This is part 4 of a 5 part series of results from our water monitoring lab. This post was written by the folks over at Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Chapter. If you haven’t read our watershed report, head over here and check it out. In this fourth part, we are going to take a look at the Tijuana River Valley.
The Tijuana River Valley has a decades-long history of water quality issues. Significant improvements in the arena of wastewater treatment in recent years have improved water quality on both sides of the border. However, storm water continues to bring substantial amounts of sediment and trash and other contaminants into the Valley from sources in both the United States and Mexico. The sediment and trash pollutants cause water quality impairments, threaten life and property from flooding, degrade valuable riparian and estuarine habitats and impact recreational opportunities for residents and visitors.
In 2008, the Surfrider Foundation, San Diego chapter started the No Border sewage Campaign. Through No Border Sewage, we have raised awareness, outreach and education of this incredibly overwhelming problem. Additionally, a network has formed of like-minded organizations. Through this network, consensus and collaboration has been built to address the conservation and restoration of the entire Tijuana River Watershed.
The Tijuna Watershed is 1,739 square-miles, with one quarter in the US and three quarters in Mexico. The city of Tijuana is on average about 300 feet higher than Imperial Beach. During the wet winter season, rain picks up pollutants as it washes across dirt roads, streets and urban canyons in the outskirts of Tijuana. In these canyons, tens of thousands live in ramshackle villages called Colonia’s. Population in Tijuana grows every day. In 1980, there were 500,000 people, and in 2013, it is projected there will be more than 2,500,000, much of whom are not hooked up to sewer lines. Population explosion is fueled by jobs at the maquiladora plants, which thrived after the US ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement. This explosive growth causes signifigant pollution. For example, rain from a December 17, 2008 storm caused the river to spew an estimated 3 billion gallons of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean in one 24-hour period.
Surfrider has been involved with the border sewage issue for over a decade, fighting to avoid the negative environmental impacts and public health risks of discharging any raw sewage and debris directly into the ocean. One of the main goals of Surfrider’s No Border Sewage Campaign is to eliminate border sewage, pollution, solid waste, chemicals and sediment that flows across the Tijuana River during rain events. These pollutants are emptied into the ocean during dry events and close the beaches in Imperial Beach for half the year.
Imperial Beach has a rich and thriving surf culture and has contributed greatly to the history and roots of surfing in San Diego. The Tijuana Sloughs (pronounced slew) is a world class big wave break that was a gold standard for heavy-water surfing in Southern California beginning in the late 1930s. The pioneer wave riders of the Sloughs include local IB Lifeguard legend, Alan “Dempsey” Holder, Peter Cole, Kimble Daun and Ron “Canoe” Drummond. Today the massive and imposing waves still break on a serious Northwest swell but go largely un-ridden because the Sloughs act as the unloading dock for the Tijuana River, receiving some of the most repulsive water this earth has wrought. The solution can be achieved if the U.S. works with Mexico rather than pointing blame at Mexico.
As part of our commitment to improve coastal water quality in the border region, Surfrider is committed to working with other environmental organizations to operate as a strong united front whenever possible. Volunteers from Surfrider Foundation Blue Water Task Force have been heavily involved in volunteer activities in the Tijuana River Valley. Through a key partnership with San Diego Coastkeeper, No Border Sewage volunteers have tracked source point pollution during dry and wet weather events. On a monthly basis, volunteers hike out to three different locations within the Tijuana River Valley and Estuary and take water samples that are backed by state-approved quality control standards. During the winter season, we collect samples from Dairy Mart Road Bridge, which is the first natural filter for the trash, sediment and sewage that flows across the border. Volunteers literally walk through piles of plastic, Styrofoam, tires and trash sometimes as high as 10 feet to get to the shore line and take the samples. The mud is largely comprised of sediment which also poses as a danger when walking through it. It is almost as if you are sinking in quicksand. Other sampling site sites include the Hollister Street Bridge and Saturn Road, which are next to Suzy’s Farm. These locations are heavily flooded during rain events due to the hydrology of the River Valley and lifeguard rescues are a common occurrence.
During the summer season, volunteers hike out to three locations within the Tijuana Estuary that are further west than the winter season locations. The first stop is the Visitor Center Bridge. On any given day, you see a variety of birds, and if you are lucky a glimpse of an endangered clapper rail foraging in the pickle weed. Peregrine falcons, Snowy Egrets and Blue Herons also frequent overhead as you collect your water samples. From there, we hike out to the Grove Avenue Bridge and the Oneonta Slough River mouth. The river mouth is about a four mile hike and is breathtaking. The smell of saltwater, breathtaking views of the iconic Bullring and Lighthouse to the south in Mexico and the beautiful downtown San Diego skyline to the north make this trip a memorable one each and every time. The trail that leads to the Slough River mouth is named after Dr. Mike McCoy, who spearheaded the 10-year effort to save the estuary from a proposed marina created by dredging the Tijuana Estuary. He recognized the importance of preserving it and its wildlife as one of the last intact salt marsh ecosystems in Southern California.
It starts like a bad joke—a lawyer, a scientist and writer walk into a room.
But that’s where it turns good. They put their heads together, strategically align their communications with their programs, and they win awards.
Last week, Public Relations Society of America San Diego and Imperial Counties honored San Diego Coastkeeper with two awards for our communications.
Our team won a Bronze Edward L Bernays Award of Excellence for our blog and a Silver Edward L Bernays Award for our crisis communication response to last year’s sewage spill. Both are the top honors in each category.
That’s no joke.
Along with Yana Titova, a long-term communications volunteer who coordinated so much of the work that lead to these awards, I attended the evening event packed full of the region’s most talented public relations agencies and in-house teams from organizations like the San Diego County Water Authority and City of San Diego.
Little ole us. A one-person department depending on a rockstar volunteer and thoughtful writing and expertise from program staff and organizational leadership. Little ole us with zero budget and no expert agency on hand to help. We won.
Like so much of our work at San Diego Coastkeeper, it is just us. Our Waterkeeper Jill Witkowski is often the sole voice at the Regional Board asking for more effective controls to stop urban runoff from polluting our waves. Our Water Quality Lab Manager Travis Pritchard is one person running a volunteer-driven countywide water quality testing program to help the region understand what pollution damages our waters. It’s Jill that is the one person commenting on the San Diego Bay Cleanup Team’s poor communications plan because the communities that will be impacted by the massive cleanup deserve an effective strategy.
And you know what? We like those odds.
We’re small and nimble. We’re creative and connected. We’re dedicated to protecting and restoring fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters for every resident and visitor in San Diego County. And we know that one voice isn’t really just one voice. Our voice is the megaphone for each of you—our volunteers, our supporters, our members and the families and workers in San Diego County that rely on clean waters to live happy, healthy lifestyles.
A scientist, a lawyer and writer walk into a room. And they bring with them thousands of San Diegans each wanting fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters. And they get results.
It’s not a joke at all.
Not a part of our movement yet? Become a member today.
The region-wide power outage last September caused massive sewage spills when two pump stations that lacked adequate backup power failed and discharged into local creeks. Our volunteer water monitors found evidence of the 3.5-million gallons of sewage pooled in Los Peñasquitos Creek slowly releasing into the fragile Peñasquitos lagoon.
After the discovery, San Diego Coastkeeper sprang into action. We alerted the city of San Diego and the Department of Fish and Game about the stagnant pool of polluted water. We offered our years of background data at that site to the city to help them with their cleanup. We performed follow-up testing of the water in the creek and in the lagoon to monitor the cleanup and shared that data with the public, the Regional Water Control Board, the city’s stormwater department and the Peñasquitos Lagoon Foundation. We gave public testimony at the San Diego City Council’s Committee on Natural Resources and Culture Committee about the effects of the spill and the need to prevent spills like this from ever happening again.
All of our hard work has paid off. I would like to commend the City of San Diego wastewater officials who put forward a plan to ensure nothing like this happens again. They are seeking to install generators on the pump stations that lack adequate backup power. (Read our press release responding to the wastewater official’s plan.) This backup power will ensure the pumps work properly during future power disruptions. The City Council now needs to step up provide them the tools and money they need to make this happen. I encourage the City Council to do what is right and help protect our fragile water resources against similar failures.
This also demonstrates the power that our community has when we work together to find and fix pollution problems. And this is a new emphasis for San Diego Coastkeeper. Around here we call it “watchdogging” to ensure our waters in San Diego County are protected. Sound exciting? Please join our efforts by volunteering to help us patrol for pollution or donating to be a part of the solution.
Have you seen that Kohler commercial where a man sees a pretty lady plumber walk into the house next door? He goes inside and starts flushing a bunch of junk down his toilet, presumably so he can have an excuse to call the pretty plumber. The man is exasperated when everything he flushes magically disappears, whether it’s a towel, votive candles, lingerie or travel-sized toiletries.
They really need to have a “do not try this at home” disclaimer at the bottom of that commercial. Even if the toilet has enough power to force towels and toys out of view, the pipes that lead from a residence to the sewer main, called “private laterals” are a different story. They’re just not designed to handle that sort of abuse.
A big chunk of sewage spills around San Diego can be traced to private lateral spills. Why are there are so many private lateral spills? These pipes are generally pretty small—I’m guessing that most people have no clue how small and vulnerable these pipes are. The one leading from my house to the main sewer line is only 4” in diameter. I learned this the hard way.
Late last week, I noticed some water pooling on the floor after I had done a load of laundry. The next day, our toilet started gurgling. The following morning, the water level in the toilet was really low. That evening, while I was finishing up at work, I received a frantic call that our toilet was overflowing and my boyfriend was stuck bailing the wastewater into the shower. Gross.
Our friendly Roto-Rooter team came to our rescue. Unable to clear the clog by snaking the toilet, they had to completely remove the toilet and use closed circuit TV to find the cause of the problem. Two hours and $400 later we found the answer. The culprit? It turns out that an out-of-town guest visiting the prior weekend flushed feminine products down our toilet. Coupled with a piece of wood that partially blocked the 4” pipe (the Roto Rooter guys think it got washed into the pipe at a cleanout during a rain storm), those seemingly innocent tampons caused a major headache for us.
So the next time you think about flushing something down the toilet—whether it be for convenience or to have an excuse to call the cute plumber—think about how small those pipes connecting your house to the main sewage lines really are. Trust me, the cost and the ick factor of having to clean up the aftermath of a plugged toilet is not worth it!
I would like to share what is going on with the Los Penasquitos sewage spill from September 8. Since the spill, Coastkeeper conducted additional monitoring in the creek as well as in the lagoon. The last sampling we did out there was on Tuesday, Sept. 20, so these results are almost a week old. Additional sampling will be performed this week, now that the city has stopped their pumping (as of Friday, 2 p.m.).
As you can see the E. coli levels in the creek have dropped dramatically since the city started pumping the creek out. As of Tuesday, E. coli concentrations were still elevated downstream in the lagoon, flowing slowly to the tidal area of the lagoon.
Dissolved oxygen levels remain low for all sites. The oxygen concentrations in the normal sampling location in the creek are steadily rising but the lagoon site shows a decrease over time. This could be indicating that the sewage effects are slowly making its way down the lagoon, past the pumping area of the city. The red line in the chart above is the state standard of 5 mg/L, so all areas of the lagoon and creek still have some room for improvement.
Ammonia concentrations show a similar patter to Dissolved Oxygen. This further indicates that the negative effects of the sewage are slowly making its way down the stretch of the lagoon.
These results are alarming, but not unexpected. The sewage will flow downstream. Despite the city’s attempts to pump it down, it will affect the land that the creek flows into. In this case, the Los Penasquitos lagoon is classified as a State Park Preserve. According to its website, “This label, which is pinned to only the rarest and most fragile of the state owned lands, reflects the increasing concern of ecologists and wildlife managers for the progressive destruction of coastal wetlands, a habitat vital for the preservation of migratory waterfowl and certain species of fish and shellfish.” This habitat is extremely delicate, and this sewage spill further harms this ecosystem, which is already fairly stressed.
Fortunately, Coastkeeper continues its vigilance in monitoring, tracking, and responding to the spill.
To highlight San Diego Coastkeeper’s efforts in this spill thus far:
- Our monitors were the ones that discovered the effects of the spill. Without the efforts of our volunteer monitors, the effects of this spill would have been noticed days later, if at all.
- Our monitoring data was used to establish the baseline conditions of the creek. The city pumped down the creek until their monitoring showed that the creek had returned to baseline conditions. Since our volunteer monitors study such an extensive portion of the county, our data was the best the city had to compare to. It was our data that established those baseline conditions.
- We were the first ones to monitor the effects of the spill on the downstream lagoon. When we saw where the spill was and noticed the extremely fragile ecosystem immediately downstream, we performed follow-up testing in the creek. Governmental agencies have since asked for our data, since we have the earliest available monitoring data in the lagoon.
I will leave you with this video of one of the park rangers in the lagoon discussing the effects he has personally seen.
Since Saturday, when Coastkeeper water monitoring volunteers discovered where all that sewage ended up, we have been working hard on follow-up. Our lab staff gave our data and other observations to our Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Department of Fish and Game and State Parks. Yesterday, Coastkeeper staff provided testimony at the Regional Board hearing to pressure our agencies to investigate the incident swiftly and thoroughly.
Our lab staff also continue to track the health of the creek – today, Travis Pritchard, our intrepid Lab Coordinator, went back to the creek to take additional samples. We will continue to monitor the water quality of the creek as clean-up proceeds and after to assess how well the creek is recovering. Tomorrow, we will be going into the lagoon, with our colleagues at State Parks and the Los Penasquitos Lagoon Foundation to follow the sewage plume downstream and measure where the spill potentially degraded the lagoon’s water quality.
We don’t have lab results yet from data’s field samples, but Travis took several photos (see below). The creek still smells of sewage and dead fish still floated on the surface. The water remained opaque and dark grey, distinctly different from what the creek looked like upstream of the spill area. Travis also ran into the crew cleaning up the mess in the creek, and chatted with them. Since Monday evening, crews have been pumping sewage out of the creek and back into the sewer system. The crew on the scene seemed to think that it would be several more days before the clean up would be complete. Stay tuned to this blog to learn more as our lab results come out!
I sit at my desk a lot. Considering I have a job that works to protect our coastline and outdoor environment, I still spend lots of time at a desk. And as I sit here, I often wonder despite the work of our amazing staff, the thousands of hours of service our volunteers provide, the work of all the other organizations trying to protect our waterways, and the increasing knowledge that our community has about pollution problems, how much pollution is building up right now?
How much oil is dripping from cars in San Diego and how much excess fertilizer is being applied to lawns, farms, nurseries and golf courses? How many dogs are pooping without it being picked up, how many cars are being washed and leaking junk into the gutter and how many construction sites are letting loose dirt erode into our creeks and rivers? It’s kinda mind boggling when you think about it. All that pollution just building up and waiting for rain or urban runoff to pick it up and take it to the ocean I love to surf and sail in.
Urban runoff and the pollution it picks up is the biggest threat to water quality in San Diego. But now we’re going to turn the tides, and use what I consider our biggest asset to combat our biggest threat: Our incredible volunteer base.
Announcing our newest volunteer program: Pollution Patrollers
We’ll be training volunteers to identify true pollution incidents and violations of Best Management Practices (all the things businesses and residents should be doing to reduce urban runoff) and using the power of our Environmental Law & Policy Clinic to report and follow up on getting them cleaned up.
Pollution Patrollers is a twofold program:
- The county and all the cities have a legal obligation to ensure those BMP’s are being met, and we’re going to audit them. We need your help to be a part of organized patrols to gauge whether or not this is happening.
- You can also use this training to identify true pollution problems in your daily life. If you’re driving around town, riding your bike, out on your boat, or taking a walk, you’ll be able to document and report those incidents to us, and we’ll help you make sure the cities follow up.
The training is June 14 from 6-8pm in La Jolla, and I’d be stoked to see you there. Shoot me an email (email: email@example.com, subject line: Pollution Patrollers) to become part of this exciting program.
This is the second of a 10-part blog series examining the nature of ASBS, the threats they face and the actions we can take to protect these biological hotspots for future San Diegans.
I’m the new kid on the block when it comes to San Diego Coastkeeper’s marine conservation program, and I’m on a mission to soak up (no pun intended) all the details I can about our local preservation efforts in San Diego. One major nugget of wisdom I’ve learned in my hunt for knowledge is that ASBS are an integral part of San Diego’s (and California’s) marine conservation efforts. Let me impart on you some of my newly aquired insights, dear reader.
Both the La Jolla and the San Diego-Scripps ASBS are in the Los Penasquitos watershed. This highly urban water system stretches as far inland as State Route 67, and all water in that zone eventually flows to the coastline where both ASBS are located. Trash, pollution, chemicals and general muck that accumulate inland will sooner or later wash into the ocean through these coastal areas. Streams, gullies, pipes and holes in seawalls discharge inland water into the ocean, carrying with it all the bacteria, copper and metals, oil and grease, pesticides and nutrients accumulated eastward.
In the La Jolla ASBS, most of these pollutants come from the flow of natural water bodies, stormwater runoff and sewers. Of the 196 discharges, seventeen different municipal storm drain outlets have been identified in the ASBS, and some pipes on the bluffs and gullies empty into the tide pools, which are teeming with fragile marine life.
In the San Diego-Scripps ASBS there are 92 discharges, and a lot of the pollutants come from landscaping and pipe drainage from (gasp!) private residences. Residential sources of pollution are a result of failing to pick up after pets, letting a car leak fluid onto a driveway, allowing chemicals to enter a storm drain through hosing or dumping and more.
Ever think about where lawn fertilizer, pet waste, leaking automobile fluids and pesticides end up? If it goes into a storm drain, that means it flows directly into the ocean, untreated. Sometimes this means flowing straight into an ASBS. Storm drains dump all the dog poop, motor oil and chemicals that build up on our streets and sidewalks offshore, which is why we strongly recommend staying out of the water for 3 days (72 hours) after it rains. Surfing, swimming, or snorkeling in pollution = reckless, hazardous and certainly not the best underwater view.
The City of San Diego, UCSD, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and San Diego Coastkeeper have joined forces to reach our goal of zero discharge in both ASBS. We are committed to educating the public, implementing changes and securing a clean future for not just La Jolla, but all of San Diego’s coastline. You can help protect our ASBS by making simple water-friendly choices from installing rain barrels to participating in guerilla seedballing. Stay tuned to this blog series – we will explore some of the most cutting edge techniques to help champion the clean oceans movement. Some topics to look forward to include:
Low Impact Development: Learn about methods for construction and landscaping that minimize the impact on nature and help protect water quality.
World Oceans Day: Celebrate a healthy ocean with Coastkeeper in our ASBS.
Beach Cleanups: Wonder what type of trash flows into the ASBS? This blog post will highlight data trends gathered from beach cleanups in La Jolla.
Water-Conscious Gardening: Have a beautiful yard and protect sea critters at the same time! We’ll share with you different gardening techniques that will help keep our ASBS pollution-free.
Seedballing: Intrigued? I know I am.
Of San Diego’s eleven watersheds, the Tijuana River watershed is the largest. Most of it lies on the Mexican side of the border. It is also the watershed with some of the worst sewage pollution in our region. When you hear about Imperial Beach being closed because of high bacteria counts, it is a good bet that the sewage causing the problem came from Mexico. After years of squabbling over how to fix the problem – building the Bajagua treatment plant, upgrading other facilities – there seemed to be enough political drama to start a Mexican soap opera but no real solution to the problem. In April of this year, La Morita sewage treatment plant opened in Tijuana. This plant will treat much of the sewage in the Tijuana region and reclaim some of that treated wastewater for use in the irrigation of an adjacent nursery. The trees grown with that reclaimed water will be planted throughout Baja California. This plant is a big step towards being the first region in Mexico to treat 100% of its sewage.
Needless to say, it was with dismay that I read the news on Sunday that there had been an enormous spill – 2.1 million gallons of raw sewage – in the Tijuana River Valley at the beginning of June. Maybe more alarming than the spill itself is that none of it was captured by the International Boundary and Water Commission’s facility. The IWBC treatment facility was designed specifically to capture these types of flows. The foreign origin of the problem and the federal status of the IWBC facility have put this spill outside of the regulatory reach of the Regional Water Quality Control Board and it seems that in addition to no clean-up, there will be no real enforcement action either.
While news of this spill is a sad reminder of the many infrastructure problems of the border region, we need to stay focused on the positive steps that have been taken to remedy the problem. Less than ten years ago, it was not uncommon to open your morning newspaper to read a story about huge volumes of sewage flowing untreated into San Diego’s creeks and bays. These spills would leave behind a wake of pollution that fouled our shorelines and exposed surfers and swimmers to micro-organisms that can make people sick. In the face of government and regulatory inaction, groups like San Diego Coastkeeper stepped in with advocacy, including a lawsuit to force upgrades to our wastewater collection system. Since that time, we have seen a huge drop in sewage spills. So we know with enough pressure and will that change can happen.
Indirect potable reuse sounds technical, doesn’t it? Referred to as IPR, it a process that recycles wastewater into water so clean that it can augment our reservoirs and help increase our drinking water supplies.
This means that in non-technical terms, it’s recycling water we’ve already used.
At San Diego Coastkeeper, we believe in the old adage “reduce, reuse, then recycle,” and that’s how IPR fits into the equation of where we get our water. First, the less water we use in San Diego, means the less water we have to import. Given that more than half of the residential water use goes to landscapes, watering your lawn less can make a difference.
Reusing will also help decrease demand for water that currently travels more than 400 miles to get to your tap. Simple steps like installing rain barrels at your home and capturing shower water to give to your plants, reuses water in a second application and decreases the amount of water the region needs to import (currently, we import more than 80 percent of our water).
Then we should recycle water. IPR in San Diego means taking wastewater that would be discharged into the ocean through the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Facility and treating it to drinking water standards before it is used to recharge our local reservoirs. If your first reaction to this concept is “yuck,” you’re not alone. But most people aren’t aware that we safely drink “toilet to tap” presently, as 400 million gallons of treated sewage are discharged into the Colorado River before it becomes our drinking water. And numerous cities already use similar projects, including Orange County, which currently produces 70 millions gallons of IPR water daily, enough for 500,000 residents.
In late 2008, the San Diego City Council approved a water rate increase to fund a pilot project demonstration facility to test whether IPR can successfully augment our water supplies. Already paid for, this pilot project is currently underway, and if successful, will ultimately provide up to 16 million gallons of advanced treated water per day from the city’s existing reclamation facilities that currently provide water for non-drinking uses like irrigation. A second study is also underway exploring opportunities to build new plants that could reclaim 50 or 100 million gallons or more of water daily, which could meet half of the city’s water needs!
In addition to providing much needed water supplies to our region, IRP has many more benefits such as:
- Protecting the ocean from more than 150 million gallons of treated wastewater that the Point Loma Treatment Facility currently pumps into it.
- Saving residents money because IPR is less expensive than importing water, which utilizes up to five percent of the state’s energy just to move supplies from Northern California to Southern California, or desalination, which requires a huge amount of energy to remove the salt from the water.
- Creating cleaner and safer water than what is currently imported into our region due to the treatment process and the stringent review and monitoring by the California Department of Health services and other regulatory agencies.
The two-year pilot project and regional assessment are expected to come to completion in 2011. In the mean time, learn more about recycling wastewater into drinking water and how you can help make it a reality for all of San Diego.