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Tijuana Estuary Celebrates 25 Years

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

(Photo: Aerial view of the Tijuana Estuary. Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve )

The Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve celebrates its 25th anniversary today. The reserve sits on a wildlife refuge bordering Imperial Beach and Mexico. The estuary is home to five endangered bird species and is one of the few salt marshes remaining in Southern California. KPBS Reporter Ed Joyce walked the reserve yesterday morning.

The roar of the ocean almost drowns out the crickets and birds at the estuary. Reserve manager Clay Phillips and I stand looking south, about two miles from the International Border.

Phillips: We're looking at a combination of tidal channels, upland areas, to the naked eye it just looks like a flat expanse, but it's a very complex ecosystem.

Joyce:  Does the Tijuana River estuary provide any benefit beyond this natural beauty that we see, this wide open space?

Phillips:  Estuaries are nurseries for some of the most important commercial fisheries in the United States. As we lose estuaries we seriously compromise those fisheries. And in California we've lost 90 percent of our coastal wetlands to development and encroachment. Estuaries are Mother Nature's filter for ocean water quality. Estuaries are also Mother Nature's flood control going in the other direction. Estuaries environmentally are very important. In this particular estuary we've had sightings of over 370 bird species.

Joyce:   So there's some endangered plant and or animal species that have been protected or saved on the basis of this being a reserve?

Phillips:  Both, yeah. The key bird species, our signature species is the Light-footed Clapper Rail . But we have nesting on the beach we have Snowy Plovers , California Least Tern . So yeah, this is a very important place for them.

Joyce:   Looking south toward Tijuana you mentioned that there are some specific problems unique to this estuary. What are some of those problems?

Phillips:   We're being smothered by sediment coming from Mexico. You can see that hillside across the border is mostly dirt and when it rains that dirt comes to the endpoint of the watershed and that's here.

Joyce:  Why is this reserve called a global biological hotspot?

Phillips: It has an intact ecosystem and yet it's surrounded by and threatened by so much around it that it becomes a very precious site within this whole bio-geographic region.

Joyce: Do you think the average person overlooks or doesn't really think about estuaries too much?  We hear about forests and we hear about open space, but you don't hear estuaries commonly mentioned in the conversation.

Phillips:   When we get people out here like you are right now, and looking at the tidal channel, looking at the egrets, they fall in love with this place. Consistently I've brought friends here, I've been here almost three years, and when I first got here I started bringing people down here and their jaws dropped. They'd lived here for twenty years and they had no idea this really cool place was here.

Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve Manager Clay Phillips. The Reserve celebrates it's 25th birthday today with an open house from 2-6 p.m. on Thursday.  Live music, nature walks, and free birthday cake are part of the program. Ed Joyce, KPBS News.

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