Long before the presence of human beings, the river that would someday be called the Santa Ana carved a half-mile-wide, 3 1/2-mile-long gulch to the sea that thousands of years later would provide a natural haven for some of nature’s fragile creatures.
The Shoshone tribe of Gabrielinos who hunted and fished there made no significant impact, nor did the Spanish and Mexican settlers of more recent history. But then came the post-war Orange County boom, with its tracts and condos, and it was time to draw a line.
A well-organized group of citizens calling themselves the Friends of Newport Bay fought to preserve the area, and in 1975 the advance on the habitat was stopped at the bluffs overlooking the site when the Department of Fish and Game bought 752 acres from the Irvine Company for $3,481,000.
The area bounded by Jamboree Road on the east and the sea on the south became the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, and on Saturday, April 1, it will be one of nine sites throughout the state officially established in the new California Wildlands program.
Between August and April it offers refuge to more than 200 species totaling to 30,000 birds. On almost any day of the year, mallards and great blue herons can be seen in the marshes as kestrels and red-tailed hawks circle overhead.
Anglers in small boats may fish for mullet, croaker, sargo and turbot, but hunting is not allowed.
Greg Gerstenberg, a DFG wildlife biologist, calls it “the jewel of Orange County,” but he casts a wary eye at the solid line of structures atop the bluffs and the jets roaring out of John Wayne Airport.
The Santa Ana River, its work completed, shifted north long ago, but the reserve survives on fresh water from San Diego Creek, Big Canyon Creek and Santa Ana Delhi Creek, along with the twice daily flushing of the Pacific tides. A five-foot tide fills the channels. A six-foot tide floods the area, delivering tiny marine organisms, which provide food for the waterfowl.
An opening program, with tours and talks, is scheduled April 1, 9-10:15 a.m., at the intersection of East Bluff and Back Bay Drive off Jamboree Road. Other programs are scheduled on Saturdays and Sundays during April. For details, call (714) 640-6746.