We have laws in place to limit industrial pollution and ensure that our water can support all of its uses, from swimming and fishing to hosting endangered wildlife. But without enforcement, these regulations cannot keep our water healthy. That’s where San Diego Coastkeeper comes in.
Urban runoff is the single biggest threat to water quality in San Diego. During the dry season, pollutants build up on hard surfaces like roads and parking lots. When it rains, stormwater pushes the accumulated pollutants into our storm drains. In San Diego, like most of California, our storm drains generally do not connect to wastewater treatment plants, so everything flows untreated into our waters. Pollutants created by industries, like metals and oils, are especially serious because they can be toxic in very low concentrations.
The Clean Water Act is a federal law that lays out the legal requirement for protecting, maintaining and improving the health of our water bodies. It is our most powerful tool for making sure San Diego’s water is healthy because it mandates that all states identify creeks, rivers and shorelines that are severely impaired by pollution.
Unfortunately, state and local regulators often don’t review water quality reports or conduct monitoring to make sure that industries are meeting Clean Water Act standards. San Diego Coastkeeper steps up to make sure that industries are doing everything they can to reduce pollution to our rivers and beaches. We review water quality reports, but that’s only the first step.
San Diego’s local government agencies have limited resources and they monitor infrequently, providing only a snapshot of water quality. To solve this problem, San Diego Coastkeeper also conducts our own monitoring to ensure compliance of clean water rules. We collect and analyze water samples from nine out of 11 watersheds in San Diego County every month. To ensure that our data meets the highest quality standards possible, Coastkeeper follows a rigorous quality assurance and control plan and standard operating procedures that have been approved by our state regulatory agencies. Sounds like a big job, right? That’s why we train over 100 volunteers each year and rely on them to help.
When we find polluting facilities, we use the Clean Water Act to bring them into compliance through enforcement actions. Our goal is to force industry operators to install and use best management practices that will meaningfully reduce pollutants in our waterways.
Want to see what kind of report card your local watershed is getting? Click here to explore a map of the most recent data we have for locations from Otay to Carlsbad.
We may not think about it every day, but we all live in a watershed. A watershed is the area of land that catches all the rain and snow, which collects into a marsh, stream, river, lake or groundwater. What we do on the land affects the quality of water for all communities living downstream. So what does this mean? It means our rivers and streams are the report card for a watershed’s health.
San Diego Coastkeeper has been monitoring local waterways since 2000. We assess watershed health on a monthly basis by measuring nutrients, bacteria, and basic water chemistry (temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, etc). We monitor fixed sites in nine of San Diego County’s eleven coastal draining watersheds and use our data to assign water quality scores to each of our sites and annual watershed health reports. Most importantly (perhaps) is that we share these scores with the public by updating water quality information monthly on our website.
San Diego Coastkeeper is the only countywide, routine water quality monitoring program in San Diego, and we’re the largest volunteer-led effort of its kind in the state. We train over 100 volunteers each year to collect water quality data, and by analyzing the data that volunteers collect, we identify polluted waters and reduce sources of pollution.
We’ve learned a thing or two after 16 years of monitoring San Diego County’s water quality. These are our top five lessons learned.
4.) Nitrates are especially high in Escondido Creek.
At high levels, nitrates can be toxic to animals and humans. The best way you can prevent nitrate pollution in our waters is to limit the use of chemical fertilizers in your yard, or better yet rip up your grass and plant native plants that don’t need fertilizers.
3.) Bacteria levels are really high after a rain event.
Here are ten tactics to keep bacteria out of our waters by preventing polluted runoff.
2.) Drought affects water quality, not just quality.
Ambient measurements help us determine when poor water quality is harming the flora and fauna of our waters.
1.) We could not do this without our extraordinary volunteers.
Each month, 40 – 45 San Diego residents volunteer their Saturday to collect field samples and process them in the lab. During 2014 alone, 194 volunteers gave a total of 1,888 hours.
In 2014: Looks like San Diego’s drought affects more than water quantity—and we have the data to show it.
We proudly announce the results of our 2014 Water Quality Monitoring efforts, and a few key takeaways from this year’s data. One of the most striking trends we see is that our third consecutive year of drought (7.77′ total rainfall in 2014 compared to the 10.34″ average) has likely contributed to inland water quality issues.
One issue likely related to drought conditions that our 2014 data revealed is low dissolved oxygen concentrations. Turns out that 30 percent of our inland water quality samples that we gathered from across the county measured below healthy levels. Sadly, when dissolved oxygen measurements reach levels this low, aquatic life dies. In April 2014, we even ran across a fish kill in San Luis Rey from just this.
Another trend related to low water levels that shows in our 2014 numbers is that fecal indicator bacteria levels (especially Enterococcus) were a concern across all watersheds. Of our samples in 2014, 57 percent of the Enterococcus samples exceeded healthy standards, and eight of nine watersheds scored marginal or poor for their E. coli scores.
What does this mean?
Enterococcus indicates whether water conditions are safe to swim, most commonly used to measure healthy conditions of salt water. Since all of our inland waterways empty to the ocean, it’s not a good sign that we’re measuring so much Enterococcus in our fresh waters. If you don’t know, this means that the water has pollutants in it that can cause staph infection, ear aches, stomach issues, rashes, eye infections, cysts, and others—just to name a few.
To be accurate, there can always be an amount of Enterococcus in our water due to natural causes (aka bird poo), and those may not cause human health impacts. But the levels in our data are so high, we have major concerns. To illustrate the degree to which this is a problem, our December sampling event took place on the day after a heavy rain, and every single sample collected far exceeded healthy levels acceptable for Enterococcus and E. coli. This is why the County’s Department of Environmental Health closes the beaches countywide after it rains–water quality is extremely poor.
These sort of data sets also raise a question that we can’t answer: Is the drought reducing water levels so much that shallow, slow-moving and warm streams create a breeding ground for Enterococcus and E. coli? More so than any other recent year, a lot of our sites even dried up in 2014 so that we couldn’t gather samples. But given our analysis and the increase in water quality impacts shown by fecal indicator bacteria, we’re curious to explore this question. Unfortunately, the data that we collect can’t help us answer this question.
As you can see in the countywide map, Water Quality Index Scores grouped the map’s color-coding into three sections: fair scores in the north, marginal in the middle and poor in the south. We’re not surprised to see this as we think that these groupings of scores relate to the various land-use types and density of development within the watersheds. The north has more open space and agriculture, the middle has more density and developed land area and the south struggles with cross-border water quality management challenges.
We encourage you to click through to each of our nine watersheds to learn more about water quality scores unique to each. This year, San Diego’s coastal watersheds ranged from fair to poor according to our Water Quality Index scoring system.
- Two watersheds scored lower than they did in 2013 (Los Peñasquitos and San Diego—they were good last year)
- One watershed improved its score from 2013, going from Marginal to Fair (Carlsbad)
We’re thankful for our 194 volunteers who gave a total of 1,888 hours. And we’re encouraged by our 83 newly trained volunteers from 2014.
What watershed do you live on? Find out and click the watersheds below:
Water Quality Index Score: 12, Poor
Let’s acknowledge that we only gathered one sample from the Tijuana Watershed in 2014. Thankfully, the Tijuana-based sewage treatment plant handles and purifies 50 million gallons of river water every day, but it can’t handle wet weather flows. So, when it rains, the operators divert the river flow without treatment, and that’s when we can sample the river. This is also why Imperial Beach beaches are frequently closed during the winter.
Our only sample in 2014 follows a massive rain event in December. That sample showed:
- Bacteria levels were extremely high – even diluting the sample 100 fold, the concentrations were still higher than our test kits can measure
- Ammonia, nitrate, and phosphorus levels were off the charts
- Volunteers had to sludge through very sticky, smelly mud to collect the water samples – thanks!
This watershed presents a lot of cross-border collaboration and love to truly understand and solve the interconnected water quality issues. We’re looking for passionate volunteers to get trained in water quality monitoring so they can champion efforts in this challenging watershed. What are you waiting for? Sign up to get trained!
Water Quality Index Score: 53, Marginal
If we’re going to call Los Penasquitos the average watershed example of San Diego County, we’re going to call Otay Watershed the most consistent watershed in the county. Its consistently high numbers showed:
- Consistently high bacteria levels – Every sample collected exceeded healthy standards for Enterococcus.
- Consistently high Nitrate levels – almost every sample exceeded standards
This also means that this wasteshed runs consistent with our theory that the region’s drought has affected water quality in addition to water quantify. At no point in 2014 did the data from Otay Watershed put it into healthy ranges for fecal indicator bacteria or nitrates. But, consistent with all the watershed scores in December, Otay Watershed’s scores did worsen after the rain event.
We loved hearing that our volunteers in this watershed also consistently spotted dragonflies, crawfish, and herons while sampling.
Water Quality Index Score: 62, Marginal
Our data in Sweetwater Watershed showed:
Again, another watershed indicative of extremely low water flows creating high nutrient levels and low oxygen levels — so low that the river is near depleted of oxygen for many of the summer months.
Why should we care? Our volunteers also spot turtles in this watershed, which depend on the river for their livelihood.
Water Quality Index Score: 64, Marginal
A few key takeaways from our Pueblo Watershed data:
- Chollas River sites often had very high phosphorus and ammonia
- Volunteers found and removed lots of trash from our sampling sites in this watershed
As this watershed is home to Chollas Creek, one of San Diego’s most urban rivers, these results aren’t unexpected. This creek is infamous for drying up, also, so our dataset is missing many samples throughout the year. In fact, more sites went dry this year than any other year in Coastkeeper’s recent sampling history here.
We think all signs point toward poorer water quality than shown with the samples that we could collect, and we wonder with more flow would the Water Quality Index Score have returned a Poor rating?
The high phosphorus and ammonia results belong in the nutrient category, which is common in urban areas with regular use of fertilizers and pesticides on outdoor spaces. An extreme example of this sort of pollution occurred in November, when our volunteer team encountered very black water with a foul odor .
That water sample exceeded healthy standards for nitrate, ammonia, phosphorus, and both types of fecal indicator bacteria. It’s dissolved oxygen was also extremely low. At first, we thought the black water could have been sewage, but an inspector from the city ensured no sewage lines travel to that location. Turns out, it was just really bad water quality. Our guess? Rotting organic matter or some other industrial waste. As indicated in so many of the other watershed data, the low flows and higher-than-normal water temperatures turned Cholla Creek into the perfect breeding ground for rotting vegetation.
Water Quality Index Score: 62, Marginal
2014 was not a good year for the San Diego River. It dropped two levels on our Water Quality Index score, moving from Good in 2013 to Marginal in 2014, and giving it the dubious honors of being the only watershed to get worse. Key data takeaways include:
- Commonly high levels of phosphorus and ammonia
- Extremely low levels of dissolved oxygen more often than not
- Repeated reports from our volunteers noting excessive amounts of algae and duckweed
This is an excellent example to demonstrate how the region’s historic drought conditions impacted water quality in our inland waters last year. I grew up playing in the water at the old mission dam, which has one of our sampling sites nearby, and I can’t recall the water levels ever reaching the lows that we saw this year
All three bullet points in the San Diego Watershed data relate to one another and differently demonstrate high amounts of nutrients in the river. To say the least, this river is out of balance.
High nutrient levels, which often start as fertilizers on our lawns and gardens, cause algae and duckweed growth, which ultimately deplete oxygen levels and kill marine life. We think the low water levels contributed to slower flows and warmer waters, creating the perfect breeding ground for explosive algae growth in the San Diego River. And greatly impacting water quality.
Water Quality Index Score: 76, Fair
Well, here it is: the most typical, average watershed in San Diego County in terms of water quality pollution and health. Our data in this watershed did not change dramatically from the year previous, nor did it produce any intriguing results this year.
The end point for this watershed, the Los Penasquitos Lagoon, has an official “pollution diet” in place for sediment, which means it’s a known problem here. We continue to monitor this closely.
Water Quality Index Score: 76, Fair
Our data in San Dieguito Watershed show:
- Ammonia, phosphorus, and turbidity measuring at marginal on our Water Quality Index Scores
Ammonia and phosphorus are nutrients. In the farm or garden, people add nutrients to encourage robust and healthy plant growth. In the water, however, nutrients are rarely beneficial. Too many nutrients can cause algae to grow out of control, which will blanket the stream and bank with unsightly algae. These mats of algae ultimately lead to oxygen depletion that kill the aquatic life.
This is a huge concern for this waterway because our volunteers spotted lots of wildlife including birds, fish, turtles, clams, crawfish and insects.
The unhealthy levels of turbidity point to excessive sedimentation in the San Dieguito River. The river empties to the San Dieguito lagoon, which is sensitive to this sort of pollution because the river brings sediment into the east side of the lagoon and the Del Mar Racetrack and associated parking lots impact sediment flows on west side.