Using Conservation to Combat Pollution

Written by Meredith Meyers

We talk a lot about water quality here at Coastkeeper. We also talk a lot about water supply and conservation. Below, we’ll take a deep dive into just how those two topics are connected, and explore the science behind how wasting water leads to increased pollution in our communities.

Urban Drool

Outdoor water use in San Diego’s urban and suburban communities has significant downstream effects in our watersheds. Receiving waters (the creeks, rivers, lagoons, bays, and ocean waters that are downstream of urban areas and receive water running off concretized streets and storm drains) are exposed to variety of stressors from untreated urban runoff. Often that runoff is created not by big winter storms, but by what officials call dry-weather flows, nuisance runoff, or my personal favorite – urban drool. This wasted water from over-watered lawns, leaky pipes, hosing down driveways, and so on, not only strains our water supply but creates a chronic means for pollution to reach our local waterways.

The Pollutants

Excessive nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus found in fertilizers and detergents are major contributors to a condition called eutrophication in urban receiving waters. Eutrophication occurs when naturally occurring algae are stimulated to bloom by excess nutrients in the water. Dense algal blooms reduce water clarity, limit light penetration, and choke narrow waterways. And when the algae eventually, microbes get to work decomposing the dead algae cells, creating bad odors and severely reducing dissolved oxygen levels. These conditions damage habitat quality for aquatic life and reduce aesthetic and recreational opportunities in local waterways.

The Monitoring Program

Volunteers with San Diego Coastkeeper’s water quality monitoring program have been measuring nutrient concentrations at fixed sites in local waterways since 2010. While many local streams see spikes in nutrient levels during the winter rainy season, several watersheds have sites that are chronically elevated throughout the year. Our volunteers frequently witness the signs of eutrophication when they’re out collecting samples, such as seeing the slimy green or brown sheen of dense algal growth in the water, smelling their noxious odors, and even occasionally encountering fish kills on stream banks (from rapidly depleted oxygen levels).

How You Can Make a Difference

Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that residential sources dominate nutrient inputs in urban watersheds. In fact, the study found that nitrogen loading from household lawn fertilizer exceeded the combined inputs from golf courses, parks, schools, and other non-residential vegetated areas. Check it out here.

So, upstream solutions, or individual practices that stop or limit the problems of urban runoff in the first place, are key to managing urban eutrophication. You can limit the excess water and nutrients running off your property with a few simple steps:

  • Choose landscapes that need little or no fertilizers and water to thrive. Many native, drought tolerant plants are already adapted to low nutrient soils and the dry southern California climate, and as a bonus, provide habitat for native wildlife like birds and butterflies.
  • For plants that need a little extra water, try compost or mulch to help your soil store water and replenish nutrients more slowly than chemical fertilizers.
  • Use properly installed drip- or other water-efficient irrigation systems and check them frequently for breaks or leaks.
  • Sweep debris from decks or driveways, rather than using a hose.
  • Wash vehicles at a professional car wash, which recycles water, instead of washing them in your driveway.

And there you have it. Simple choices that will save you money on your water bill, and end up protecting the waterways and wildlife downstream. 

New Year’s Resolutions for the Conscientious Homeowner

Written by Stephanie Ritter

Stephanie loves hikingWater in San Diego County

San Diego County imports over 80 percent of our drinking water from far-away sources such as the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. We use about half of that drinking water for outdoor uses, such as watering our lawns. This dependence on energy-intensive imported water and water-intensive uses is unsustainable, especially in the face of longer, more intense periods of drought and dryness.

It’s no secret that water is at the heart of San Diegans’ lifestyles. Water is a vital resource in our lives as it’s used for everything from hygiene to recreation to enhancing aesthetics. It is important for us, as community members, to be cognizant of our local environment and natural resources, and become environmental stewards by reducing our water consumption. Many of us are hungry for ways to make a difference and to take action to make our community a more sustainable one. The good news is that if you are a homeowner, there are many steps you can take to have a gentler impact on our environment, and use our precious waters more lightly. The New Year is a great time to commit to making the changes you may have been putting off.

10 Resolutions for a Mindful New Year

  1. Transform your water-intensive lawn into a beautiful garden with native and drought-tolerant plants. This not only helps preserve the unique local beauty of our region, but provides a rich habitat for local wildlife, all while saving water.
  2. Want to keep a section of your lawn for your kids or pup? Make sure to adjust your sprinklers to water your landscape, not the pavement.
  3. Plant an edible garden and water it in the early morning since cooler morning temperatures means losing less water to evaporation. Amazingly, an edible garden generally takes less water than a lawn, and turns the water you do use into
  4. Install a rain catchment system, such as a rain barrel or cistern, in order to capture and reuse rainwater. Free what from the sky, anyone? Look to local company H2OME for San Diego’s resident experts.
  5. Identify and repair broken irrigation pipes, dripping faucets, and broken sprinkler heads. Maintenance like this can make a huge difference.
  6. Install faucet aerators, low-flow toilets, and water efficient shower heads, or appliances that have the WaterSense label.
  7. Turn off the tap while completing tasks, such as washing your dishes and brushing your teeth. It’s a simple habit worth building.
  8. Always make sure you’re doing a full load in your washing machine and dishwasher! Water isn’t doing any good washing empty space.
  9. If you need to wash your car, take it to a professional car wash – where wash water is recycled! – rather than washing at home with the hose.
  10. Teach your family, friends, and neighbors how to conserve water by setting a great example in your own life.


Thirsty for more? Find a whole plethora of other tips for lighter living here.



Water conservation, one kid at a time

Written by Sandra J. Lebron
Sandra and sea urchin

My drawing of an “animal affected by climate change” for a lesson. As sea urchin, of course!

Off to a swell start

Back in 2013, I landed myself a really swell job. At San Diego Coastkeeper, Project SWELL is the name of our K-6th environmental curriculum. SWELL stands for “Stewardship: Water Education for Lifelong Leadership.” It’s a fitting title. Through Project SWELL, Coastkeeper teaches kids about water conservation, climate science, and the environmental issues specific to their communities.

I grew up in Puerto Rico and studied marine science, but it was in grad school as I was working for Sea Grant as a marine educator that I found my passion – teaching about environmental science, ocean life, and water conservation. Today, I work with an amazing nonprofit that protects not only the ocean itself, but the rivers, creeks, and rainfall that flow through our communities and meet the ocean at the coast — isn’t that swell?

Kids are the key

Of course, I’ve learned some important lessons along the way. After spending countless hours in classrooms and reading students’ answers to the pre-lesson and post-lesson surveys they had received, we realized kids are eager and enthusiastic to help save our Earth, and willing to do what it takes to make a real difference. Learning is the critical the first step to a more aware and engaged generation, but empowering a 10-year-old to take a real-life action that helps conserve water and energy is what makes my job as an educator so fulfilling.

Water and Climate Stewards

With this in mind, San Diego Coastkeeper recently launched a new project called Water and Climate Stewards of San Diego Bay. Through this program, we educate kids on the importance of making conscious decisions about the resources they consume. One example we use is the lifecycle of the humble straw to demonstrate how harmful single-use plastics can be when discarded. Kids are shocked to hear how much  water and energy it takes to produce one straw, only for it to be used once and tossed, where it spends the rest of its days taking up space in a landfill. Improperly discarded, it may even become a fatal snack for a marine creature. It’s not just the longevity of plastic that startling, but the production as well. Did you know that it takes 22 gallons of water to make even one pound of plastic? It can take twice as much water to manufacture a plastic water bottle than the amount of water the bottle itself can hold. With some informed choices about what we buy and consume, water conservation can happen in surprising places. 

Water waste and marine debris are a big problems for an elementary school student to tackle, but after one of our engaging and empowering lessons, students come away excited to implement the “Four R’s” into their daily lives, instead of fearful about what their future holds. The mantra is — REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE.

One step (or straw) at a time

As Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Or, in this case, save it. The ultimate goal of our education programs is to build the next generation of water and climate stewards, one kid, one teacher, one parent and one fewer plastic item at a time. Water conservation at home can start with one empowered, passionate kid saying no to one plastic straw. And it can grow from there!

What are San Diego Businesses Doing to Conserve Water?

Written by Kristin Kuhn

Still reeling after our most recent multi-year drought, many San Diegans have decided to carry their water-saving practices forward, for good. During the drought, what used to be a mundane, taken-for-granted resource was now frequently front-page news. As a result, many of us felt a fundamental shift in the way we think about, talk about, and use, water. So, our showers are still shorter, our yards are now more richly landscaped with vibrant, hearty native plants, and we still care about what else is being done to conserve.

Residential water use makes up just over half our region’s overall consumption. That said, there are still many other areas where conservation can play an impactful role. Here at Coastkeeper, we found ourselves wondering, what are some of our local commercial and other non-residential spaces doing? Conservation practices on the commercial level can make a big impact on our region’s overall water use. Here are some examples of businesses and other organizations taking the lead.

  1. Hotel Indigo
    San Diego’s first LEED-certified boutique hotel, Hotel Indigo has a number of practices in place that enhance the sustainability of its operations. Those that help save water – and benefit water quality – include the use of drought-tolerant native plants and high-efficiency irrigation in their landscaping, and green roofs that help filter urban runoff. Learn more about their sustainable practices

  2. Stone Brewing
    From landscaping their famous beer gardens with low-water plants, to featuring a comprehensive and thoughtful
    Meatless Monday menu once a week, to using an on-site water reclamation system to reuse wastewater, Stone is a regional leader in putting commercial conservation practices in place.

  3. Balboa Park
    The green heart of our city recently underwent some major efficiency upgrades that will reduce the park’s water consumption by about 2.4 million gallons a year. The changes made included the installation of hundreds of more efficient water fixtures across park restrooms, and upgrading the kitchens in nine historic buildings. Learn more about the overhaul

  4. Snooze, an A.M. Eatery
    This Denver-based brunch spot has three locations in our neck of the woods (La Jolla, Del Mar, and Hillcrest). They might be most popular for their pineapple upside down pancakes, but behind the scenes, Snooze has a number of environmental initiatives in practice, and even dedicates the whole month of June each year to educating their patrons about water conservation. Learn more

  5. Napizza Little Italy
    At this location, Napizza conserves water by using a low-flow pre-rinse sprayer on their dishes, before popping them into an Energy Star dishwashing machine. Aerators on handwashing and prep sinks reduce use further, making Napizza a great place to grab a slice. Did we mention they use local veggies on their pies, too? Yum. Learn more

So, next time you need a staycation, consider checking into the Hotel Indigo, then taking a nice picnic of beer, pizza, and pancakes into Balboa Park.


What does a year of better water really mean? – San Diego Coastkeeper 2016 Water Quality Report

Written by Meredith Meyers


For the first time since 2013, some of our watersheds scored “Good” on the Water Quality Index and many of our watershed scores improved significantly from scores over the last few years, but we can’t get too excited. One year of improvement isn’t enough to say for sure that water quality is improving overall, and we still see lots of occasions where excessive pollution is impacting our inland waters.

This one-year snapshot highlights why our long-term water quality monitoring efforts are so important. By continuing to collect data over the long term, our program contributes to a better understanding of the impacts of factors such as climate, land-use changes and restoration efforts on water quality in our region.

The Volunteer Scientists That Made This Possible

In 2016, 152 volunteer Water Quality Monitors spent a collective 1,908 hours collecting and analyzing water samples from across San Diego County. 

That work truly matters, making a difference that reverberates for generations. Our government doesn’t have the resources to keep as close an eye on our water as we do. Without San Diego Coastkeeper and the dedication of our Water Quality Monitors, the health of our inland waters would be even more of a mystery and even more difficult to manage and improve.

Our 2016 Water Quality Report, which we share with decision-makers across the region to inform better policy, wouldn’t exist without volunteers and donors like you.

  • Find out how your neighborhood watershed scored in 2016 below
  • Sign up to become a trained Water Quality Monitor
  • Donate to fuel San Diego’s clean water movement

Why Did Our Water Improve For The First Time in Five Years?  

Urban runoff continues to be the largest factor impacting people’s ability to safely fish and swim in San Diego County. Rain takes pollution from the surfaces of our streets into our storm drains, where it travels through to our rivers and streams and ultimately, to the Pacific Ocean. As a result, the overwhelming majority of San Diego’s waterways fail to the meet water quality standards that make them safe for recreation.

Though the cause of last year’s improved results can’t be directly identified, and we caution against giving too much credit to any one theory, we do have one idea about why water quality looked a little better in 2016.

Temporary water conservation regulations, implemented in response to the drought, may have helped water quality improve. When we prioritize our environment and water conservation over our front yard lawns, we reduce fertilizer use and fewer lawn sprinklers overflow onto our sidewalks. This may seem small when you think about a couple sprinklers, but San Diegan’s across the county stopped watering their lawns by the thousands. That meant less pollution washing from the street into our rivers and streams. It’s impossible to know for sure, but this one idea makes sense.

Click below to check your watershed’s report card.

Read the specific water quality scores for each of these tested watersheds below.











Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: San Diego River Watershed

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

San Diego River Watershed’s Score For 2016: 72, Fair 

The San Diego watershed stretches from the Cuyamaca Mountains in the east, to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and includes parts of Julian, Alpine, Lakeside, El Cajon, Santee, La Mesa, and San Diego. Nutrient levels were often elevated in our 2016 samples, especially phosphorus, an important factor in stream health. Freshwater streams are often phosphorus limited. This means that a major factor holding back excessive algae growth is a shortage of phosphorus relative to other nutrients in the water. The addition of phosphorus to a phosphorus-limited stream can result in eutrophication, a likely scenario here supported by the occasionally very low levels of dissolved oxygen we measured. Phosphorus can be naturally occurring through the erosion of rocks, but lawn fertilizers and detergents are common human sources.






Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Tijuana Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: N/A

We’ve suspended our sampling in the Tijuana watershed for now.  We know that when it is flowing, the river is highly polluted with untreated sewage, and we’d like to keep our volunteers safe!

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Rose Creek Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: 87, Good

The Rose Creek watershed, containing Rose and San Clemente Creeks, includes parts of Scripps Ranch, Miramar, Kearny Mesa, University City, Clairemont Mesa, La Jolla, and Pacific Beach. Of all the watersheds we monitor, Rose Creek had the highest water quality index score in 2016. This is mainly because nutrient levels were rarely elevated. Fecal indicator bacteria were still occasionally high though, concerning because this watershed drains into Mission Bay, a major recreational destination.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Sweetwater Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: 74, Fair (20 point improvement from 2015)

The Sweetwater watershed begins in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the east and collects runoff from parts of Alpine, Spring Valley, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, San Diego, National City, and Chula Vista before draining into San Diego Bay.  We’re happy to report the Sweetwater River improved in several key indicators compared to our 2015 results, including ammonia and fecal indicator bacteria — although we still saw numerous exceedances of FIB throughout the year.  Dissolved oxygen levels were still very low for most of the year at our site off Plaza Bonita Road, likely caused by excess organic matter being broken down by bacteria in the slow-moving water.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: San Dieguito Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: 78, Fair

The San Dieguito watershed begins in the mountains north of Julian and includes parts of Ramona, Escondido, Rancho Bernardo, Solana Beach, and Del Mar.  Our monitoring data indicated that water quality was fair in the San Dieguito Watershed.  Like most of the sites our program watches over each month, fecal bacteria counts were often elevated, with 50% of the samples collected in this watershed in 2016 exceeding the water quality standard for Enterococcus.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff