Water Quality 2014: Carlsbad Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

carlsbad water quality 2014

Carlsbad water quality

Water Quality Index Score: 72, Fair

To no surprise, our 2014 data showed that:

  • Nitrate is consistently high in upper Escondido Creek

In fact, four of the five samples with the highest nitrate concentrations collected anywhere in San Diego County this year came from Escondido Creek. Because of this, our volunteers report seeing a lot of algae growth in the water.

We’re not surprised because nitrate always measures high in Escondido Creek, but we’re interested in learning why this consistently happens. Recently, we inquired with the City of Escondido, and representatives say it comes from groundwater and the legacy pollution from the agriculture industry. Thankfully, our longtime volunteer and new board member, Taya Lazootin, is running a research project examining nitrate in Escondido Creek to figure out what’s happening. We’re hoping her final report has more insights into this problem.

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2014: San Luis Rey Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

San Luis Rey water quality 2014

San Luis Rey water quality

Water Quality Index Score: 77, Fair

We tracked two parameters of concern in San Luis Rey Watershed:

  • Turbidity: Two-thirds of the turbidity samples exceeded healthy standards
  • Levels of pH: Over half of the pH samples collected exceeded healthy standards

Spoiler alert: Our volunteers saw the impacts of these poor water quality indicators play out when they reported numerous dead fish along the river’s bank in March and April.

When turbidity exceeds standards it means too many sediments are moving through the waters. We especially care about this in the San Luis River because it has a small tidal wetland where the fresh river water meets the coastal salt water. When the river carries unusually high amounts of sediment, it will deposit into the wetland, building it up and changing the habitat in this critical area. We’ll lose marine habitat because the ratio of salt and fresh waters will change if the salty tides can’t breach the sediment build up. This tidal wetland is an important brackish habitat for species like mullet fish and birds.

We’re not sure what’s raising the pH, and we’d like to research mines or factories in this watershed to understand how they may affect pH levels. We can tell you that it’s unusual for pH to be high, especially in river water. For healthy fresh waters, every river needs a certain window of pH–not too low and not too high. In San Luis Rey, the high levels of pH essentially stress the organisms that live in the river. It can also increase the toxicity of existing pollutants like metals and ammonia.

Unfortunately, our volunteers spotted fish kills in March and April–dead mullet fish that suffered from these exact cycles.

Side story, when we found these fish kills, we worked with the Regional Water Quality Control Board to understand more about what was happening. High nutrient levels in the water right after a rainstorm cause algae growth. During the day, algae pumps out oxygen, and then it reabsorbs it during the night. During our daytime tests, oxygen values were through the roof. When we investigated further, in the middle of the night at 2 a.m., oxygen levels dropped causing oxygen depletion, and dead fish.

Published in Urban Runoff

2014 Annual Report: The Power of One

Written by Megan Baehrens

The most important number to San Diego Coastkeeper is the power of one—you. Every day, we pursue more fishable, swimmable, drinkable water throughout San Diego County. And none of it happens without your passion, dedication and support.

In 2014, our staff of seven brought science, education and advocacy to bear on pressing water issues. Our negotiation, data and education efforts:

  • Convinced the City of San Diego to unanimously approve a plan for Pure Water, a wastewater-recycling project that creates a new local drinking water source and stops polluted discharges to the ocean.
  • Trained our 1,000th water quality monitor and launched a bio assessment program that measures ecosystem health by digging up bugs from rivers.
  • Passed statewide legislation to allow rapid beach water quality tests that will let us know if water is safe to swim in less than four hours instead of 24 hours.
  • Trained 44 teachers and taught 1,140 students with Project SWELL environmental education curriculum, helping them meet new Common Core requirements.
  • Helped San Diegans do their part to address the historic drought by activating mandatory drought restrictions, in part thanks to the 10 legal and policy interns mentored through our Environmental Law & Policy Clinic.

Year in and year out, you are the support and inspiration that keeps us strong. We proudly share with you our 2014 annual report: an infographic that quantifies the “power of one” and an infographic about you and our goals for 2015.

We invite you to count the ways our team, along with you, improved fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters in San Diego County this year. And imagine what we will continue to accomplish, thanks to the power of one.

Happy fishing, swimming and drinking,

Megan-Baehrens liz taylor signature
Megan Baehrens   Liz Taylor
Executive Director  President, Board of Directors


Check out our 2014 Annual Report: Quanifiable


Check out our 2014 Annual Report: Thankable

Project SWELL well equipped to educate future generations on water issues facing San Diego and possible solutions.

swell class projectTeachers 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.

swell class experimentThe 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.

swell student assessmentsJudging 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.

Bioassessment: The bugs tell the story

bugsA Look Back

I grew up in San Carlos and Santee, so Mission Trails Regional Park was practically my backyard. Before the visitor’s center opened in 1995, not many people utilized the park– it felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. I remember just my family and the old lady collecting crawfish with a piece of hotdog on a fishing pole. My dad, my brother, and I would walk down to the San Diego River after a major stormand watch as the river swelled, unleashing a torrent of water past the old dam, which is pretty impressive, if you get a chance.

This month, I headed down to the park to get training for the upcoming bioassessment project. Before I describe the training, let me give you some background.

Some Background on our Monitoring Program

The monitoring program we have run for more than a decade has focused on chemical constituents. We measure nitrate and ammonia concentrations. We measure the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. We measure bacteria concentrations. Measuring stream pollutants is important data, and we use them to compare the stream to regulatory standards. But, this picture of the ecological health of the stream is incomplete. We can say if a stream has pollutant problems, but can’t really say what effects those pollutants have on the stream. 

bioassessmentAt Coastkeeper, we want to round out our monitoring program and add physical and biological integrity measurements to our picture of stream health. We can get a sense of overall watershed health by collecting and analyzing the insects that make the stream their home, as well as noting how intact the physical habitat of the stream is. I am super excited to be adding this component to our program.

Now to the Good Stuff–Bugs and Bioassessment Trainings

Back to the training. Last week we brought  Jim Harrington from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to train our volunteer team leaders. Myself, three of our volunteers, and Shannon Quigley-Raymond, who is a partner of ours at the San Diego River Park, learned the ins and outs collecting insects, assessing their habitat, and running a bioassessment program. This training was hardcore–three full days of learning.

water quality tests

Local environmental consultants joined our training: staff from the San Diego, Los Angeles, and Riverside Water Quality Control Boards; and Fish and Wildlife staff members. This diverse group got me thinking about the value of volunteer-generated water quality data. Here we were getting the same training that the “professionals” get to conduct this work. And these professionals got trained because San Diego Coastkeeper brought the trainer down!

Photographic Evidence

Just look at these photos and see how beautiful San Diego’s water are. These pictures of Mission Trails shows how lush and beautiful our rivers can be if weprotect them properly.

Join the Fun

If you like playing with bugs, getting muddy, and telling the story of our watersheds, keep your eye out for our bioassessment program announcements. We hope to get started in June, and we will need a bunch of help.


Like our monthly water quality monitoring program, this bioassessment work is funded with support from the Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2006 of the State of California.

San Diego Showdown: IPR vs. Purple Pipes

This is the fourth of a 5-part blog series examining the nature of our local water supply and how to increase the reliability of our supplies now and into the future.

Today’s match-up features two contenders, both aimed at solving San Diego’s water crisis.  

In the first corner, the “purple pipe system” is looking to continue its reign in San Diego.  San Diego currently reuses a small fraction of its sewage for irrigation.  This recycled water is distributed through a separate purple pipe system.  Because the water is non-potable, it is not fit for human consumption.

In the second corner, the up-and-coming “Indirect Potable Reuse” (IPR) is looking to solve San Diego’s water problems.  In scientific terms, IPR is a process to treat wastewater and sewage using advanced technology to produce potable water fit for human consumption.  Essentially, we would be drinking purified sewage.  Right now, you are probably cringing at the thought of drinking recycled wastewater; I know I did.  But then I did some research, and I found out that the water produced from IPR is actually superior to our existing water supply.  How is this possible? 

First, advanced water technology removes any remaining solids through microfiltration.  Next, reverse osmosis is used to eliminate viruses, bacteria, pharmaceuticals, and other microbes.  The water is then disinfected by UV light and hydrogen peroxide.  Finally, it is added to groundwater or surface water reservoirs where it is further purified by natural processes.  Once drawn from the groundwater or reservoir, the recycled water goes through the standard water purification process all drinking water undergoes to meet EPA standards.  Once this IPR-produced water is fit for consumption, it is distributed through the existing drinking water infrastructure.  Now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Round 1:  Costs

The cost of producing one acre-foot of water with IPR ranges from $1,200-$1,800.  The purple pipe system ranges from $1,600-$2,600 per acre-foot.  

Purple pipe recycled water cannot be added to the existing drinking water infrastructure, so it requires a separate pipe system which costs about $2 million per mile to build.  It also requires homes and businesses to be plumbed with two sets of pipes—one for recycled water and one for potable water.  This is beginning to sound expensive!  

Although the purification process of IPR sounds expensive, the City of San Diego estimates that implementing IPR would be cheaper than expanding the purple pipe system.  This is because IPR negates the need for a separate water infrastructure and would maximize the use of the available recycled water supply.  

IPR – 1; Purple Pipes – 0

Round 2:  Energy

The energy intensity of the IPR process is higher than that of the recycled water in purple pipes.  Compared to non-potable recycled water, IPR generates a higher carbon footprint.  However, IPR uses significantly less energy than other potential water sources in San Diego, such as desalination or imported water.

IPR – 1; Purple Pipes – 1

Round 3:  Environmental Impact

By using recycled wastewater, IPR reduces the amount of waste flowing to the Point Loma Treatment Plant.  In doing so, IPR reduces the amount of potentially harmful pollutants being released into the ocean from the Point Loma Plant’s effluent.    

Purple pipe recycled water does have some red flags.  Particularly, the use of non-potable recycled water can lead to the accumulation of byproducts over time in the irrigated soil.

IPR – 2; Purple Pipes – 1

Round 4:  Water Quality/Safety

Studies show that water produced through IPR treatment processes contains fewer contaminants than our existing treated imported water supply.  Further, a study performed by the National Research Council concluded that there were no significant health risks as a result of IPR.  
Because the water in the purple pipes is not treated to the point that it is drinkable, it contains pathogens and harmful chemicals. Simply stated, the consequences of ingesting non-potable recycled water can be severe.      

IPR – 3; Purple Pipes – 1

After four hard fought rounds, IPR has dominated the ring, proving that it would be a strong, viable addition to San Diego’s arsenal for fighting the water crisis.  

Still think “from toilet to tap” sounds less than appetizing, or has your mind changed?  Tell us what you think!  

The Toxic Nature of Copper in our Waters

Recent concerns over high levels of dissolved copper in San Diego Bay, likely due in part to leaching from boat hull paints, has led to calls for a new permitting process for in-water hull cleanings. Boat hull paints are designed to limit the accumulation of material on boat hulls, a process known as fouling, which includes growth of diverse species of marine organisms. Copper is a popular active ingredient in boat hull paints because it is toxic to a wide range of organisms that can cause fouling. Increased copper levels in water worldwide has triggered a search for effective non-toxic alternatives to traditional copper-based hull paints, as well as research to unravel the complex ways that copper exposure kills marine organisms.

Copper toxicity is not limited to organisms that find their way to boat hulls — as hull paints wear and dissolve into surrounding water, the toxic properties of copper can conceivably affect most living things present. The broad-spectrum effects of this metal lie mainly in its ability to readily oxidize many molecules. Oxidation is the process during which an atom loses electrons. The process of oxidation is most familiar in the formation of rust, when electrons move from iron in metals into oxygen in the air. Dissolved copper acts similarly to oxygen, but can attract electrons away from important biological molecules like DNA and proteins, sometimes rendering these molecules unfunctional. Excess copper also participates in chemical reactions that produce highly unstable molecules called reactive oxygen species, extremely strong oxidants that can do more direct damage to cell structures than copper alone.

The extent to which unrelated marine organisms are affected by exposure to copper varies and is in part determined by how much copper ends up on the inside of an organism’s cells. Cells of marine organisms are impacted by the chemistry of the surrounding water.  Concentrations of dissolved material in the surrounding ocean, including salts, organic matter, and ions like copper will tend to equilibrate with concentrations of dissolved material inside the cell. Therefore, as water chemistry changes, so does the chemistry of the inside of the cell. Marine organisms can either tolerate these changing internal cellular conditions or actively maintain constant internal cellular conditions, sometimes in opposition to environmental conditions. In addition to oxidative damage, copper has been found to interfere with the regulation of these internal conditions, so organisms that adopt the second strategy are hit with this additional mechanism of toxicity.  Copper can also be acquired from food, so an organism will encounter more copper if its food tends to accumulate the toxin within its cells. Copper toxicity therefore manifests itself in different ways, and a real understanding of its impacts would require individual assessments of all exposed organisms.

Copper toxicity also varies with water chemistry more generally, regardless of a species’ physiology or diet. High concentrations of other dissolved ions can compete with copper for entry into cells, effectively diluting this pollutant, so the same organism exposed to the same amount of copper will feel the effects of copper toxicity more acutely in freshwater than in saltwater. Water chemistry can also affect copper accumulation through differences in the presence of dissolved organic matter, such as degradation products of dead organisms, which form complexes with copper and block it from entry into living cells.

Historical accounts suggest that Phoenicians and Carthaginians may have used copper to treat ship hulls as long ago as 1000 BC. Our ancient predecessors understood that copper could be used as a biocide, and we are only now beginning to understand why. As use of copper in hull paints has become practically ubiquitous, we are now challenged with correcting the consequences of centuries of this practice.

Kelley Gallagher is a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a Water Quality Monitoring Volunteer for San Diego Coastkeeper. This is one out of several blogs Kelley will write to help us understand the science of water pollution in our region in an easy-to-comprehend way.

References and further reading:
1. Grosell M, Blanchard J, Brix KV, Gerdes R: Physiology is pivotal for interactions between salinity and acute copper toxicity to fish and invertebrates. Aquatic Toxicology 2007, 84:162-172.
2. Main WPL, Ross C, Bielmyer GK: Copper accumulation and oxidative stress in the sea anemone, Aiptasia pallida, after waterborne copper exposure. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part C Toxicology & Pharmacology 2010, 151:216-221.
3. Viant MR, Walton JH, TenBrook PL, Tjeerdema RS: Sublethal actions of copper in abalone (Haliotis rufescens) as characterized by in vivo P-31 NMR. Aquatic Toxicology 2002, 57:139-151.
4. Pinto E, Sigaud-Kutner TCS, Leitao MAS, Okamoto OK, Morse D, Colepicolo P: Heavy metal-induced oxidative stress in algae. Journal of Phycology 2003, 39:1008-1018.
5. WHOI. 1952a. History of fouling prevention. In Marine fouling and its prevention. Prepared for Bureau of Ships, Navy Department by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Woods Hole, MA. United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, MD

Reconnecting to healthy waters: an uphill battle



I remember the first time I saw water flowing uphill – no, this was not an optical illusion like Magnetic Hill. it was in fact one of the many conduits of the State Water Project, snaking its way hundreds of miles from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California. I had been driving dusty roads out of Bakersfield west towards the coast after a backpacking trip. Of course, I had read about the massive canals and pipes that pushed melted snowpack from the Sierra mountains to Southern California; I had seen the figures of how much energy (average net use, 5.1 Billion kWh) it takes to pump that water over those mountains, among other things.

But I had to actually see the size of the pipes and how far uphill they had to move water, defying gravity every step of the way, before I could really fathom how crazy, fantastic and scary the California water supply really is.

With these concrete behemoths at the back of my mind, I was not that surprised to read that globally, water security and freshwater biodiversity are critically threatened. A recent report in Nature co-led by Peter McIntyre and Charles Vörösmarty analyzed simultaneously the effects of multiple stressors like pollution, dam building, agricultural runoff, wetland loss and introduced species on the health of the world’s freshwater systems. While some aspects of what they determined are not surprising (wherever there are too many people, watersheds get degraded; in developing nations, access to safe water is tenuous at best) – one finding was particularly striking to me: that even in highly developed nations like the U.S., water security and biodiversity were deemed to be highly threatened. It is only reliance on massive technological solutions – like California’s water infrastructure – that holds our water security in place. To people reading the thoughts and insights about water on Blog Action Day, the conclusions drawn by McIntyre and Vörösmarty will likely hit home – we need to rethink how we manage water.

Consider this – that for everything it gives (drinking water on demand, emerald lawns, swimming pools, playing fields; generally, our high quality of life), California’s vast water infrastructure takes away as well. Our reliance on imported water helps us to disconnect from problems in our local waters – polluted runoff, channelization, habitat destruction – we don’t think too much about our local creeks and rivers because we don’t have to.

At San Diego Coastkeeper, we are working to turn the tide on that disconnect. By doing things like training local residents to go out into their watersheds and monitor water quality and getting people out into their creeks and beaches to clean them up we are working to help people understand the true value of water.

The Conversion Process


“Brother, have you seen the light?”

I’m not an evangelist by trade, but I often imagine sharing this question with fellow watermen in the surfing tribe. The question is not religious, but does inquire if a waterman (or waterwoman) has reached the level of consciousness where he sees the connection between the land and sea; where he works and where he plays; where man has conquered his surroundings and where the assault is still underway; where his dwelling is and where his soul longs to be.

Some may never see it, but I am hopeful most will come to understand the ocean playground they enjoy is not immune from the actions of an urban society. And more hopeful that this epiphany will spur a waterman to doing something to protect and preserve the ocean resource that provides so much for him; a resource that is part of his identity.   

I saw the light in the spring of 1993. I was surfing Dog Beach at the San Diego River outlet a couple of days after it rained. It was my first and most memorable lesson in polluted runoff and “dose – response health effects” as they are called in epidemiology. I barely made it back to my apartment after work that night before falling to gastro-intestinal ruin for two days. Unfortunately, this is often the conversion process for many watermen following a session in waves of suspicious microbial quality.

For the brothers (and sisters) who have seen the light, you cannot go back to sleep. For your sake and the ocean’s, it is time to share the good word of pollution prevention. You can start with these eight easy steps to prevent pollution in your own life.

Published in Urban Runoff