Talk NERRdy to Me: Empress Holliday

May 2, 2024

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 30—soon to be 33—Reserves. This month, NERRA’s insidious investigator Nik Charov interviewed Empress Holliday, Coastal Training Program Associate and Research Assistant at the Tijuana River Reserve. They talked about justice and cooperation in an empire that contains both trash and hope.

Nik: Empress Holliday! You are the first Empress this humble reporter has ever met; did you choose a job at the Reserve at Imperial Beach on purpose?

Empress: I’m gonna run with that and say yes!

Nik: You can imperially declare, “This is my beach, and you are all just visiting.”

Empress: Being the first Empress that folks come across is the story of my life. It’s not a common name. I’ve met Princesses, but I’ve never met another Empress. 

Nik: I think it’s an amazing name. Does it get you in places when you say, This is Empress Holliday — I’d like dinner for 2 tonight at 7pm?

Empress: Unfortunately, no. I wish I had the confidence to lean into that.

Nik: How did you get to become the Empress of Imperial Beach? How did you get to the Coastal Training Program at the Tijuana River Reserve? 

Empress: It’s funny, I was born and raised in San Diego, but never once did I visit the Reserve. I didn’t even know it existed until I got to college. 

Nik: Ironically, you majored in geography … 

Empress: It’s very embarrassing. But I love geography. My first class, if there were a light bulb above my head, it would have clicked on. Thirty minutes into the first lecture, I thought “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life!” I got my associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in geography. I did my bachelor’s and master’s at San Diego State University. It’s an excellent program.

By the time I got to grad school, I was very interested in environmental justice and place-based environmental education. The attachment that people put to certain places really pulled me. I started thinking about the meaning of different places, how it’s not always a harmonious attachment that folks have to nature or the outdoors. A lot of environmental education has an old-school way of thinking that nature is a far-off, supposedly pristine place, like Yosemite. And that often feels inaccessible. Kids are like, “I’m never gonna get to go to these kinds of places.” 

But what about what’s in their backyard? Or in their neighborhood? I was trying to figure out how all of these things intersected, so I worked with students at Mar Vista High School, which is right across the street from the Reserve, following a very specific program called the Poseidon Academy. It focuses on various aspects of STEM. Four incredible teachers run this program and do it all. A lot of the students come from low income households so it provides a lot of opportunities they may not otherwise get. But it takes work to get in and stay in the program; it’s not just a freebie for them—the kids really want it. Poseidon is an example of a California Partnership Academy, which essentially functions as a school-within-a-school. I really liked their model. I was so jealous, like “Where was this when I was in school?”

Aerial view of the Tijuana River Estuary. Photo courtesy of Phillip Colla/Oceanlight.com. 

Nik: Do the teachers work with the Reserve across the street?

Empress: Yes, often. They did a lot of work at the beach and the estuary and then expanded outward. I was interested in this group of kids because Imperial Beach often has these very stark yellow hazard signs saying you can’t get in the water when there’s been a sewage spill. What does that, and the related stigma, do to their psyche? I decided to write my master’s thesis on environmental justice and place-based environmental education with young people in Imperial Beach to ask whether programs like the Poseidon Academy empower these students? 

To get a better understanding of what was actually happening in the watershed and how it impacts the kids, I interviewed Kristen Goodrich, the Reserve’s Coastal Training Program coordinator, and Jeff Crooks, the research coordinator as expert informants. I finished my thesis and graduated in spring 2020 … which, as you can imagine, was the perfect time to start a career. 

Nik: What could you possibly be referring to?

Empress: [laughs] Yeah … I finally saw an opening to be an education specialist in 2021 with California State Parks. A year-and-a-half later, an opening came up in the Reserve’s Coastal Training Program and I was like, “Ooh, that’s where I can get to ask the questions, bring what I’ve learned in education, research, and stewardship.” It’s the perfect playground for me. It’s wonderful. And Kristen’s a cool boss! Win-win. 

Nik: You both, and Jeff Crooks, technically work for the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association (SWIA). What is the SWIA connection to the Tijuana River Reserve?

Empress: SWIA is a nonprofit. Its founder, Dr. Mike McCoy, and his wife Patricia, recognized the value of this place and worked very hard to protect it. They flew back and forth to Washington D.C. for ten years in the 70’s to raise awareness of the space. Initially, we were protected as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge in 1980. Then we were selected by NOAA to become a Reserve, with California State Parks as the state partner. But SWIA stayed involved. Because we’re a nonprofit, we have a little bit more flexibility than the agencies. 

Nik: But it’s not a Reserve friends group?

Empress: Not a friends group. We do have a friends group. SWIA’s a different organization; it’s largely grant funded. Kristen and Jeff are grant writing machines. It’s a very interesting setup.

Nik: Cal Parks covers education and stewardship? 

Empress: Yes. And Chris Peregrin, the Reserve manager who works for State Parks. Our Binational Liaison, Ana Eguiarte, is also funded through SWIA. She is one of our main links to Mexico. At one point, I believe she said 90% of her job is physically going to partners in Mexico. She couldn’t really do that if she was with State Parks. 

Nik: Sidebar: United States, Mexico … but isn’t there a third nation involved? 

Empress: Yes! There are the indigenous Peoples of San Diego County, and in our watershed, that group is the Kumeyaay Nation—an incredible and resilient people. It’s a tricky situation, because there are Kumeyaay north and south of the border. I can’t even imagine the struggle of being separated. We work with them a lot largely through the formal CEQA consultation process for the restoration work that we do, but we’re really working on developing more organic relationships that aren’t so top-down. That’s been a lot of my work as of late, which is super exciting.

Nik: The cross-border, multinational work at the Tijuana River Reserve is so fascinating and unique. You recently helped write up the Reserve’s new Marine Debris Leadership Academy (MDLA). In a lot of the Reserves around the System, marine debris is a thing, but not always a big thing. Many of us are in rural places with small estuaries. The Tijuana River, on the other hand, is in a watershed at the intersection of two countries. And usually it’s a dry place … but when it’s not dry, it is not dry. And that gives you a little bit of a marine debris issue?

Empress: Just a little bit of an issue, yes.

Nik: And so you all wanted to coastally train people in both countries to deal with marine debris?

Empress: Yes, because that knowledge has to be spread on both sides of the border. This has been Kristen and Ana’s brainchild for years. To our knowledge, there is no other program that focuses specifically on cross-border marine debris issues. And the MDLA is part of a larger project, the ResiDUOS Project. [Residuos is Spanish for waste.] The Tijuana River Watershed straddles the Mexico-United States border, though the majority of it is in Mexico. It’s a mountainous region with several tributary canyons that feed water into the Tijuana River Valley, which eventually makes its way to the estuary itself. We don’t get too much rain. But when we do, we do.

Nik: Those atmospheric rivers are no joke.

Empress: In January of this year, we had catastrophic flooding. It looked like those terrible hurricane events that happen on the East Coast. It felt so foreign to me. I thought, “This can’t be San Diego.” But these events are made worse by debris that gets trapped in these canyons and eventually makes its way into the Tijuana river and out to the Pacific Ocean. 

The whole point of the ResiDUOS Project was to understand the socio-ecological context of the border region and to increase resilience by removing debris and helping to stem the flow of debris. This has been supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program through the USMCA Implementation Act. We divided the project into five different pillars and the MDLA was one of them. It was an eight-week, cross-border program, with workshops here in the United States and in Mexico. I am impressed we pulled it off, but more impressed by our participants and their willingness to put themselves in some pretty vulnerable places. Some sites we visited turned into pretty emotionally charged conversations. We know about these issues in the United States, but it doesn’t impact us the same way as it does for participants in Mexico. 

Nik: What’s the difference?

Empress: Here in the United States, in the Tijuana River Valley, we have sediment basins. They are an effort to try and capture a lot of debris that flows through the tributary canyons before it flows further into the Reserve and we also have waste management. We have recycling programs. We have tons of education on recycling, reuse, and the power of your dollar. In Mexico, there just aren’t as many of those options. These canyons are very, very steep; vehicle access is nearly impossible, especially for large trash trucks. There’s a lack of waste management infrastructure in general. There’s a lack of recycling programs. But in the U.S., we have the power to choose something reusable; that’s not always an option in Mexico. We have to consider very different socio-economic situations. Our capacity to recover from flooding events generated by excessive rainfall that is then made worse by the presence of marine debris is also generally greater than it is in Mexico as well.

Nik: How was the experience for MDLA participants? 

Empress: We wanted to physically bring folks to spaces. We took them far up into the watershed in the United States and in Mexico to see where rain falls and how it moves down to the ocean. Many participants said that they were just floored by what they learned and what they got to do. But there were also certain days where you could read the group and see how huge this issue is. There are times when it feels impossible. 

As environmental practitioners, this work can be very overwhelming. We did ask questions like “Do you feel burnt out?” We also asked whether having this new community of practice that formed through the MDLA helped with that a little bit? Efforts like this where we get to bring people together stick with everyone the most. There is a WhatsApp group that we formed last year for the MDLA. They still use it. They talk to each other all day, every day. 

Nik: It’s a trash river support group! Is the program cutting down on marine debris? Is it making a visible change? 

Empress: I would say yes. Parts of the project are capturing debris before it physically makes its way to the estuary or ocean. That happens with our trash booms [nets that capture waste], and then State Parks goes in and clears out the basins. We also physically pick up trash on the beach. Our stewardship program has volunteers that have picked up thousands of pounds of trash just from clean ups. 

Nik: And then what? You bring it to the top of the hill again, for job security?

Empress: No, the debris in the basins gets taken to the landfill, much further inland. And some of the debris can be reused. Another pillar of ResiDUOS is: How do we create and foster a more circular economy? How do we do something with this waste before it crosses the border and enters waterways? We worked with Adela Bonilla. She’s awesome. She takes plastics and turns them into reusable materials. It’s a very small scale operation, but it’s an example of what can be done. There’s also a great organization we work with called 4 Walls International, making “eco bricks,” bricks filled with trash that can be used for infrastructure. Scaling this up in the future would be amazing.

Adela Bonilla’s first demonstration using a press to transform waste into usable materials.

Nik: So it’s giving people hope. If people can hear about small victories throughout the watershed … 

Empress: Small victories is a perfect way to put it. Also accompanying this is Tijuana River Action Month, which happens every year and promotes cleanup and restoration events in the United States and Mexico. It’s a full-scale operation. Volunteers try to clean up communities before the debris gets to the canyons, where it’s harder to deal with.

Nik: Is this what you envisioned your career would be? Is marine debris the future of your empire, Empress Holliday?

Empress: No, but it’s turning out to be what I think I was searching for. I knew I wanted to work with people and be out in the field. But I also wanted to do more big picture things and ask those really complicated questions. I love being at the intersection. It’s marine debris, but it’s also getting at this larger, big question of “why.” What happens here that makes this issue so particular? There is a huge list of answers to that, and addressing each of those things is a very slow process, but it’s the most fun. 

It sounds strange to say that marine debris issues are fun. Marine debris issues are not fun, but addressing them has been a joy, because I know that this is something I can and want to do. I don’t like just being behind the computer, I want to be out there talking to people.

Left: Empress conducting a vegetation survey. Right: Group photo from the Marine Debris Leadership Academy (MDLA), courtesy of Abraham Garcia, Kilómetro Uno.

Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

ReservesTalk NERRdy to Me: Empress Holliday