Q&A: Clay Phillips, Tijuana Estuary

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The San Diego Union-Tribune

February 9, 2008

Clay Phillips

La Mesa resident Clay Phillips, 53, is a superintendent for California State Parks and manager of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, a federally protected wetland.

Phillips says he hopes to promote public awareness about the Tijuana Estuary and encourage visitors to observe diverse wildlife in their natural salt-marsh environment.

QUESTION: What misconceptions do people have about the Tijuana Estuary?

ANSWER: If they know it exists at all, many San Diegans still think of this place as it was 30 years ago. They think of it as a pollution-infested, crime-filled swamp that is overrun by illegal immigrants and only valuable as a buffer between Mexico and the United States. While we still have significant management challenges, the fact is that the Tijuana Estuary is a jewel of the San Diego region. Public awareness and a sense of ownership is essential for long-range protection of this important place.

What can be done to turn the estuary into an eco-tourist destination?

It already is an eco-tourism destination, known well to birders internationally. The city of Imperial Beach is working to enhance that attribute through signage and brochures. Adding quality overnight accommodations nearby will also help.

Tell us about the bird-watching that goes on there. Any rare sightings?

At the Tijuana Estuary, over 370 bird species have been sighted and five endangered birds call it home. We routinely receive visits by birders from around the world, hoping to check marks to the “life list.” In fact, the Tijuana Estuary is better known by birders in England than the general public here in San Diego. The signature bird of the Tijuana Estuary is the endangered light-footed clapper rail, a shy big-bodied bird who does more walking than flying. Other endangered birds include the western snowy plover, the California least tern, least Bell’s vireo and Belding’s savannah sparrow. Last year, we were visited by an exotic yellow-crowned night heron.

How does the sewage and trash from Mexico impact things at the estuary?

Sewage flow is a huge problem to ocean water quality and beach use here in South County. It will take further research to fully assess all the impacts to the estuary. Trash flowing from Mexico affects many parts of the estuary, mostly in the form of plastic bottles and tires. In 2005, we pulled over 4,000 tires out of the estuary. The removal of trash has become an expensive annual task of the land managers here.