An El Cajon Business’s Journey from Polluter To Environmental Leader

Written by Matt O'Malley

stormwater after heavy rain

The United States and California have some of the best water quality regulations in the world. The problem is, they are seldom enforced. That’s where we come in. San Diego Coastkeeper’s identifies illegal polluters like government bodies and businesses and works, often hand-in-hand with polluters, to bring them into compliance with the law. The end result is a new industry leader in environmental stewardship.

Enter El Cajon Business Precision Metals Products

Precision Metals Products’ facility primarily fabricates steel columns, beams, braces and machines. As you can imagine, a lot of metals on this site that can leach into the water — and they have. Over the past five years, Precision Metals Products has polluted Forester Creek, the San Diego River, and ultimately, the Pacific Ocean. These polluted discharges make our water less fishable and swimmable.

In February 2016, San Diego Coastkeeper and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue Precision Metals Products, Inc. in El Cajon for violations of the California statewide industrial general permit and the Clean Water Act.  

A Win for Clean Water and Sustainable Business

Thanks to hard work from all parties, we now have an agreement that keeps our water clean. Coastkeeper recently filed an agreement between our groups and Precision Metals Products, and it’s now approved by the federal court system and the Department of Justice. This means there is a legally binding agreement requiring the operators to keep the site cleaner and repair cracked pavement. These major changes will prevent the following types of pollutions from entering our waters:

  • Zinc
  • Aluminum
  • Iron
  • Total Suspended Solids
  • Nutrients

Restitution for Past Pollution

While the past pollution cannot be undone, stormwater pollution settlements use the money won to further improve water quality — attempting to balance past damage with investments in the future. Different environmental groups apply for these grants, called Supplemental Environmental Projects.

In this case, the funds from the settlement will go to San Diego Audubon Society for its Supplemental Environmental Project called ReWild Mission Bay, a project to enhance and restore up to 170 acres of wetlands in the northeast corner of Mission Bay.

Setting the Standard

When a business is polluting, we always have the goal to work hand-in-hand with business leaders to help them come into compliance. When that happens, it sets a positive example for the industry that following the law is good for business and good for the community. Eventually, this leads to improved industry standards as a whole.

Everyone has a right to clean water — and our enforcement efforts make up part of the solution to creating a fishable, swimmable, drinkable San Diego County for all.

Download Our Swim Guide App

It’s 8 am on the first sunny morning you have seen in a while. All you can think about is loading up your surfboard and beach towel in your car and head to that new surf spot all of your friends have been telling you about. But what if it rained overnight? You’ve heard about recent water pollution issues, maybe one of your friends got sick from surfing a few weeks ago. How do you know the water is safe to swim in? Well, the solution is no further away than your smartphone.

The new Swim Guide App designed by the Ontario Waterkeeper for the Waterkeeper Alliance is your guide to finding out which beaches are safe to swim. This app covers more than 400 beaches in California alone and 3000 beaches and swimming destinations nationwide and gives you up to date pollution ratings. Data for San Diego County comes from the County Department of Environmental Health each morning, and San Diego Coastkeeper updates the status of all beaches county-wide.swimguide

The Swim Guide also provides a historical and special status providing there are any unusual conditions at your particular location. This is an awesome way to check water quality before you head to a lake, beach, or river for a swim. If you are at a location and you see signs of pollution or debris, the app even allows you to report the problem to your local Waterkeeper. The app however, does more than just tell you about water quality.

With Swim Guide, you can discover new spots (beaches, parks, and lakes) based on your location, bookmark a place that looks interesting, and even get directions to that place. The interactive map gives you a visual representation of waters in the area. When I heard of this app, I immediately downloaded it, and did a bit of exploring. The coolest part about this new guide is the descriptions of the spots featuring history, culture, and suggestions for how to make the best of your trip here. As I was scrolling through locations near me, I found tons of spots that I had never even heard of. Who knew Leisure Lagoon at Mission Bay Park was an excellent spot for bbqing or tossing the Frisbee around? Or that the north side of San Dieguito River is great place to bring your dogs?

This app is extremely user friendly and even simpler to download. You can go to the App store and search swim guide or go to to download or even use it from the web. Did I mention this app is completely free? That’s right all of this information at your fingertips and it does not even cost a penny. If you love to hit the beach or do a little exploring this app is a must!

The Stormwater “Safe Harbor” Explained

This blog was published May 2, 2013. Click here for more up-to-date information on Safe Harbor laws in San Diego.

The Clean Water Act is the primary tool we use to protect and restore fishable, swimmable, and drinkable waters.  At its heart, the Clean Water Act focuses on the quality of our waters, and it allows states to issue permits allowing people to add pollution into our waters, but only in certain circumstances.  The Clean Water Act’s  bottom line is this—we can’t issue a permit if it would allow pollution that would make that water so dirty that it interferes with the water’s “beneficial uses” like swimming, fishing, or habitat for fish and other aquatic life. Even if the individual pollution permit would not alone cause the water quality problem, if it contributes to a water quality problem, that’s not allowed.

In order to make sure we are issuing water pollution permits that ultimately protect our waters, we have to look at the health of the waters.  And water pollution permits contain a provision that basically says, “when you add pollution to the waters, you cannot cause or contribute to a water quality problem in the water body you are adding pollution to.”  Sounds reasonable, right?

Apparently for San Diego County and our local municipalities, prohibiting them from contributing to existing pollution problems or creating new ones is asking too much. The county and our local cities have asked our Regional Water Quality Control board for a “safe harbor” excusing them from being accountable for local water quality, even though our storm sewer systems are the primary cause of most of our local pollution problems.

Why would they ask for this?  According to San Diego County Counsel James O’Day, the county needs protection from environmental groups who would “hold the county hostage” by bringing lawsuits against them. Even the City of San Diego’s estmeed Mayor Filner asked the Regional Board to provide “protection” for the City against environmental protection law suits. Ironic, since last weekend San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez thanked the environmental groups that sued the City of San Diego on sewage issues because it helped move the city forward toward creating a local, secure, reliable, safe water supply.

In response to pleas by lawyers and politicians, the Regional Board added a “safe harbor” or “alternative compliance option” to the stormwater permit.  This “alternative compliance” provision protects cities or the county from being held accountable for pollution that causes or contributes to water quality problems, as long as they have done some modeling that shows that they might not cause or contribute to water quality problems if they do certain things, and then they plan to do those things.  They get this “protection” from the moment their plan is approved, and it continues indefinitely–even if the pollution actually causes or contributes to a water quality problem–as long as they keep trying to do better.

This flies in the face of the very heart of the Clean Water Act–focusing on the health of our waters and not allowing pollution that would cause or contribute to water quality problems.  At the Regional Board hearing on April 10 and 11, I compared this new safe harbor provision to mud on a cake.  The heart of our stormwater permit–the cake–is still good, and we’ve all worked very hard to make it together.  But this safe harbor is mud that basically ruins the permit for us.  Take this safe harbor away, and we like the new stormwater permit.

On May 8, the Regional Board will decide whether or not to leave the safe harbor provision in the permit.  Check back soon to see if they left mud on the cake!

The educational value of volunteering

Before starting at Coastkeeper, I spent a few years as a teacher. From 3rd-12th grade, teaching science is frequently an uphill battle. Sadly, the majority of students in middle and high school simply don’t have any connection to science. Without any reason to care about science, it’s incredibly difficult for students to engage.

Hands-on learning became critical for my students. Turning science into something that they can see, do, touch, or even change made a remarkable impact on their subject comprehension.


San Diego Coastkeeper frequently works with teachers and students in an attempt to bring science to life. Some teachers encourage students to attend a beach cleanup or Water Quality Monitoring training to get them invested through service learning. A few weeks ago, I worked with a group from North County High Tech High during their intersession. Leading a class focused on ocean issues and topics, teachers brought their class to La Jolla Shores for a morning of service learning.

La Jolla Shores is special to our San Diego coastline. Set along an Area of Special Biological Significance and the Matlahuyal marine protected area (MPA), the water quality, marine life, and habitat are incredibly important to protect. Pressures from human activity, both on and offshore, can pose threats to these coastal resources. High Tech High students had the chance this week to do their part in protecting them, but also learn more about why they’re so important.

Along the coast, students worked in groups to collect marine debris and document activity within the MPA. Testing out the web-based app developed by UCSD, students recorded observations of human activity, helping Coastkeeper and other groups in San Diego identify trends in human use and potentially effectiveness of MPA regulations. While students learned about MPAs, they were able to take an active part in their assessment, contributing to science and policy that impacts us here in San Diego.

Volunteering  helped make our coastline a little cleaner, but let students see where runoff goes, actually count how many pollutants we’re producing and think about their impacts, while seeing an actual change in their environment. By making a positive impact in their community, science and environmental issues become a little more personal. For so many students, that connection is what drives their passion in science and I am thrilled to help them find it through service learning activities.

Another group set out on a “Pollution Patrol” of La Jolla Shores, sweeping nearly every street west of La Jolla Shores Drive and identifying potential pollution issues. Their biggest concern? Cigarette butts. In just an hour, students collected over 665 cigarette butts from the area, with most found in streets near stores. Students that morning were shocked by what they were finding in an area San Diegan’s value for its pristine beauty and ecological structure.

If you are interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities for students in San Diego, please contact for more information.

Mission Possible Cleans Record Amount of Debris from Mission Bay

Beach cleanup events always amaze me. I’m happy to say our first Mission Possible: Clean the Bay Day was no exception but perhaps exceeded any expectations I had for the afternoon. Created in partnership with SeaWorld, the event was deveon_the_bayloped to takle water quality issues in Mission Bay through debris removal, an area we all agreed needed attention.

Kicking off from South Shores Park boat ramp in Mission Bay, 149 volunteers woke up exceptionally early on a Saturday and set out by foot, kayak, and boat to do their part in keeping our water clean. While most of the volunteers worked from land, two kayakers from the community came out to collect debris further from shore. San Diego Coastkeeper’s 19′ Boston Whaler, Clean Sweep, joined the event as well, alongside two SeaWorld vessels.

While most beach cleanups tend to bring out the “best of the best” in San Diego, this was one to remember. These volunteers included families with small children, high school clubs, friends and coworkers. One group was there to celebrate a birthday, with her gift request being that they attend the cleanup with her. “Lauren’s Present”, as they called themselves, went on to win SeaWorld Tickets and a penguin encounter for collecting the most cigarette butts. For those who are wondering, they collected 200 cigarette butts.

It’s going to be difficult to top the work our volunteers did that day. In just a few hours, they collected 430 pounds of debris. For those having a hard time visualizing that, it’s the weight of a young male sea lion. By weight, this is the most debris collected at any San Diego Coastkeeper event this year. The next closest was just over 200 pounds removed by 236 volunteers in Oceanside.

Many of the 9,060 items were what we usually see at beach cleanups but in larger quantities than we’ve seen this year on beaches. 430 plastic bags, 1,582 cigarette butts, 974 plastic food wrappers and nearly 500 glass bottles and fragments topped the list.

It was truly a collaborative event, with SeaWorld and the US Coast Guard joining us and supporting a phenominal effort by the San Diego community. Thanks to SeaWorld, 100 participants returning bags of trash, were rewarded with a ticket to the park, and several groups, like “Lauren’s Present,” walked away with top honors in special categories including “Bring Your Own Supplies” and “Most Unusual Item.” The award for “Most Trash Collected” went to an outstanding group from Poway High School’s Surf Club, hauling in 40 pounds of trash and earning SeaWorld tickets and dolphin encounters.

Cub Scout Pack 1209 Den 4 used the event to teach their scouts about the “leave no trace behind” policy. Collecting five pounds in their bag, one parent explained how amazing it was that so many small items, like plastic and styrofoam, added up to be so much. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

While San Diego Coastkeeper looks forward to a repeat event next year, we hope that those enjoying Mission Bay throughout the year do their part to “leave no trace,” just like the Cub Scouts. Just like each piece of trash adds up quickly, so do individual actions. Help us set a new record next year, making Mission Possible: Clean the Bay our first cleanup where marine debris is nowhere to be found.

Published in Marine Debris

Make an Edible Aquifer

An aquifer is an underground layer of rock, gravel, sand or silt through which water can easily move. This water can be extracted for human consumption through the use of a water well. Aquifers provide natural filtration that helps to purify the groundwater flowing through them. However, not all contanimants are rendered harmless by this purification process, and some pollution can still be found in the groundwater, making it unsafe to drink.

You can make your own model of an aquifer from things found in your grocery store. To start you need the following:

Materials Needed

  • Blue/red food coloring
  • Vanilla ice cream
  • Clear soda pop (7-Up, Sprite, etc)
  • Small gummy bears, chocolate chips, crushed ice or other material to represent sand and gravel
  • Sprinkles
  • Drinking straws
  • Clear plastic cups
  • Ice cream scoop
  • Spoons

Activity Steps

  1. Fill a clear plastic cup 1/3 full with gummy bears, chocolate chips, or crushed ice. This represnts sand/gravel in your aquifer.
  2. Add enough soda to just cover the candy/ice.
  3. Add a layer of ice cream to serve as a “confining layer” over the water-filled aquifer.
  4. Then add more “sand/gravel” on top of the “confining layer.”
  5. Add a layer of sprinkled over the top to create the porous top layer (top soil).
  6. Now add the food coloring to the soda. The food coloring represents contamination. Watch what happens when it is poured on the top of the “aquifer.”
  7. Using a drinking straw, drill a well into the center of your aquifer.
  8. Slowly begin to pump the well by sucking on the straw. Watch the decline in the water table.
  9. Notice how the contaminants can get sucked into the well area and end up in the groundwater by leaking through the confining layer.
  10. Now recharge your aquifer by adding more soda which represents a rain shower.
  11. Eat and enjoy your aquifer!

Lesson adapeted from the Groundwater Foundation.

Trash on the Water Fog in the Sky

clean-sweep1As a student attorney for San Diego Coastkeeper, my work naturally revolves around the organization’s core mission of ensuring drinkable, swimmable, and fishable waters. While water is almost always the central theme of my work, there is a difference between talking or writing about water and actually seeing, feeling, and breathing the ocean. So when the chance arose to go out on the Coastkeeper boat Monday morning, I couldn’t have been more excited!

I joined Captain Chris and my supervising attorney and Waterkeeper, Jill Witkowski, onboard the Clean Sweep. It was a warm, beautiful morning, and we set off from Kona Kai marina and headed out through San Diego Bay. As we passed by Harbor Island and rounded toward downtown, however, the beauty of the Bay was besmirched by an abundance of plastic bottle and styrofoam debris. Chris and Jill both commented that the amount of trash was unusual. But as we continued on toward Chula Vista, I couldn’t help noticing that the presence of trash did not let up.

Near a public pier and marina around National City, enough was enough and our mission turned from observation and presence on the water to trash cleanup. With Jill trash spotting, Captain Chris deftly maneuvered the Coastkeeper boat alongside debris, which I then plucked from the water. Our “harvest” included the following unsavory items: spray paint bottle, chemical mixing bottle, styrofoam packaging material, block of wood, and snack chip bags.

With the engine well at the back of the boat full of our booty, we cruised back to the marina, braving the reduced visibility and sudden drop in temperature of rapid onset fog. Back near downtown, the fog dissipated, and once more we came face to face with the problem of trash on the water. We collected a few more items, then made our way back to Kona Kai. On the ride in, I reflected on the fact that from a desk in an office or library water pollution can sometimes become an abstract concept. But putting my hand into the water to pull out trash? That made it real.

Now I encourage all you readers to get your hands in the water and pull some trash! It’s an important side of environmental stewardship, and something all us coastkeepers and friends of the environment should be involved in. On October 27, San Diego Coastkeeper will be hosting “Mission Possible: Clean the Bay Day with SeaWorld.” This event runs from 8am to 11am at Mission Bay, and food will provided by Rubio’s. So please bring your work gloves, sunscreen, boat if you have one, and give us a hand.  Hope to see you there!

Published in Marine Debris

A Pollution Patrol Success Story

When you report a pollution issue to Coastkeeper, you’ll know that you were the catalyst to solving the problem.

Recently, a San Diego resident called our pollution reporting hotline to let us know that a neighbor was dumping paint into the storm drain. Nia, our education coordinator, took the call and passed the information on to me.  I sent the information to the City of San Diego’s stormwater hotline by e-mail, to In the e-mail, I asked the city to follow-up with me on the complaint so I could share the information with the concerned citizen.

A week later, Nia received another call from the concerned citizen because the problem was ongoing.  I also received an e-mail from the citizen, making the same complaint again.  I decided it was time to follow-up with the city to make sure the problem was addressed.

I called the City of San Diego’s Think Blue Hotline (619-235-1000) and asked the woman manning to hotline to help me get information I needed.  The woman was clearly busy and was reluctant to help because of all the other complaints she was fielding that day.  After some convincing, she finally gave me the information I needed.

It turns out that the city’s inspector had immediately responded to the complaint but had difficulty connecting with the residents causing the problem.  The day I followed up, the city inspector had been able to inform the resident that dumping paint down the storm drain is illegal and directed the residents to clean up the paint. The person who originally reported the issue to us told us that the efforts made a difference: “When I arrived home tonight the offending party was hard at work with a flashlight and a scrub brush cleaning up their mess.”

This story is a celebration of so many people doing good things–the concerned neighbor calling us and following up, Nia getting me the information and following up with me, the city inspector diligently working to connect with the offending resident, the city hotline intake person taking time out to help me get the information I needed, and ultimately even the resident finally cleaning up the mess they caused.

But it also shows where we can improve. First, the City of San Diego needs to do a better job of giving follow-up information to people who provide complaints.  I realize that sometimes complaints may merely be feuding neighbors tattling on one another, but many complaints are serious, legitimate complaints.  If those complaints are not actually problems for some reason, isn’t it better for everyone if the city explains why it isn’t really a problem?  And if the complaint was a legitimate problem that was resolved, shouldn’t the complaining person know that the problem was resolved and that they’ve made a difference?  I would love if the City of San Diego made their hot line complaints and resolution status public (keeping the identity of reporting individuals anonymous).  This way we can track where the problems are and notice when they are resolved.  I’m guessing the City of San Diego resolves more pollution problems than we know, and I would like to give the city credit for doing so.  I’d also like to help follow up where problems aren’t resolved, or do targeted outreach in neighborhoods that see the same issues over and over again.

This story also shows us that Coastkeeper and the municipal stormwater teams can’t be everywhere at once, spotting all the problems around the county.  We need informed citizens to be our vigilant eyes and ears in the community, spotting problems and help us get them resolved.  Coastkeeper is working on developing neighborhood-based education programs to ensure that people can be effective at identifying problems and getting them solved.

We need your help! It takes just a couple minutes to report a problem. You can report it to Coastkeeper online at http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper/act/report-a-pollution-incident.html or call our office at 619-758-7743 and leave a detailed message with your phone number. Or you can call City of San Diego Think Blue at 619-235-1000 or the county hotline at (888) 846-080. Together, we can achieve fishable, swimmable, drinkable San Diego waters.

Published in Urban Runoff

Working Together to Tackle San Diego’s #1 Pollution Problem

Urban runoff is San Diego’s #1 pollution problem.  Because San Diego gets rain so infrequently, pollutants build up on the land over time.  When it rains, those pollutants are carried into our storm drains and out to our creeks, rivers, bays and ocean.  This pollution harms water quality, making it unsafe to swim and impacting the health of the wildlife that live in our waters.

Urban runoff is a frustrating pollution problem to tackle because it comes from so many different sources.  But just because it’s a difficult problem to solve doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

In fact, that’s exactly what San Diego Coastkeeper and dozens of other stakeholders from San Diego, Orange and Riverside Counties have been doing for the past month.  Led by the staff at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, stakeholders from all three counties have gathered at three all-day meetings to address urban runoff.

The Regional Board is in the process of re-issuing the municipal stormwater permit required under the Clean Water Act that is the primary mechanism for cities to address stormwater issues.  As part of the permitting process, the Regional Board convened a series of roundtable discussions to discuss how we can best use limited resources to see the biggest water quality improvements.  A limited number of seats were allocated to representatives from cities in each county, environmental stakeholders, business stakeholders, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The meetings are open to the public, and each of the meetings has been attended by approximately 50 people. (Click here for the meeting schedule for the remaining meetings.)

These professionally moderated meetings provide an opportunity for the stakeholders to give feedback to the Regional Board staff about how the permit can allow, and in some cases compel, cities to improve their programs to tackle urban runoff issues.  They also give stakeholders an opportunity to dialogue with eachother to search for common ground and common solutions.

regionalWaterQualityControlBoardThe stakeholder meetings have fostered creative alternative approaches and encouraged stakeholder collaboration outside the formal meetings.  San Diego Coastkeeper has met with representatives from the San Diego regional monitoring workgroup to discuss collaboration and ways to ensure that the data collected by our volunteer water quality monitoring program is used and useful.

We have also begun discussions with the City of Del Mar about how we can adapt our volunteer Pollution Patrol program to collect information that will help curb urban runoff in Del Mar.

As we continue through the process of developing the new stormwater permit, one thing becomes clear: everyone has a role to play in helping reducing pollution and keeping our waters clean.  Over the next few months, as we refine and develop our Pollution Patrollers program, we will be calling for volunteers to step up and be the “eyes and the ears” out around the county looking for pollution problems.  For those who can’t commit to formal patrols, we ask that everyone get informed about what urban runoff looks like and learn how to report problems when you see them in your everyday life.  Our only hope of tackling this pollution problem is if all of us work together.

Published in Urban Runoff

Headless statues, a cross bow and dentures?

P1030007_2-smallAs my first year helping coordinate Coastal Cleanup Day, I have heard a lot of stories about some of the interesting items found during the cleanup. In previous years they have found everything from a port-a-potty to a fencing sword, so I was looking forward to what ‘memorabilia’ this day brought.

Here is a list of some of the most noteworthy:

What were some items you found interesting at Coastal Cleanup Day this year?

Published in Marine Debris