San Diego Coastkeeper member, Water Quality Monitor, and beach cleanup host extraordinaire Amanda Sousa is a water lover in the truest sense. When she sailed from Ensenada to Oahu, Amanda experienced just how wondrously huge our ocean is and how quickly we become small in its presence. And yet, despite all this vastness, there was one persistent and unwelcome visitor from which Amanda could not escape. In her own words, Amanda describes how these constant encounters impacted her.
I recently had the opportunity to crew on a passage from Ensenada, Mexico to Oahu, Hawaii on a 44-ft Leopard Catamaran owned by my dad’s friends, Ian Steele and Sharon Lockhart. I jumped at the opportunity to do some blue water sailing; to hop on the trade winds, experience falling seas, sail wing on wing and live the adventure. On the water, I was absolutely struck by the sheer grandeur of the ocean, I felt so small compared to its vastness.
Day after day there was no sight of land, and yet day after day I saw plastic. We did not chart a course into the Northern Pacific Gyre and were not looking for plastic, but there it was every single day. Over 19 days of different wind speeds, different currents and small swells to large swells, it was always there.
The plastic came in all different sizes from small fragments to ghost nets tangled in a large blob. There was plastic that looked as if it just blown in the water from my home in Pacific Beach, plastic that looked as if it made its way overboard and plastic that had been floating for what looked like years. I started to feel that the ocean was a whole lot smaller.
It pains me that the beautiful ocean, in all it’s splendor, has been so polluted by our trash. This plastic did not fall from the sky and there is no excuse for it being 1,200 miles from shore other than the disregard of our impact to this world.
The damage that has been done is so pervasive and ubiquitous. It was heartbreaking to witness right in front of my eyes. In the deepest parts of my heart I love the oceans, the streams, the lakes and the rivers; I love the animals that live and depend on these water bodies (including all of us); I love the plants that bloom and creep in these places. This passage has reinforced my love of the beauty of the ocean and has also strengthened my conviction that we need to realize our impact. We must take active steps to eliminate this ubiquitous plastic from our lives, our world and our wild places.
I am a clean water advocate, I am a volunteer and I am a supporter of San Diego Coastkeeper. Collectively, we need to put more energy toward our most precious resource. Now more than ever, we need to take a hard look inside and decide what we want in this world. I have decided I want fishable, swimmable, drinkable water; I want wild places; I want the ocean to be just blue; I want to be small in the ocean again.
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.
Project SWELL well equipped to educate future generations on water issues facing San Diego and possible solutions.
Teachers have a great impact on the attitudes students have towards their class subjects and subsequently have the opportunity to cultivate an appreciation for San Diego Waterways. With the assistance of Think Blue and San Diego Coastkeeper’s Project SWELL curriculum, it has never been easier to instill a sense of environmental responsibility and awareness in San Diego youth.
The environmental education made accessible by Project SWELL, online and through classroom presentations to all San Diego Unified School District teachers, enhances current science curricula to better address pressing environmental issues related to local waterways. The Project SWELL lesson plans help teachers meet new Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards as well as raise awareness of issues that impact the San Diego environment and actions that students can take to improve and sustain it.
For the first time ever, due to the generous donations from Stiefel/Behner Charitable Fund, Project SWELL offers a choice of classroom demonstrations. These demonstrations give students access to hands-on experiments and models that promote critical thinking in determining solutions for pollution problems in San Diego. Classroom visits also allow the teachers to learn the SWELL material in order to continue implementing in classrooms with the SWELL kit and PowerPoint presentations given to the teachers. The classroom visits consist of various lesson topics and are designed with grade levels in mind.
There are various subjects, each tailored to specific class levels. The topics include lessons about identifying a marine animals’ habitat, storm drain pollution, what types of pollution are found in San Diego waterways and San Diego watersheds, water sources, and conservation. Not only do these lessons teach students about the issues San Diego faces, but the curriculum also incorporates material on how students can personally contribute to alleviating the issue.
Judging by the pre-assessments and post assessment student results given at a variety of San Diego Unified District schools from September 2014 to December 2014, it is evident that Project SWELL lesson plans enhance students’ understanding of the connection between their actions and the natural environment.
Pre-assessments are given prior to the lesson plan and assess the knowledge on the presentation topics that students have preceding the lesson. The results demonstrate that many San Diego youth have a basic understanding on how their actions may affect the local waterways, as well as possible ways they can personally improve it. The post assessments indicate that Project SWELL deepens the students’ understanding about San Diego water supply, water conservation, and pollution problems.
The curriculum supplied by Project SWELL also helps teachers build their own environmental knowledge and teaching skills. We hope the skills and knowledge acquired from the curriculum will be a lifelong lesson for our students and teachers. We are confident that the Project SWELL lessons will motivate these individuals to inspire others to care about our most precious resource, water.
Wetlands are the superheroes of ecosystems. They may look like patches of mud and grass, but they’re saving San Diego one tidal flow at a time.
In addition, they help regulate climate, store surface water, control pollution, absorb fertilizers, protect shorelines, maintain natural communities of plants and animals, serve as critical nursery areas, and provide opportunities for education and recreation.
Every December, January and February, in particular, they hold back some of the ocean’s toughest tides. It’s during these months that we have some of the highest tides of the year, AKA king tides. The average king tide is 5 – 8 inches higher than the average high tide. That might not seem like a lot until you see the Ocean Beach Pier get completely swamped by massive waves. But king tides also affect our coastline infrastructure, and it’s our wetlands that soak king tides like a sponge. In fact, without the wetlands, San Diego’s infrastructure would be more at risk during every king tide.
Wetlands save the day year after year.
But here’s the problem: 90% of California’s wetlands have been lost to development. And king tides are just a taste of future high tides. By 2050, rising sea levels are predicted to make everyday ocean water levels 12-18 inches higher than today’s tides. That’s an everyday tide that’s more than double the height of our highest tides. And we’re continuing to develop the wetlands, making our coastline less and less resilient to the impending sea level rise.
The California Climate Change Center predicts nearly 140 schools, 34 police and fire stations and 350,000 miles of road are at risk in California from rising sea levels and development of wetlands. It estimates that nearly $100 billion (in year 2000 dollars) worth of property is at risk of flooding from a 100-year event.
But don’t take my written word for it.
Watch this time-lapse video showing the extreme high and low tides during king tides at Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh at Campland on the Bay. I think it’ll amaze you with how much water our wetlands absorb and also help you visualize why we must protect our remaining wetlands in San Diego.
Want to see this for yourself? Check out any of the remaining wetlands in San Diego County to watch nature’s sponge in action:
- Tijuana River Valley
- San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge Complex
- San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge
- Paradise Point
- San Diego River Estuary
- Famosa Slough
- Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh
- Los Penasquitos Lagoon
- San Dieguito Lagoon
- San Elijo Lagoon
- Batiquitos Lagoon
- San Luis Rey Estuary
How is San Diego’s water supply connected to other locations throughout our region? This blog, written by PhD Candidate Alida Cantor, looks at a particular connection: birds at the Salton Sea.
A quick background
The Colorado River supplies over half of San Diego’s water. The Colorado also supplies water for many other users– 25 million people and 3.5 million acres of farmland throughout the entire Colorado River basin. The river is known as one of the most controlled and over-allocated waterways in the world.
In 2003, an agreement (the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA) was negotiated with the goal of limiting California’s over-reliance on Colorado River supplies. The agreement transfers water from farms in Imperial Valley to urban users in San Diego. This means a more secure water supply for urban water users in San Diego, but could have negative impacts for others throughout the broader region — including birds.
Birds at the Salton Sea
The Salton Sea, the largest lake in California, is a 400-square-mile salty lake in Imperial and Riverside Counties. Its water comes primarily from agricultural runoff—which means that taking water away from farms means less water flowing into the Salton Sea. This is very worrisome for many reasons, one of which is potential impacts on bird habitat. Less water means receding shorelines and increased salinity, which hurt bird habitat.
The Salton Sea hosts a lot of different types of birds– around 400 different species. This includes several endangered and sensitive species, such as the Yuma Clapper Rail. The Salton Sea supports about 40 percent of the entire endangered Yuma Clapper Rail population so this bird is considered very vulnerable to habitat decline at the Salton Sea.
Other birds at the Salton Sea include eared grebes, cormorants, yellow-footed gulls, and white and brown pelicans. Brown pelicans were once endangered, but their populations have rebounded since the banning of the DDT pesticide. White pelicans are not endangered but a large percentage of them- 30 percent- nest at the Salton Sea. More birds of concern at the Salton Sea include mountain plovers, burrowing owls, and black skimmers, to name a few.
As wetlands throughout the broader region have diminished due to development (about 90 percent of wetlands in California have been lost over the last hundred years), the importance of the Salton Sea as habitat for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway has grown. Although the Salton Sea experienced large-scale bird die-offs during the 1990s due to avian botulism and other diseases spread by having so many birds in one place, it remains a very important habitat, and every year millions of migrating birds rely upon the Salton Sea as a stopover to rest and fuel up along their journey.
Thinking about what San Diego’s water system means for birds at the Salton Sea shows how we are connected via our water supply to other locations and species throughout the region. The story of our water doesn’t start or end when we turn on the tap.
Do you ever wonder where your water in San Diego comes from? Do you know what type of impact that has on our environment or how much energy it uses? Watch San Diego Coastkeeper’s video on the water supply in San Diego to learn more. Then visit us at http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper.
When I look at this photo, I see a wave I would normally kill to ride- with the exception of the surrounding wall of trash. I instantly visualize an ocean littered with garbage, paddling through oil and debris during my sunset surf. The amazing feeling I normally get just wouldn’t be the same if I had to dodge water bottles and was paranoid about swallowing the contaminated water.
Trash surrounds us everywhere we go on land. Between all the street litter, garbage days, overflowing trash cans and street sweeping, isn’t the water the one place we can get away from it all?
It is, but at a cost. According to the L.A. Times, San Diego spends close to $14 million annually on coastal cleanup efforts. Can’t you think of about 14 million ways this money could be used better? Yes, I want my waters to be clean so I can swim, surf and snorkel, but why do we have to spend so much money cleaning them up when we can simply prevent the problem in the first place?
One of the biggest inhibitors to keeping our waters clean is urban runoff. This is the water that runs through populated, man-made areas and picks up oil, grease, pesticides, metals and other toxic chemicals as it trickles directly into our water bodies. This not only makes our waters gross, but also harms the marine wildlife.
To do its part in cleaning up the community, San Diego Coastkeeper and Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter get together and host regular beach cleanups throughout the county. In 2012, 4,308 volunteers removed almost 8,000 pounds of trash from San Diego beaches. And still residents pay for regular trash control from the city. Houston, we have a serious problem.
As a self-proclaimed water-lover (as I imagine most San Diegans are), I make a point to be aware of how my actions on land effect the waters I treasure and I think others should do the same. To do your part in keeping our ocean, bay and streams pollution-free, please check out some pollution prevention tips. We may live mostly on land, but we need the sea. I can’t imagine a life of polluted waters and trash littered barrels, and I will do whatever it takes to keep that photo from becoming a reality in San Diego.
Memorial Day is fast approaching and on Memorial Day weekend, we will have an influx of trash on our beaches. Here is a list of ten things you can do to reduce the amount of trash during Memorial Day weekend:
- Stay away from plastic bags! Instead of using plastic bags to bring your snacks, use reusable bags and containers.
- Bring a trash bag with you to make sure you throw everything away; that way trash won’t be buried in the sand throughout the day or left when you leave.
- If you are walking along the beach and see trash or cans/bottles, safely pick them up and throw them away.
- Make a game with your friends and family on who can gather the most cans. Whoever wins, gets to keep the money when you cash them in!
- Switch over to reusable water bottles, instead of single-use plastic bottles (this can make a huge difference each day).
- Instead of making this weekend focused around eating and drinking, make it about socializing and physical activity. Play some Frisbee!
- If you are allowed to have bonfires at the beach, refrain from burning your trash, especially plastics. Also, make sure the fire is fully out before you leave.
- If you have pets, pick up after them, so nobody will experience stepping in something other than sand.
- Don’t smoke! Cigarette butts are the leading pollutant on our beaches and there are many negative effects that come from the cigarettes in our water. If you have the urge to smoke, be sure to dispose of the entire cigarette butt appropriately.
- Encourage others you know to use these tips and to do their part in keeping our beaches clean this Memorial Day weekend.
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.
A few years ago, the city spent millions on building the City of San Diego Coastal Low Flow Diversion Program. However, the system only works if the City properly maintains it.
During the dry season, low flow street runoff is supposed to be diverted into the sewer system, rather than the storm drains. This keeps what could be polluted water off of our beaches and out of our oceans.
When these drains are clogged, the runoff instead goes straight into the stormwater drains, rather than the sewer. And guess where it ends up.
Yep, the ocean.
A concerned La Jolla citizen emailed us to let us know about a problem with some of these drains. They were almost completely clogged with sand, mud and even some plants. He told us that he saw runoff running onto the beach nearly every morning, and sent pictures showing how bad the problem was.
What’s the point of spending millions of dollars on a system that doesn’t work as planned due to lack of maintenence?
We informed the San Diego Transportation and Stormwater Department, and they quickly sent a crew out to clean up the mess. They were appreciative that the issue was brought to their attention. It’s nice to see a swift response from a government agency.
Issues like this can only be cleared up with cooperation from San Diegans and appropriate government agencies. It’s Coastkeeper’s job to make sure we connect problems with problem solvers, and in this case you can see the result. Pictures show both the before clogged drains, and the after cleared drains.
If this La Jolla resident had never informed us of this issue, runoff could’ve been flowing onto our beaches and entering our oceans for a very long time. Instead, he sent us a quick email, and, at least in this spot, the beaches will remain runoff free.
If you ever see any sort of issue you believe needs addressing, please contact Coastkeeper through our Report Pollution Hotline.
Below, you can see the clogged drains before Coastkeeper was alerted to the problem:
And here, you can see the drains are completely clear of crud after we were told about the issue: