, noting that raw sewage from Tijuana flows directly into the Tijuana River, which follows a course just north of the U.S.-Mexican border and empties into the Pacific Ocean below Imperial Beach. And then there's the garbage.
"There's stuff coming in with the tide and a lot of trash that's dropped there by people. There's a lot of people walking across the valley and their trash is having a damaging effect," Langis said.
But officials see Garcia and his landlords as a significant threat to the environment in the area. And they intend to do something about it.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing a cease-and-desist order against Nelson & Sloan, said Corps spokeswoman Mary O'Keefe, that would halt the grading and filling of the wetlands, which the company is allegedly doing without a permit.
According to O'Keefe and Ann Rast, chief of special operations for the County Parks and Recreation Department, Nelson & Sloan has been violating the federal Clean Water Act by destroying the habitat in and around the ponds. The order does not mention Garcia, since he is a tenant on the land.
Sandra Gabler, a state Fish & Game Department warden, said that the company is also suspected of dumping fill dirt in the surrounding wetlands, but both Gabler and Rast said their agencies are still investigating those alleged actions.
Nelson & Sloan officials declined several requests for interviews and did not return phone calls. But last month, company general manager Ken Monson told the San Diego Tribune that the only grading done by his company was in sand pits and areas where the city had issued orders to clean up the property.
That explanation echoes Garcia's concerns and part of the problem seems to be that the company, Garcia and city and county officials all seem to mean different things when they refer to "cleaning up" the property. When Garcia was reprimanded by the Fish and Game Department last month, for example, he told them he was only following orders.
"I'm being given different instructions by the state and the city," Garcia complained. "They (state) told me to stop the cleaning, but I have an order from the fire marshal and the city to clean up the place."
According to Garcia, he has already spent $100,000 to clean up the property and an additional $20,000 to fence part of it to keep out dirt-bike riders. He denied leveling the property but admitted covering six acres with eight inches of compacted dirt.
"I talked to the city before I covered it with dirt. I told them what I wanted to do and they told me I didn't need a permit. I've got the paperwork in my office if anybody wants to see it," Garcia said.
Gabler, the state warden, acknowledged that Garcia has been ordered by several city agencies to clean up debris littered over the 40 acres he leases. However, Gabler charged that Garcia has gone beyond just tidying up the area and has illegally bulldozed and graded the property without the necessary permits.
"When you pick up debris, level the area and put on top soil for a parking lot, it's a different thing as far as we're concerned," said Gabler. "We've told him that we don't mind if he cleans up the property, we just don't want him illegally dozing and grading. This poses a great danger to our ponds."
Part of the problem with the pond-saving effort is that much of the area involved simply doesn't look worth saving, making it doubly difficult to persuade people who use it to be careful. Home to migratory birds such as ducks and egrets, it is an invaluable environmental resource, Rast said--but Garcia says it looks like a dump.
"I can understand the Fish and Game Department's position and concern for the wildlife," Garcia said. "But the ponds are about a mile away from us. There is wildlife out there, but most of the wildlife is mosquitoes."
Gabler acknowledged that the poorly maintained and patrolled area "is not the prettiest picture in the world." In addition to being heavily traversed by illegal aliens on their trek northward and pursuing Border Patrol vehicles, the river valley is also littered with every imaginable piece of garbage--from abandoned cars to rusting refrigerators.
Gabler blamed the "shortage of personnel at every level" for the failure to detect the alleged violations earlier. And until recently, communication between city and county agencies has been anything but clear, said Rast.
"That's changing," she said. "We're attempting to develop a better communication with the city to see how we can handle violations and see what we can do. But we can only prosecute people who dump on or destroy county land."
If the dream of a regional park is ever to become real, Rast said, "we have to take a leap of faith that in the future we can . . . be able to restore the land." Currently, the county only owns about one-fifth of the land proposed for the park, she said.
While it may not seem fair to Garcia that the crackdown begins with him, officials say they have to start somewhere.
"I'd like to be there and cite people every time they dump stuff in the ponds, but I can't," Gabler said. "But we've begun an aggressive enforcement program and we are going to save those ponds from further destruction."
"It's going to take a long time to iron out this mess," she said. "(But) it's got to be done for species like the least Bell's vireo. You just can't take a species and place it somewhere else."