Eye on the Locals: In the micro-world of our communities, many people dedicate their lives to bettering our neighborhoods and end up bettering the world. Mike McCoy of Imperial Beach is heralded as the individual who helped save the largest coastal wetland in Southern California. Here is his story:
Mike McCoy grew up in Boulder, Colorado and came to San Diego in 1970, the year he graduated veterinarian school and got an internship at the San Diego Zoo. While going to vet school, he worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and it qualified him to land that particular internship. It was the first long extended internship they offered at the zoo.
It was here that he met his wife, Patricia McCoy, an Englishwoman from London who fled to the countryside during the WWII bombings. She eventually became a city council member in Imperial Beach and they both were avid environmental activists.
Although Mike originally wanted to be part of the oceanic research in La Jolla in some way, he met a vet who had a practice in Imperial Beach and began to live and work in this small border town. McCoy began, among other things, to rehabilitate wounded animals in the estuary.
What Mike also realized was that Imperial Beach had one of the last remaining natural areas in San Diego County, including the biggest estuary left in Southern California that hadn’t been destroyed by railroads, roads, power lines or sewer lines.
The Border in the 1970s
When Mike moved to IB, the border was basically open. You could freely cross back and forth within the Border Field area and you didn’t have any restrictions. The marsh was in good shape and there wasn’t a lot of sediment. There was even a golden eagle nest at the international border. Although the golden eagles used to come to the estuary, their home was disrupted by the border fence constructed starting in the 1990s.
The Fight Against A Marina
McCoy’s lifelong political activism in Imperial Beach first began during the 1970’s when developers wanted to dredge the estuary, create a concrete channel going from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Pacific Ocean and create an upscale marina.
Actually, talk of a marina started way back in the late 1950’s when businessmen dreamed of making money from a new luxury beach area. Plans for the marina continued to be discussed throughout the 1960’s.
This is where McCoy got involved. He was influenced by the research of local biologists Joy Zedler and Paul Jorgensen who maintained that an estuary was vital to water quality, air quality, ocean health and to humans. The area was also along the Pacific Flyway, with about 370 different species of birds, both resident and migrants, relying on the area for their survival.
Mike began to organize local environmentalists and Imperial Beach residents in 1971. He enlisted Zedler and Jorgensn to resist the developers and together, they fought against the marina idea for over a decade.
The date April 15, 1974 was a turning point for the Tijuana River Valley. The city and the county had decided that there were three plans: one would develop the entire valley, including a concrete channel that would run from Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. The second plan would develop the area from about Saturn Boulevard to the border, and the rest would be open. The third plan would be to leave the whole thing open.
In that year, Mike made his first trip to Washington D.C. He was taking part in a National Wildlife Conference and was able to speak with the Undersecretary of the Interior. McCoy told the Undersecretary that they had a tremendous opportunity to save a national treasure, the Tijuana estuary. McCoy hoped he could just get rid of the city and county that was against him, but the federal government didn’t have the power to do that. The Undersecretary explained that he needed to meet with the Congressman from this area. The goal became to protect the estuary by having the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service take over the property.
McCoy then met with Pete Wilson, the Mayor of San Diego, and tried to convince him to leave the Tijuana River Valley open. He also went to Richard Ripinski who was the Chairman of the County Planning Organization, at that time they called it CPO. Now they call it SANDAG.
By 1978 the Helix Land Company proposed a $200 million residential marina that would house 6,000 to 7,000 people, have a yacht club, a commercial and an extensive residential development. In June 1980 a newly appointed Imperial Beach representative to the Port Commission, Daniel Spurck, said he would work hard to ensure the commercial development of the Imperial Beach waterfront.
Richard Raymond Gets Shot
By May 1980, everything came to a head. That’s when a friend of the McCoy’s and an environmental activist, Richard Raymond, was shot.
The river had flooded in January 1980, which wrecked havoc in “Cartolandia” in Tijuana (the ‘cardboard’ shanty area) and then the floodwaters destroyed a lot of the Tijuana River Valley area.
Richard Raymond was cleaning up after the flood with the McCoys and right after, they had a get together at the I.B. fire station. Suddenly, four men walked in with guns and shot Richard Raymond point blank in the face. They went to the penitentiary, but Mike McCoy maintains that nobody ever linked up the people who put those guys up to it. Any ideas of a potential set up to get rid of the environmentalists remain unsubstantiated.
On that same day, when McCoy and his wife Patricia got onto the freeway, they found that the lug nuts on their car tires ahd been loosened, almost causing an accident.
He also had death threats over the phone, saying that we needed to quit doing what we were doing.
“My feeling inside was, you know, if we’re gonna have anything left on this planet, you’re gonna have to put your life on the line. That was my feeling, directly, just you gotta do it. Either you’re gonna do that or you’re gonna lose it an inch at a time and I still feel that way today. It isn’t as violent today as it was then because there are a lot of laws in place today, but it’s just as dirty,” McCoy said.
Success and the Environment
Mike recalled that in November 1980 he and Patricia got a phone call. They’d been working from about 1977 onward with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The representative would come to their house and discuss how they were going to preserve the estuary. Finally, after working with the state and California Department of Fish and Game (now it’s Fish and Wildlife) and other people in the community who wanted it like the McCoy’s wanted it, the representative from Fish and Game said he wanted to meet the McCoy’s at Seacoast Drive at 10 o’clock in the morning.
They were told to say nothing. It was just Mike and Patricia. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told them they had bought the 500-acres from the Helix Land Corporation for $7.6 million (acre-for-acre the most expensive refuge yet purchased), so that no development could happen.
“Christmas Day 1980, boom, we had a National Wildlife Refuge,” Mike said.
Then, in January 1981 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they wanted to site select the Tijuana Estuary as a National Sanctuary. The name then changed to Tijuana River National Estaurine Research Reserve (TRNERR).
By 1982 they put together a management team. The State of California, Parks and Recreation took responsibility and there also had to be a federal and state interface.
They then selected a manager, Paul Jorgensen (who died in 2013). He did research in the light footed clapper rail, which was an endangered species, and his research helped to save the estuary under the Endangered Species Act.
Finally, in 1988 McCoy’s large group of activities embarked upon constructing the Visitor’s Center and it was dedicated in 1990.
The Border Fence and Destruction of the Ecology
In the late 1980s there was a lot of drug smuggling, so by the 1990’s the Clinton Administration launched Operation Gatekeeper. The military came in and created military landing mat into a border wall. The way they did it was without giving anyone, including TRNERR a heads up. That’s when the area first started having problems with sediment. The border fence construction started disrupting the hillsides and the estuary started to get a lot of sediment in the river.
“As you strip off the vegetation, you start to lay those hillsides bare and that’s what they did, they started taking the vegetation off. Anytime there was a rain, we’d start to get sediment. It got worse as time went on, it got worse and worse and worse ’til today it’s terrible because they stripped off those hillsides. That’s another thing. The immigration was getting worse and worse because of the disparity of wealth between the two nations,” McCoy said. “That started happening in the 70s and 80s. It’s been getting progressively worse. You’ve got the richest nation with the richest state in the world backed up next to one of the poorest.”
That’s when Mike started to feel the area was going to lose out. Once again, he became an activist. He says: “So we formed a group to begin to take this whole fence on. There were six environmental organizations… Basically we tried to point out, or our lawsuit was that the way the border fence was being handled was not constitutional. But in 2005, Congress passed an Iraq funding bill in May I believe it was…”
Indeed, in 2005 Congress pass the REAL ID Act, which stipulated a double fence along the entire United States-Mexico border. Section 102 of the act gave the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security the right to waive any law that would impede the rapid construction of the walls.
“When you put a barrier in, it has an impact on the culture and ecology, socio-political, economic and ecological downside to putting barriers in where you can’t get cross-border fertilization. This is a rich area ecologically and socially,” Mike said. “It’s what I call it an ecotone. Cultural ecotone, ecological ecotone. It’s where two communities meet whether plant, animal or human and the richness there is greater than it is on the other side because you have more variety.”
Biggest Problem For The Estuary
What are the foremost issues that are really pressing today for the Tijuana Estuary? Mike says sediment, trash and water quality issues.
The Tijuana River Watershed covers 1,750 square miles and three-fourths lies in Mexico, one-fourth lies in the U.S.
A watershed is a drainage basin and because Tijuana sits 300 feet above sea level, when it rains or floods, urban runoff flows down the creeks, streams and rivers out into the sea. By the laws of the International Boundary and Water Commission, four holes along the border at the San Diego-Tijuana line must exist in order to allow these flows to go out into the ocean.
The constant flow of people into Tijuana from Central America, South America, and southern Mexico continues to be a problem. When they come into Tijuana, there’s no infrastructure. They then build on hillsides with recycled tires. There’s also no trash collection in many areas. So whenever there’s a flood, the trash and sewage wash down the watershed and becomes a problem for the estuary.
This is the greatest challenge faced by our border communities today.
Listen to a snippet of Mike’s interview on Geophysiology.