Coastkeeper Watershed Report Announced

The Water Quality Monitoring Lab here at San Diego Coastkeeper is proud to announce our 2009-2010 Watershed report. It’s taken us a while, but we have crunched down the data that our volunteers and partners have collected. You can read the full report here.

Here are some highlights–

Priority pollutants:

Coastkeeper data consistently points to ammonia, phosphorus and Enterococcus as the most widespread pollutants in San Diego County. Below I have attached a table (that is not in the watershed report) that shows percent of samples that exceed Basin Plan standards during the 2009-2010 period covered in the report. The color coding highlights the problem areas. As you can see, every watershed in San Diego struggled with ammonia, Enterococcus and phosphorus concentrations.

2009-2010_percent_exceedances

The very beginning of the watershed report highlights the impacts of urbanization and the water quality degradation due to watersheds becoming impervious. Every chapter in the report tells a similar story:

  • Los Penasquitos: Rapid development since the 1970s has led to high levels of total dissolved solids and fecal indicator bacteria during both the wet and dry seasons. The fragile Los Penasquitos Lagoon is filling up with sediment transported by the flows that have increased over 200% in the past 30 years. A TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) has just been written to try to limit the amount of sediments flowing into the lagoon.
  • Pueblo: “The dominance of hard surfaces drives many of the urban runoff problems in the creek, which in turn contributes to the degradation of water quality in San Diego Bay.” Nutrients, bacteria and trash are major problems in this watershed. These three constituents are very strongly correlated with development. This watershed is our most developed and is mixed residential, commercial and industrial development. Pretty much all of Chollas Creek is channelized or driven underground. The natural hydrology has been greatly disrupted. The water flows are quickly pushed into the creek and into the bay with almost no chance of remediation.
  • San Luis Rey: Our least developed watershed, yet it still has problems. While half of the watershed is open space, agricultural (cattle grazing, nurseries, citrus and avocado groves) and residential each account for about 15 percent of the watershed. This high amount of agriculture is probably responsible for the high nutrient concentrations we see. This river is home to historic steelhead trout runs, but habitat degradation threatens the dwindling number of these salmonids.
  • Tijuana: Not surprisingly the worst watershed in the county, in terms of water quality. Poor infrastructure across the border accounts for the vast majority of water quality problems in this watershed.

Other reports have established a strong relationship between percent developed and stream health.

Recommendations:

We encourage the municipalities in San Diego to work closer with Coastkeeper, our members and our volunteers to continue to identify priority pollutants. Our input is a valuable component to protecting and restoring clean water in San Diego County.

These priority pollutants can be tied to development of the watershed and traditional storm water practices. Old school stormwater management was more concerned with flood control than water quality. The goal was to move stormwater away as quickly as possible. This is why you see many channelized rivers in San Diego. These allow us to push water quickly to the ocean. Unfortunately, this also limits the landscapes ability to rid itself of pollutants. Nutrients are not able to be taken up by plants as sediments with pollutants bound to them are not able to settle out.

Research shows that LID (low impact development) can remediate many of the problems that development has introduced. See “Widespread application of LID across basins will result in much needed pollutant concentrations.” LID irestores natural hydrologic processes to our disrupted system. LID works, and it looks nice also. Not only would it help with our water quality problems, we would reconnect our neighborhoods with their waters.

Collecting all this data is not easy, and our volunteers and groups like Surfrider San Diego and Golden State Flycasters have dedicated many many hours to it. We would like to thank the dedication and the tireless work our volunteers and project partners have put in over the years.

Published in Urban Runoff

A Message from Megan

wateradvocacyThe conversation about water just got better.

Last week our application period for the Community Advisory Council ended.

I knew that we’d get a lot of applications. I just had no idea that we’d get so many.

It shows how much San Diegans care about their water. You recognize the importance of clean water. You want to protect it and make sure it’s fishable, swimmable and drinkable for your children, and your children’s children.

It shows that protecting our area’s watersheds and providing a clean local source of drinking water is doable.

Because you want to be the ones to do it.

When we build community, everyone has a role and a responsibility. Coastkeeper plays a huge role, both as a giver of information and a keeper of clean waters. But we need your voice, too.

We need to know what is going on in your neighborhood. And what matters most to you. The response to the Community Advisory Council shows me that so many of you have something to say and are willing to act.

I have a big vision for the Community Advisory Council. The members of this group will be a voice for our neighborhoods and a face for water issues among their neighbors. Nothing will slip through the cracks because you’ll make sure we know about it.

We’ll give you tools and you’ll come up with solutions.

In August, Coastkeeper teamed up with Power Scuba for a beach and underwater cleanup. The dive club members came from North Park, Chula Vista, Camp Pendleton and more. They came together to deal with the trash they see underwater. That was their biggest concern. What’s yours?

We know that in Lemon Grove the answer is different than in La Jolla. And people in Santee use the water differently than in Fallbrook. When Waterkeeper Jill Witkowski created this council she made it possible to hear a voice from every corner of San Diego County.

The Community Advisory Council is our community voice. It is a place to join forces to protect our waters for San Diego to do all the things we love.

I know that we can succeed. Because of you, I know that fishable, swimmable, drinkable…is doable.

Thank you to everybody who applied. I am excited to begin this journey with you.

The Shipyard Cleanup Needs a Clear Communication Plan

For years, shipyards dumped pollutants into the sediments of San Diego’s waters.

Since the approval of the cleanup plan, they’ve been good about listening to our feedback on how to cleanup the problem, but they haven’t been good about listening to yours.

The Remedial Action Plan, adopted back in March, set forth a strong cleanup order to get metal discharges and other pollutant wastes out of the sediment. The plan outlined how the shipyards were to dredge without harming water quality, and to make sure no more pollutants end up in our water. It has specific goals for these shipyards to reach. And the shipyards have done a good job at incorporating our feedback on how to reach those goals.

But why aren’t they incorporating your feedback?

The Shipyard Sediment Site Group needs a new communication plan. The current one isn’t cutting it. Right now, their plan is to essentially to direct people over to the Water Board’s site, which is full of lengthy PDFs that do nothing but confuse the average citizen.

In their current Community Relations Plan, the group acknowledges, “the community needs to have access to information and have the opportunity to understand how the remedial action may affect them.” Acknowledging that is great, but making sure it happens is the only thing that matters.

The Shipyard Sediment Site Group needs its own website, one that’s constantly updated with information on everything the group is doing. Simply sending out newsletters doesn’t get the job done. The “Potential Community Relations Tools and Materials” in the current Community Relations Plan lists advertisements, information displays, blogs, comment databases, presentations, briefing packets, and a website to name a few. Where are they?

The Shipyard Sediment Site Group is starting to make progress, and Coastkeeper is appreciative that they’ve been responsive to our feedback. But without a strong community relations plan, the public, who are the real stakeholders, has no way of giving their input in this case. The public needs to be able to see the changes that are happening, and comment on them. This is a two-way street.

What do you think the Shipyard Sediment Site Group can do to better increase community input?

Is My Tap Water Safe To Drink?

Is my tap water safe to drink is probably the most frequent question I hear when I tell people I do water quality monitoring. Here at Coastkeeper, we monitor inland water quality in our rivers and streams, but I just got my copy of the Annual Drinking Water Quality Report from the City of San Diego.  There is a ton of acronyms and jargon terms, so I thought I’d help you look through it.

Acronyms and Jargon

This box below shows the different jargon terms and acronyms the labs use in their reporting. Here are the important ones:

Acronyms

  • Action Level: For certain contaminates, such as lead, the EPA sets maximum concentrations that are safe levels for human consumption. If the treatment plant tests the water at or above these concentration levels, the facility must take action to fix the problem and lower the concentration levels.
  • CA SMCL – California Secondary Maximum Contaminate Level: These are non-mandatory guidelines set by the State of California. These guidelines are not enforced; there is no penalty for going over them.  They are generally measuring aesthetic qualities like taste, odor and color.  They help the treatment facility operators have something to shoot for.
  • MCL – Maximum Contaminate Level: Much like the Action Level, this sets the maximum level a contaminant can reach in the water.
  • MCLG – Maximum Contaminate Level Goal: This is the real goal of the treatment plant. This is the level at which the contaminate has no health risks associated with it. The difference between the MCL or the Action Level and the MCLG is a bit confusing. Let’s look at lead to see how it works. The action level is 1.3 mg/L but the goal is 0.3 mg/L. The treatment facility wants to get the lead concentrations down to 0.3, but it may be impossible to bring the levels down to that level. The 1.3 is the enforceable standard; the 0.3 is what we would like it to be.

Most everything else you can ignore for now.

Also, since I live in the city of San Diego, I’m looking at its water quality report, but every city in our county will also have one. Use Google to search for your city’s Drinking Water Quality Report or look through your recent mail.

How did the City of San Diego’s drinking water rate?

The drinking water at my house is pretty good! Here are the numbers I’m looking at:

Total Coliform Bacteria:

Bacteria

This is the same bacteria Coastkeeper’s water monitoring program tests. This indicates that there is something in the water that could make you sick, like sewage cross contamination. As you can see, the Maximum Contaminate Level was less than 5% of samples containing these bacteria. On average 0.1% did. That’s pretty significantly below the standards.

Lead:

Lead

The Action Level for lead is 15 ppb (parts per billion) and the goal is 0.2 ppb. Let’s get a visualization of how small a part per billion is. One ppb is about equal to a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool.  It’s a super small number. Because lead is so toxic, they don’t just report the average concentration. They report the concentration that is above 90% of all the samples (90th percentile concentration). In this case, their tests did not detect any lead at all in 90% of the samples and only 3 total samples had concentrations of above the Action Limit. This test was done at residence’s tap, not at the plant. So this takes into account lead added from old lead pipes. If your house is relatively new, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Odor and Color:

Taste

Odor and color were both either very low, or below the test’s detection limits.  These are not dangerous, but I’m glad our water doesn’t have much flavor or smell.

I personally am not too concerned about many of the other tests, but as you go through the report yourself, you can see everything is generally pretty low and well below the standards set by the EPA or the state.

Would you drink the tap water?

I hear this question all the time, and my answer is an emphatic yes! I drink tap water every day. San Diego’s tap water is safe, clean and inexpensive. The bottled water companies do not have to publish these reports, so I have no idea how safe it really is. Tap water is more environmentally friendly; it doesn’t have to be packaged up in single-use plastic bottles. Bottled water is also more expensive the gasoline whereas a glass of tap water is practically free.

The Swim Guide

Hopefully you all have seen our new and improved beach status webpage and smartphone app. If not, check it out at our Beach Status webpage. It has never been easier to check for beach closures and advisories.

So, how does it work?

Swim_Guide_banner

The San Diego County Department of Environmental health is in charge of issuing beach closures and advisories. Every morning, the county sends a team of samplers to take water samples from our beaches. Each beach is tested once a week. They are looking for the quantity of fecal indicator bacteria (Nerd Alert – They are specifically looking at E. coli and enterococci species). These species of bacteria do not necessarily pose a direct human health risk. They are, however, strongly correlated with human health risk. So while enterococcus may not get you sick, high level

s of enterococcus usually means there are elevated levels of pathogens like viruses and the type of bacteria that give you, um, “intestinal distress”. So why not measure viruses and other microbes that actually make you sick? Well, the indicator bacteria are easier, faster and much less expensive to measure. With the same dollars, the county is able to cover more area and have results quickly posted. (Fun Fact! – the county uses the same exact tests to measure beach water as our volunteers use to measure inland water as part of our water monitoring program).

How does this information make it to our website?

Every morning, the county looks at all the beach water quality data and decides whether or not the beach meets EPA guidelines for safe swimming. They also take into account other factors that would make ocean water unsafe for swimming.

This is a good time to talk about the levels of beach warnings the county issues. The county has three different levels of warnings. We all know what open means, the beach is safe for swimming. They can also issue a contact advisory, meaning water contact should be avoided. They use this level of warning when the bacteria sampling comes up high or a rain event has washed down urban runoff pollutants into the water. They usually don’t put up a sign for contact advisories, so without checking our swim guide, a swimmer usually doesn’t know about these ones. They also issue straight closures. These are issues after a known sewage spill or when the Tijuana River is running into Imperial Beach. In this case they will close the beach off, hang signs saying it’s dangerous to swim, and have lifeguards kick people out of the water.  In order to open the beach back up, the county has to have several days worth of testing that shows indicator bacteria within safe health standards. For example, if it rains more than 0.2 inches, they know that all our beaches are going to be impacted by urban runoff and probably unsafe for swimming so they will issue a contact advisory.

How does the Swim Guide fit in?

Sewage_Spill_Sign_small

The county does all of the testing and issuing of closures, but they don’t really have the resources to get the word out.There is a number you can call and listen to a recording, but honestly maps are way cooler. So several years ago, we at San Diego Coastkeeper partnered with the County Department of Environmental Health to help them spread the word. Every morning they send me an email with which beaches are open and which are closed.  I translate that to a handy, easy to read, map so that information is more accessible to you, the beach user.  San Diego Coastkeeper does not decide which beaches are open or closed. We just pass along information from the county.

The Swim Guide was developed by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and we thought it was super cool. All of the different coastal waterkeepers in California got together and brought it to our beaches. SO if you get the phone app, it will work for beaches all over the state. Each county has slightly different procedures, but the meaning is the same. Wherever you are in California (or Lake Ontario) the Swim Guide App will be able to make sure you are swimming in safe beaches.

Go to our Beach Status webpage to see current beach conditions and download links for smart phone apps. Pretty soon we’ll have a way of embedding the map in your webpage. So if you are a community group, surf shop, or beachside coffee shop, you can help ensure folks have the most up to the date safe swimming information.

May Water Monitoring Results

May_2012_prelim

Preliminary results are in for our May 19 water quality monitoring event. Water quality in May was overall pretty good. The map on the right shows the “winners” and “losers” for the month. The sites marked in green rated “excellent” in terms of water quality.

Since an “excellent” score requires there to be no measured water quality problems, it’s fairly hard to get. It’s a rare occurance for the county to have six sites ranked as “excellent,” so we are pretty proud of our waters this month.

Only one site rated “poor” and it’s marked in red. The Chollas Creek site had problems with fecal indicator bacteria and nutrients.

Thank you to our awesome water monitoring volunteers this month. You folks rocked it.

If you want to get involved, our next training is July 21, 2012. Send an email to volunteer@sdcoastkeeper.org and we’ll get you signed up.

Published in Urban Runoff

Toasting to Trivia (and the Earth)

surfer-sunset-s

I love some friendly competition. I especially love trivia. And we all know how crazy I am about this ol’ planet we call home. That’s why when Coastkeeper partnered with San Diego CityBeat last year to put on our first Earth Day themed trivia night, I was pumped. Literally. And this year’s second annual trivia extravaganza did not disappoint!

My team (“Los Nerdos”) took home first place in 2011 and third place in 2012, both thanks to the combined power of some pretty awesome brains. We had about ten teams turn out for the Earth Day celebration at Raglan Public House (Great food, great beer, great sustainability! Check them out.) and our friends from Birch Aquarium took home the grand prize this year.

Trivia night was a fun, upbeat and energetic way to celebrate Earth Day. We tested our knowledge and learned some new fun facts about the planet. But we here at Coastkeeper like to celebrate Earth Day a little more often that once a year. We appreciate the planet and its resources as often as we can by hiking, surfing, kayaking or simply walking around the neighborhood and watching bees jump from flower to flower. Get outside and show some love for nature and donate now to help us protect and restore our most valuable resource: water!

Power Outage Sewage Spill Victory Almost Here

Sewage_Spill_Sign_smallThe 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.

Published in Sick of Sewage

First Flush of Urban Runoff

NERD ALERT: The vast majority of San Diego’s inland water pollution problems are caused by non-point source sources. As opposed to a factory which discharges pollutants from a single pipe (point source), non-point sources come from many areas at once and are generally more diffuse. Our stormwater system is one example of non-point source pollution. Water from a large area is collected when we overwater our lawns, or clean our sidewalks with a hose, or from just about everywhere during a rain event.

Urban runoff is the single biggest threat to healthy waters in San Diego.

During the long dry periods in San Diego, pollutants collect on the ground. Nutrients from wayward fertilizer applications, oil from leaky cars and copper from brake pads are examples. These pollutants are spread very thinly over a very large area and accumulate over time. When it rains, all this pollution get flushed down the stormwater system and into our rivers and eventually out into the ocean. We call the peak we see after a relatively long dry period a “first flush” event.

Take a look at this graph created by Weston Solutions, a local consultant group, made of copper concentrations in a creek during a storm event:StormCopper

Copper concentrations rise along with the rise in water flow, until it reaches a peak. We then see a steep decline. What’s happening here? The first bit of rain that falls flushes copper and moves it quickly to the creek. Levels quickly drop as the streets are washed clean and the pollution flows to the ocean.

You can read the whole report here.

Almost every single pollutant will show this trend. Look at the picture below taken in the San Luis Rey watershed after a rain event. You can see the pollution heading into the ocean. Dissolved metals, bacteria, sediment and even trash follow this same pattern. Be sure to read Alicia’s blog post to learn how this phenomenon affects our marine debris problem.

girlschasesglobedotcomSome of this pollution has serious health risks associated with them. This is why all of our beaches have advisories issued after a rain event. Since the county does not have the resources to post warnings after every rain event, be sure to check our beach status page before heading out into the ocean. We update this information as soon as the county releases updates. I check every time I go in.

How can we minimize problems associated with urban runoff?

Do you have any other clever ideas? Leave them in the comments.

Published in Urban Runoff

Reaching Out to Local Restaurants: Help Reduce Plastic Foam Pollution!

As any beach-goer knows, plastic foam (commonly known as Styrofoam) pollution is a huge problem on San Diego beaches. It is the third most common form of litter found in Coastkeeper’s beach clean-ups, and its prevalence is continuing to grow. The number of foam pieces has increased from 12,000 pieces in 2009, to 25,000 pieces in 2010. Immediate action is necessary to put a stop to the problem of plastic foam pollution.

As any beach-goer knows, plastic foam (commonly known as Styrofoam) pollution is a huge problem on San Diego beaches. It is the third most common (link to http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper/learn/marine-debris/data-from-san-diego-beach-cleanups.html) form of litter found in Coastkeeper’s beach clean-ups, and its prevalence is continuing to grow. The number of foam pieces has increased from 12,000 pieces in 2009, to 25,000 pieces in 2010. (link to http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper/learn/marine-debris/data-from-san-diego-beach-cleanups.html). Immediate action (link to http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper/act/speak-up/stop-the-polystyrene-pollution.html) is necessary to put a stop to the problem of plastic foam pollution.
 
Putting an end to plastic foam pollution was the goal of SB 568, (link to http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper/blog/marine-debris/item/149-sb-568-%E2%80%93-the-california-polystyrene-food-container-ban.html) which reached the state Assembly in mid-August 2011. The bill would phase out the use of plastic foam packaging for food vendors by 2016. SB 568 received significant opposition from restaurant owners and managers, who feared that making the switch from foam to a more sustainable option would affect their business’ financial stability. However, there are many similarly priced alternatives available (link to http://cleanwateraction.org/files/publications/ca/CWA%20Fact%20Sheet%20on%20SB%20568.pdf) and customers often appreciate sustainable options. In fact, many cities and municipalities all over California have already banned plastic foam (link to ..Other cities and groupsCA Cities with Foam Bans 2011.pdf) with little to no impact on businesses (link to ..alternatives researchPrint Article_ San Clemente restaurants shrug at plastic-foam ban.pdf). Unfortunately, opposition to SB 568 has caused the bill to be put on hold until further notice.
 
Although SB 568 has been set aside for now, many environmental groups are hard at work to generate support for future efforts to reduce plastic foam litter. At San Diego Coastkeeper, we are conducting outreach to San Diego food vendors, entreating them to switch away from plastic foam and to voice their support for alternative packaging. Help encourage your favorite restaurants to switch from plastic foam by requesting a sustainable alternative to plastic foam packaging, or contact me (link to marinedebris@sdcoastkeeper.org) to learn how you can helpAs any beach-goer knows, plastic foam (commonly known as Styrofoam) pollution is a huge problem on San Diego beaches. It is the third most common (link to http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper/learn/marine-debris/data-from-san-diego-beach-cleanups.html) form of litter found in Coastkeeper’s beach clean-ups, and its prevalence is continuing to grow. The number of foam pieces has increased from 12,000 pieces in 2009, to 25,000 pieces in 2010. (link to http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper/learn/marine-debris/data-from-san-diego-beach-cleanups.html). Immediate action (link to http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper/act/speak-up/stop-the-polystyrene-pollution.html) is necessary to put a stop to the problem of plastic foam pollution.

Putting an end to plastic foam pollution was the goal of SB 568, which reached the state Assembly in mid-August 2011. The bill would phase out the use of plastic foam packaging for food vendors by 2016. SB 568 received significant opposition from restaurant owners and managers, who feared that making the switch from foam to a more sustainable option would affect their business’ financial stability. However, there are many similarly priced alternatives available and customers often appreciate sustainable options. In fact, many cities and municipalities all over California have already banned plastic foam with little to no impact on businesses. Unfortunately, opposition to SB 568 has caused the bill to be put on hold until further notice.

Although SB 568 has been set aside for now, many environmental groups are hard at work to generate support for future efforts to reduce plastic foam litter. At San Diego Coastkeeper, we are conducting outreach to San Diego food vendors, entreating them to switch away from plastic foam and to voice their support for alternative packaging. Help encourage your favorite restaurants to switch from plastic foam by requesting a sustainable alternative to plastic foam packaging, or contact me to learn how you can help.

Published in Marine Debris