OK, maybe it’s a bit extreme to say that we can’t live without them, but it’s not an overstatement to say that our work would not be possible without the support of our donors and volunteers. From time to time, we will share conversations with people who, like you, make generous investments of their time and resources to ensure fishable, swimmable and drinkable water in San Diego, today and for generations to come.
David Welborn is a past member of San Diego Coastkeeper’s Board of Directors, including one year as Chairman. He and his wife, Ann, have invested in Coastkeeper’s work through targeted grants and general support. David joined me recently for a chat in our Liberty Station office.
Tracie Barham: David, I know you’ve had a long history with San Diego Coastkeeper, can you tell me why you first got involved?
David Welborn: I have almost always lived near the coast, and when I’m near the water I feel like I’m in a sacred place. Our water is such a valuable asset, I felt it was important for me to help protect it. After all, without water there is no life.
Tracie: I couldn’t agree more, David. We are so lucky to live in this paradise. Tell me, what about Coastkeeper’s approach excites you the most?
David: As former teachers, Coastkeeper’s youth education programs have a special appeal to both Ann and I. Also, your water quality monitoring program has multiple impacts on the community. It’s not just the data that informs all of your work, but the valuable experience gained by our future scientists as volunteers. Lastly, we are glad that Coastkeeper holds polluters accountable through litigation, when necessary.
Tracie: I’ll admit, as Coastkeeper’s new Executive Director, the fact that our programs are so interconnected is really inspiring to me. What do you wish more people knew about San Diego Coastkeeper?
David: I think people would be very impressed if they knew how much Coastkeeper is able to achieve with such a small budget. Your small staff (aided by many volunteers) is able to do so much for our community and the environment thanks to their passion and intelligence.
Tracie: Thank you, David. I agree, we are small but mighty! Okay, last question, what outdoor activities do you and Ann like to do when you’re not busy serving your community as Board members and donors?
David: Not surprisingly, many of our favorite things to do are on the water! We like to go outrigger canoeing in the Bay, kayak surfing, and stand-up paddleboarding.
Tracie: Nice, I’ll see you in the water! Thank you for all that you do for the environment and our community.
Polluted runoff is San Diego County’s number one water quality problem. It’s what causes the Department of Environmental Health to issue 72-hour polluted beach advisories when it rains and what causes our local streams and rivers to receive poor health ratings.
To address that issue, the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (“MS4”) permit requires our local governments to create and implement plans to prevent pollution in urban runoff and stormwater from reaching our waters. Naturally, Coastkeeper supports that permit and its goal to protect and restore our waters. Until recently, the permit required strict compliance with the Clean Water Act and with standards aimed at protecting our waters from pollution. It held the cities and other governments accountable if they weren’t achieving clean water.
But on November 18, 2015, the San Diego Regional Water Control Board approved an amendment known as a “Safe Harbor” that gives permit holders a pass from accountability for water-quality protection if they have a plan to eventually, someday reduce pollution into our waters and achieve fishable, swimmable waters. They get this “pass” from the moment their plan is approved and it continues indefinitely as long as they keep trying to do better, even if they continue failing to meet water-quality standards. In December, we filed a petition to the State Water Resource Control Board to overturn these amendments and to restore accountability of our governments under the Clean Water Act.
The Clean Water Act long ago recognized that the job of protecting our waters was bigger than the EPA or Regional Boards alone. In doing so, it created a provision that gives citizens the right, if not responsibility, to enforce the laws meant to protect our waters. Since the Clean Water Act is the best – and many times only – tool we as citizens have to defend and protect our waters, it is crucial that we work to protect and preserve that right with the same devotion and intensity we put into protecting our rivers, streams and ocean.
As San Diego Coastkeeper’s Waterkeeper, Legal & Policy Director, and attorney, it is my job to ensure that those businesses, governments, and individuals who pollute San Diego’s waters are held accountable and that our waters are both protected and restored.
The honest truth is that while many of our pollution laws in San Diego and the U.S. are quite strong, they are seldom enforced. That’s where we come in. Waterkeeper organizations patrol local waters and prosecute polluters. We are the voice for the water and a defender of the right of every person in San Diego County to live with fishable, swimmable, drinkable water.
San Diego County’s rivers, bays and ocean are under a threat of a thousand cuts. Many different sources of pollution pour into our water every day, which combined become a powerful and often toxic mix poisoning our water and our livelihood. Because this threat is so distributed and gradual, it doesn’t create cause for alarm in the same way something like an oil spill does, making it much more dangerous. It’s easy to just accept the fact that, for the safety of swimmers and surfers, our beaches need to close for 72 hours after it rains. But as Waterkeepers, we do not and will not ever stop protecting our waters.
Our model is simple and powerful: find and fix. One by one, we identify sources of pollution and then use every tool at our disposal, most often legal actions and advocacy, to bring polluters into compliance with the law and heal the cuts that are harming our waters.
San Diego used to average a sewage spill-a-day. With strategic legal action, we were able to push the City of San Diego to invest $1 billion in infrastructure upgrades, reducing sewage spills by 90 percent. That’s just a single lawsuit of the many in our twenty-year history of turning pollution into clean water and polluters into responsible protectors of our water. Imagining San Diego County without San Diego Coastkeeper is, frankly, a bit too scary to consider.
This isn’t a new practice. It’s a tradition that’s proven incredibly effective—across the world. We’re part of an international movement of more than 300 independent Waterkeeper organizations all over the world dedicated to protecting and restoring a specific body of fishable, swimmable, drinkable water. We’re proud to be a part of this tradition, and proud to be one of the largest Waterkeeper organizations in the world.
But I can’t do anything without you by my side. We have to do this together. We all share our water. We all benefit from our water and a thriving, abundant ecosystem. So it’s all of our responsibility to protect it.
If you see something polluting our waters, let me know. I’m your Waterkeeper. If you want to join the Waterkeeper movement and support San Diego Coastkeeper, consider making a donation or joining our team of dedicated volunteers.
Finally, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so I can keep you up to date on the latest information you need to know about San Diego County’s water.
How San Diego Coastkeeper took water education to the next level in 2015-2016
Project SWELL (Stewardship: Water Education for Lifelong Leadership) is a completely free, standard-aligned K-6 science curriculum about the importance of San Diego County’s water. Through Project SWELL, San Diego Coastkeeper provides all San Diego Unified School District teachers with free science kits and trainings. The curriculum explores the impacts of humans on our waters through a hands-on course of study focusing on water quality and pollution prevention.
This past school year, Project SWELL got a major boost. Thanks to a generous donor, we hired Julie Earnest as our dedicated education specialist for Project SWELL and the results have been stellar.
The 2015-2016 school year was filled with lots of hands-on experiments, watershed models, marine debris activities and storm drain field trips for 4,460 K-6th grade students and 300 teachers. Our tireless and overly enthusiastic education specialist, Julie, offered 83 SWELL presentations in 67 schools in San Diego Unified School District.
To evaluate the effectiveness of Project SWELL, we surveyed students before and after the classroom presentations. The results of the K-6th grade student surveys showed us that more students now understand the importance of keeping our waters clean and have the desire to prevent pollution. But don’t take our word for it — see the results yourself.
Check out how the younger students showed us what they learned with these inspirational art pieces:
Imagine the next generation of students making responsible environmental decisions because they know we should take care of the environment every day. This could mean a new generation of leaders that will be caring for our planet and teach others to do the same — the ultimate goal of environmental education.
After the classroom presentations, 96 percent of teachers said:
- The presentation was engaging to their students
- They would recommend the presentation to a colleague
- They were more confident incorporating the Project SWELL curriculum into their classroom
Teachers in San Diego County can request a free professional development workshop at their schools whenever they want or join us in our scheduled workshops at the Advanced Water Purification Plant or at the District’s Instructional Media Center.
Since we started visiting schools in 2014, we have brought Project SWELL to a total of 96 schools and 7,362 K-6th grade students. Not bad for a team of two educators, some awesome interns and the support of our local donors and partners.
2nd Grade Student Surveys
2nd grade students showed an increase in learning, with the best improvements in their responses to these questions:
- Q1: When water goes down the storm drains in San Diego, what happens to that water?
- Q2: After it rains, why is the ocean in San Diego unsafe for swimming?
3rd – 4th Grade Student Surveys
3rd-4th grade students showed an increase in learning, with the best improvements in their responses to these questions:
- Q2: After it rains, why is the ocean in San Diego unsafe for swimming?
- Q3: What happens when “invisible” pollutants such as gasoline and fertilizer go into the ocean?
5th Grade Student Surveys
5th grade students showed an increase in learning, with the best improvements in their responses to these questions:
- Q1: Most of the water in San Diego used for drinking, cooking, and cleaning comes from where?
- Q2: When water goes down the storm drains in San Diego, what happens to that water?
- Q4: When water inside homes, schools, and businesses goes down the drain and enters the sewer system, what happens to that water?
6th Grade Student Surveys
6th grade students showed an increase in learning, with the best improvements in their responses to these questions:
- Q2: What features determine the boundary of a watershed?
- Q4: When rainwater and urban runoff flow into storm drains in San Diego, what happens to that water?
- Q5: When water from inside our homes flow into the sewer system in San Diego, what happens to that water?
There was an average increase learning of 20-56 percent for all groups of 2nd, 3rd/4th, 5th, and 6th graders. Students showed an increase in knowledge about the difference between storm drains and sewers, where San Diego water comes from and how runoff pollution affects the ocean. This could help change behaviors in our students as well as their families and communities as they become advocates of our water resources.
San Diego Coastkeeper Education Programs
If you are not part of San Diego Unified School District, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. Thanks to the support of the Port of San Diego, we’ve developed and piloted a new curriculum called Water Education for All. This is available online and has already reached nearly 3,224 children and adults in Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, Coronado, San Diego and National City.
We’re so used to planting green lawns in our yards that it may seem like “going brown” is the only way to turn off the garden hose and save water. But you don’t need to put up with a prickly dead lawn in order to be California-friendly. San Diego has tons of green, flowering, vibrant plants that have evolved to survive and thrive in our region. And they don’t need a ton of water or maintenance to stay healthy.
San Diego Coastkeeper fully supports lawns in areas where they are actually being used, like sporting fields or public parks. But we can’t support using water-intensive grass as a default landscape in non-functional areas. Turfgrass lawns generally take between 52-78 inches of water a year to stay alive, but San Diego only gets 5-10 inches of rain annually. When we make up the difference by running the sprinklers, we are wasting our precious water resources. It’s time to rethink what our default landscape looks like.
San Diego Coastkeeper has long been working to promote water conservation by supporting mandatory restrictions, advocating for water conservation in the media, and hosting workshops and events designed to connect San Diego residents with the tools and resources needed to make more effective, efficient use of our limited resources. We also worked with California Coastkeeper Alliance to design and implement “Back to our Roots,” a campaign promoting water savings by helping to instill pride in our beautiful native California landscape.
Water conservation is the smartest, most accessible way to ensure that we have enough water for the future and that we use it efficiently, but our region must work to improve conservation efforts. In our region, over half of residential water use is irrigation of outdoor, ornamental landscaping. You can help us return San Diego to its natural beauty and save water in the process. Not sure where to start? You can read the top ten ways to landscape responsibly, or you can support San Diego Coastkeeper today with a generous donation.
San Diego Coastkeeper would like to commend the San Diego City Council for its vote on the City of San Diego Single-Use Carryout Bag Reduction Ordinance, a city-wide ban on disposable, single-use plastic bags. We have supported and fought for this measure for the past 7 years, and want to acknowledge and celebrate the hard work of local organizations such as Surfrider San Diego for their unwavering commitment to seeing this issue addressed. Coastkeeper laid the groundwork for this action by lobbying the city to put funds and time towards preparing an Environmental Impact Report, which was required before the ordinance could be considered by the City Council.
The citizen data from our beach cleanups has been used to help communicate about the issue to elected officials and their staff. Throughout our twenty-one years of beach cleanups, debris studies, boat trips, and visits to remote riverine locations with our Water Quality Monitoring program, Coastkeeper staff, members, and volunteers have seen first hand the environmental blight that improperly disposed-of plastic bags have caused. Lightweight and effortlessly mobile, they blow across our streets and sidewalks, find their way into our storm drains, and ride the waterslide of urban runoff to the sea. We find them tangled in creekside vegetation, twisted in kelp forests, and, most tragically, in the bellies and around the necks of some of our most precious wildlife.
The passing of this ordinance will take roughly 500 million bags out of circulation, per year, in the city of San Diego alone. This is a fantastic local victory, and an important first step in reducing plastic pollution statewide. We look forward to seeing a statewide referendum on the ballot this November, and hope the momentum from our victory here in San Diego will encourage voters statewide to support Senate Bill 270 with their yes vote.
When we need it most, the San Diego County Water Authority has slashed our mandatory conservation targets from 25 percent to zero. Why? The Water Authority is the public agency that sells us our water; its member agencies bring in more money when we waste water and less money when we conserve water.
We called them out in the Voice of San Diego, detailing why mandatory conservation measures are imperative for our future, and why the Water Authority is working against the region’s best interest. You can read the full piece here, “San Diego Water Authority Is Pretending The Drought Is Over; It’s Not.”
The San Diego County Water Authority published a response.
First, the Water Authority claims that, thanks to its work pushing voluntary conservation, not mandatory, San Diego County has lowered our water use significantly, “nearly 40 percent between 1990 and 2015.” While these are great strides we’ve made as a region, it’s more useful to look at our water savings in times of greatest need.
Does Voluntary Conservation Work? Not nearly enough.
What about the time when it really matters? Did voluntary conservation measures in our last drought lower water use?
As the Equinox Center points out in its February 2015 H20verview, “between fiscal years 2010 and 2014 (the study period), San Diego County Water Authority’s (SDCWA) member agencies experienced a four percent (4%) increase in annual average residential water consumption on a per resident basis. … A SDCWA-wide decrease in overall water consumption per resident only surfaced one year during the study period: FY 2011. This was also the same year within the study period with the highest annual precipitation, as measured at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field.”
Water agencies love to highlight that water use since 1990 has gone down, but water use increased during the drought. It wasn’t until the Governor forced mandatory restrictions did we see significant water savings.
Now the Water Authority, with its move back to a zero percent conservation target, has put us back in the voluntary conservation measures that lasted from June 2014 to June 2015. These voluntary restrictions did not achieve significant savings. It’s the reason why the state of California forced us into mandatory conservation. See the graph below for the difference between voluntary and mandatory Gallons Per Capita per day for the water authority member agencies. Mandatory water conservation began in June of 2015.
Also, let’s not forget how in 2014 and early 2015, before the mandatory restrictions, we had to beg the cities to do real enforcement of existing rules. Remember the “water vigilante” stories? We made international headlines when the City’s complete lack of enforcement drove us to travel the streets recording evidence of water waste ourselves.
The Water Authority also touts the “diversification” and drought-resilience of San Diego County Water Authority’s supply portfolio as reason for letting go of mandatory conservation, specifically Poseidon’s desalination plant and the “conservation-and-transfer” agreements with Imperial County. But desalination is by far the most expensive, energy-inefficient water supply option available. Why have we spent $1 billion on a last-resort option when conservation offers so much more for so much less. The water transfers the Water Authority celebrates as “landmark” haven’t increased the diversity of our water supply, it’s the same water from our dwindling Colorado River supply, but from a different middle-man. You can’t stick two straws in the same glass and call it diverse.
This is what happens when a public agency, who survives off the sale of water, is tasked with setting water conservation mandates.
In Washington Post’s, “Why California’s local governments can’t manage their water — and why Jerry Brown’s proposal could help” Megan Mullin sums up the Water Authority’s response perfectly.
“… pursuing conservation is at odds with the traditional outlook of water resource management agencies. According to a study of agencies in California, the Pacific Northwest, and Washington, D.C., water managers measure success by their ability to deliver safe, affordable drinking water in as much quantity as people demand. Absent a mandate from above, these managers may perceive conservation efforts as a failure to perform their job.”
The ocean is the most beautiful, diverse and abundant ecosystem on the planet and covers over 71 percent of the world’s surface. It is so large that it has been divided into five oceanic divisions, all of which are connected.
San Diego is located just off the coast of the Pacific Ocean, which is the largest ocean on earth. It is roughly the same size as all the land on earth, put together.
However, there are many factors, which are putting our oceans at the brink of disaster and the biggest issue of all is, pollution. Pollution is the biggest killer of marine animals and plants, and it is not only caused by natural occurrences, it is also caused by man. Did you know that over eight billion tons of plastic is being dumped into the ocean, every year? Plastic has one of the most devastating effects on this ecosystem and is also affecting life on land.
Just off the coast of California, sits one of the largest ‘garbage islands’ on the planet. Known as the ‘North Pacific Gyre’ or the ‘Pacific Trash Vortex’, it is a made up of plastic, chemical sludge and other debris. This dangerous man-made island has been created by pollution that gets caught up in the strong currents, forming a floating island of trash. This trash can be mistaken as food by marine animals, which can then lead to a chain reaction, resulting in these fish or smaller animals being consumed by larger fish, inevitably ending up on our plates.
Pollution is damaging to the ocean and its inhabitants, it is also extremely dangerous for humans and if you would like to learn more about ocean pollution and how it can affect humans, then take a look at the fascinating infographic below, which will show you that one simple mistake such as not recycling your plastic properly, can lead to unimaginable damage to life on earth. The infographic has been produced by a team from divein.com.
How ocean pollution affects humans – Graphic by the team at DIVE.in
By Andrew Dilevics
Our executive director, Tracie Barham, wrote this op-ed for Voice of San Diego. Tracie calls out the Water Authority for cutting mandatory conservation measures when we need them most.
Without mandatory conservation, San Diego is positioning itself to fall back into the same short-sighted planning that built the state’s drought inadequacies in the first place.
For decades, the San Diego region inched closer and closer to a drought crisis, pumping more water for more lawns from the ever-dwindling supplies in the Colorado River Basin and the Bay Delta. We were addicted, concerned with getting more water today, not the drought tomorrow.
Then we hit rock bottom. In 2015, after we failed to respond to voluntary conservation calls to action, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Finally, the state had a moment of truth: It was time to wean off the formerly sacrosanct approach of piping in more water and adopt the common-sense approach of using less. The state and region brought out an arsenal of incentives to encourage conservation, and in under a year we realized life was just as good when we used an average of 50 fewer gallons per person, per day. We lowered energy use, transformed our neighborhoods to reflect the region’s natural beauty and upgraded our technology. Since June 2015, San Diego had lowered its water use by a whopping 21 percent.
Meanwhile, the San Diego County Water Authority was fighting hard to get us hooked again. Why? It is the public agency that sells us our water; its member agencies bring in more money when we waste water and less money when we conserve water. It led the charge of water dealers across the state to successfully lobby the California State Water Board to weaken conservation regulations. Now, water agencies can set their own conservation targets and, unsurprisingly, the Water Authority is seeking to set ours quite low. At zero. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. From a 25 percent conservation goal to no need to conserve water anymore.
The message: “The drought is over. Use as much as you want.” But the drought, and the consequences of our dependence on imported water, are as severe as ever. Eighty-four percent of the state remains in drought condition. The Sierra snowpack, the state’s largest water storage, is currently at 8 percent. Lake Mead is about 50 feet away from provoking a federal level 1 water shortage declaration, which could cut off water to Arizona and Nevada.
The Salton Sea, the biggest lake in California, is on track to go completely dry because of water transfers that San Diego takes from the farmers. When it does, lakebed toxins like arsenic and selenium could be blown into the air, creating a poisonous, apocalyptic dust storm. Would this be our state’s newest environmental injustice, poisoning Imperial Valley farmworkers and increasing childhood asthma as the toxic plume creeps as far as Los Angeles, just so we can keep lawns green?
Despite the successes of conservation, the Water Authority would rather go back to business as usual, leave the hose running and cash in. This is what happens when regulatory powers roll over from lobbying pressure and legal threats of water agencies. The focus of water supply shifts from the ever-receding water line to the financial bottom line.
Supposedly, the Water Authority is a big proponent of encouraging conservation. But lots of organizations encouraged conservation over the last 50 years. The change that finally pulled us out of our water binge wasn’t an encouraging pat on the head and a reminder to do the right thing. It was cash. Fines for wasting and rewards for conserving. We were poised to show the world what is possible when you embrace a smarter future instead of burying your head in a lush, green lawn.
Now without mandatory conservation, San Diego positioned itself to fall back into the same short-sighted planning that built the state’s drought inadequacies in the first place.
But there is another way. We must completely adapt to the new landscape of water scarcity and continuing drought. We’ll need more than empty words; we’ll need more conservation incentives like turf rebates for water-wise landscaping and more conservation education for the public. We’ll need major investments for more wastewater recycling and stormwater capture and to continue water conservation programs that were already working.
We can stay on track toward a better future, despite the fact that the Water Authority is calling for zero percent conservation measures. But to continue on a path toward finally breaking our crippling, lifelong addiction to wasteful use of imported water, the Water Authority must stop saying, “I encourage you to conserve,” while it hands us a brand new, shiny garden hose.
Every year, Heal the Bay puts out a beach report card, providing essential water quality information to the millions of people who swim, surf or dive in the coastal waters of the West Coast. The report card assigns A-to-F letter grades to 456 California beaches for three reporting periods in 2015-2016, based on levels of weekly bacterial pollution.
This year, San Diego led Heal the Bay’s honor roll with an A+ grade and many are attributing the drought for these “stellar” results. But while the test results for the coastal waters are looking better than usual, not all waters are making the grade.
San Diego Coastkeeper also tracks water quality in San Diego, but instead of the coastal waters — where all the water eventually flows to — we track the quality of our inland water throughout nine of our eleven watersheds.
Inland Water Quality Vs. Coastal Water Quality
It’s all the same right? Actually, the water quality of our inland waters is worsening, partially due to very low water levels.
Our 2015 data reveal that more than three quarters of our water samples contained unsafe levels of fecal indicator bacteria. This means that our rivers and streams are carrying pollutants to the ocean that cause health problems like staph infections, ear aches, stomach issues, rashes, eye infections and cysts — just to name a few.
The fact that there has not been any rain to move the poor quality water may be the cause behind San Diego’s A+ grade. But, if the much-needed rain came and washed all the pollutants and bacteria into the ocean, it would stand to reason that San Diego would not be on the honor role.
Truly Improving Water Quality
The only real way to improve our water quality is to stop pollution and runoff at the source. Coastkeeper also works to stop industrial pollution, urban runoff, sewage spills and more.
We have successfully reduced beach advisories by 77 percent since 2000 and continue to work on making our inland and coastal waters swimmable and fishable. While the coastal waters are better today, our inland waters are a sure sign that overall there is more work to do.