Engaging California’s Diverse Community for Coastal Protection

Much of the world sees California’s coastal communities as lavish mansion enclaves, surfing celebrities and scantily clad body augmentations of various sorts. This is unfortunate. Although Matthew McConaughey and Rob Lowe spend some time surfing Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, and access to much of Point Dume’s splendid shoreline is blocked by multi-million dollar abodes, California’s beaches are in fact for everyone.

Pam Anderson and Gidget have likely never set a toe in the sand of some of the state’s most California-esque coastal stretches. These are beaches that serve the needs of local people who are not mansion dwellers nor have millionaire plastic surgeons on speed dial. These are beaches for you and for me and California’s continuously burgeoning diverse communities.


One such community is Imperial Beach, the most southwestern city in the continental United States. A literal stone’s throw from Mexico, IB is one of the state’s most diverse coastal communities. It is also one of the lowest income coastal cities in California. Yet, it has some Southern California’s most stunning and ecologically significant areas. It is home to the Tijuana River Valley, Southern California’s last intact coastal wetland, as well as the Tijuana River Mouth State Marine Conservation Area. These sites provide critical refuge on the Pacific flyway for an abundance of avian wildlife, leopard shark breeding grounds, one of Southern California’s few cobble reefs and a popular spot for bottlenose dolphins. They also provide incredible and unique recreational and educational opportunities for the region’s park poor and underserved communities.

As one of the few binational environmental groups that works on both sides of the US – Mexico border and firmly rooted in the diverse communities of South San Diego County, WILDCOAST has years of experience engaging and mobilizing communities not typically associated with the “Southern California” beach scene.

girl scouts stencilingThe residents of South San Diego County, and of many communities across the state, have often been excluded from the coastal planning process due to language, cultural, economic and other barriers. A deficiency in information targeted to these communities and most importantly, a lack of opportunities to engage in the appreciation and stewardship of local natural areas also inhibit usage and participation in protecting these places.

To engage South San Diego residents, WILDCOAST and partner organizations coordinate an array of activities, from surf contests to massive watershed cleanups. The San Ysidro Girl Scout Troop are active data collectors in a Junior MPA Watch Program. Hundreds of local residents participate in the Tijuana River Action Month (TRAM) when on average 300 waste tires and 20,000 pounds of trash are removed from the river valley before they reach the estuary and Pacific Ocean.

Wildcoast-149Among the participants in activities such as TRAM are members of partner organization Outdoor Outreach, whose adventure clubs include many recent arrivals to San Diego from Burma, Nepal, Somalia, Vietnam and Latin America. Others have spent their whole life in San Diego and before the adventure club program, had never been to the County’s beaches.

The seeds planted, big and small, through these experiences are integral to the long-term conservation of these areas as populations continue to shift and diversify and new pressures arise. The underserved communities and youth that surf the waves of Imperial Beach in ocean festivals and clean the Tijuana River Valley are instrumental to campaigns to better manage our coastal resources. They joined WILDCOAST, Surfrider Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council and many partners at Coastal Commission hearings to prevent the 241 toll road from extending through California’s fifth most popular state park and the San Mateo Creek watershed. They are implementing California’s new network of Marine Protected Areas by collecting data on how people use the coastline, by removing tens of thousands of pounds of ocean-bound trash and by enjoying recreational opportunities found in the region’s beaches and wetlands.  The Coastal Commission is supporting these efforts through a grant to Outdoor Outreach to facilitate the inclusion of the underserved communities in which the organization works and to build the future generation of coastal and marine stewards.

Imperial Beach is a Southern California seashore community. Although Luke Perry did walk its shores in the filming of the HBO series John from Cincinnati, it is not what the rest of the world may typically associate with our precious coastline. IB’s population is forty-nine percent Latino. The median household income is less than fifty thousand dollars. It is closer to downtown Tijuana than it is to downtown San Diego and it experiences some of the worst water quality issues in North America. But it is a quintessential Southern California beach town. And its residents and youth, from around the world and across the socioeconomic spectrum, are saving our region’s precious coastal resources, for you and for me.