The Stormwater “Safe Harbor” Explained

This blog was published May 2, 2013. Click here for more up-to-date information on Safe Harbor laws in San Diego.

The Clean Water Act is the primary tool we use to protect and restore fishable, swimmable, and drinkable waters.  At its heart, the Clean Water Act focuses on the quality of our waters, and it allows states to issue permits allowing people to add pollution into our waters, but only in certain circumstances.  The Clean Water Act’s  bottom line is this—we can’t issue a permit if it would allow pollution that would make that water so dirty that it interferes with the water’s “beneficial uses” like swimming, fishing, or habitat for fish and other aquatic life. Even if the individual pollution permit would not alone cause the water quality problem, if it contributes to a water quality problem, that’s not allowed.

In order to make sure we are issuing water pollution permits that ultimately protect our waters, we have to look at the health of the waters.  And water pollution permits contain a provision that basically says, “when you add pollution to the waters, you cannot cause or contribute to a water quality problem in the water body you are adding pollution to.”  Sounds reasonable, right?

Apparently for San Diego County and our local municipalities, prohibiting them from contributing to existing pollution problems or creating new ones is asking too much. The county and our local cities have asked our Regional Water Quality Control board for a “safe harbor” excusing them from being accountable for local water quality, even though our storm sewer systems are the primary cause of most of our local pollution problems.

Why would they ask for this?  According to San Diego County Counsel James O’Day, the county needs protection from environmental groups who would “hold the county hostage” by bringing lawsuits against them. Even the City of San Diego’s estmeed Mayor Filner asked the Regional Board to provide “protection” for the City against environmental protection law suits. Ironic, since last weekend San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez thanked the environmental groups that sued the City of San Diego on sewage issues because it helped move the city forward toward creating a local, secure, reliable, safe water supply.

In response to pleas by lawyers and politicians, the Regional Board added a “safe harbor” or “alternative compliance option” to the stormwater permit.  This “alternative compliance” provision protects cities or the county from being held accountable for pollution that causes or contributes to water quality problems, as long as they have done some modeling that shows that they might not cause or contribute to water quality problems if they do certain things, and then they plan to do those things.  They get this “protection” from the moment their plan is approved, and it continues indefinitely–even if the pollution actually causes or contributes to a water quality problem–as long as they keep trying to do better.

This flies in the face of the very heart of the Clean Water Act–focusing on the health of our waters and not allowing pollution that would cause or contribute to water quality problems.  At the Regional Board hearing on April 10 and 11, I compared this new safe harbor provision to mud on a cake.  The heart of our stormwater permit–the cake–is still good, and we’ve all worked very hard to make it together.  But this safe harbor is mud that basically ruins the permit for us.  Take this safe harbor away, and we like the new stormwater permit.

On May 8, the Regional Board will decide whether or not to leave the safe harbor provision in the permit.  Check back soon to see if they left mud on the cake!

Cleaning Up Our La Jolla Storm Drains

A few years ago, the city spent millions on building the City of San Diego Coastal Low Flow Diversion Program. However, the system only works if the City properly maintains it.

During the dry season, low flow street runoff is supposed to be diverted into the sewer system, rather than the storm drains. This keeps what could be polluted water off of our beaches and out of our oceans.

When these drains are clogged, the runoff instead goes straight into the stormwater drains, rather than the sewer. And guess where it ends up.

Yep, the ocean.

A concerned La Jolla citizen emailed us to let us know about a problem with some of these drains. They were almost completely clogged with sand, mud and even some plants. He told us that he saw runoff running onto the beach nearly every morning, and sent pictures showing how bad the problem was.

What’s the point of spending millions of dollars on a system that doesn’t work as planned due to lack of maintenence?

We informed the San Diego Transportation and Stormwater Department, and they quickly sent a crew out to clean up the mess. They were appreciative that the issue was brought to their attention. It’s nice to see a swift response from a government agency.

Issues like this can only be cleared up with cooperation from San Diegans and appropriate government agencies. It’s Coastkeeper’s job to make sure we connect problems with problem solvers, and in this case you can see the result. Pictures show both the before clogged drains, and the after cleared drains.

If this La Jolla resident had never informed us of this issue, runoff could’ve been flowing onto our beaches and entering our oceans for a very long time. Instead, he sent us a quick email, and, at least in this spot, the beaches will remain runoff free.

If you ever see any sort of issue you believe needs addressing, please contact Coastkeeper through our Report Pollution Hotline.

Below, you can see the clogged drains before Coastkeeper was alerted to the problem:

before1

before3

And here, you can see the drains are completely clear of crud after we were told about the issue:

after1

after3

Published in Urban Runoff

MS4: How Can You Get Involved After It’s Adopted?

water-monitoring-1-sThis post is the third in a series regarding the San Diego Regional Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permitfor the San Diego region.

In this third and final entry in our series on the San Diego Regional Municipal Separate
Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit (http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/sandiego/water_issues/
programs/stormwater/index.shtml), we will cover how you, the public, can get involved after the
MS4 permit is adopted. In previous posts, you have gotten a quick introduction to the permitting
process and how you can help develop the permit. It is important to know, however, that you
can continue to shape the way this MS4 permit works after the Regional Water Quality Control
Board adopts it.
The way the current draft is written, the organizations that enroll under it (the ones
running big storm drain systems) have to develop Water Quality Improvement Plans within the
first year of enrollment. These plans identify water quality “priorities,” how the priorities will
be addressed, and timelines to improvement. The important part is that these plans are subject
to a 30- or 60-day public review and comment period just like the MS4 permit itself. This
is arguably the MOST IMPORTANT part of the permit because the priorities are where the
cities and counties will be focusing most of their time and resources, while other water quality
problems have to wait. You need to be a part of this process to ensure that your voice is heard
about water quality problems in your community.
Another important way to get involved is to report violations of the permit when you
see them in your neighborhood. It is important that you know what part of the permit is being
violated though, so when you call the municipalities hotline, they know they are getting usable
information. This is why participation in the permitting process is so important (as we outlined
in the previous entries), so that you have a working understanding of the permit. That way, when
someone is emptying their pool right into the street, and subsequently down a storm drain, you
know whether that is prohibited (As a note: it might be prohibited, but it depends).
If you don’t feel comfortable with working alone, or just prefer working with
some more direction, you can also partner with us in water quality monitoring (http://
localhost/sdcoastkeeper/quick-links/water-monitoring.html) events. In the permit the cities
and counties have to work to identify the sources of previously unidentified pollution. We are
currently talking with municipalities to find ways to provide them our monitoring information
and reduce their costs. If this cooperative program is green-lighted, you could work to directly
hold polluters responsible for their actions and make San Diego’s waters that much cleaner.
If you haven’t already signed up for email updates about water quality issues in the
San Diego region, do so here (http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/resources/email_subscriptions/
reg9_subscribe.shtml).

In this third and final entry in our series on the San Diego Regional Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit, we will cover how you, the public, can get involved after the MS4 permit is adopted. In previous posts, you have gotten a quick introduction to the permitting process and how you can help develop the permit. It is important to know, however, that you can continue to shape the way this MS4 permit works after the Regional Water Quality Control Board adopts it.

The way the current draft is written, the organizations that enroll under it (the ones running big storm drain systems) have to develop Water Quality Improvement Plans within the first year of enrollment. These plans identify water quality “priorities,” how the priorities will be addressed, and timelines to improvement. The important part is that these plans are subjectto a 30- or 60-day public review and comment period just like the MS4 permit itself. This is arguably the MOST IMPORTANT part of the permit because the priorities are where the cities and counties will be focusing most of their time and resources, while other water quality problems have to wait. You need to be a part of this process to ensure that your voice is heard about water quality problems in your community.

Another important way to get involved is to report violations of the permit when you see them in your neighborhood. It is important that you know what part of the permit is being violated though, so when you call the municipalities hotline, they know they are getting usable information. This is why participation in the permitting process is so important (as we outlined in the previous entries), so that you have a working understanding of the permit. That way, when someone is emptying their pool right into the street, and subsequently down a storm drain, you know whether that is prohibited. (As a note: it might be prohibited, but it depends.)

If you don’t feel comfortable with working alone, or just prefer working with some more direction, you can also partner with us in water quality monitoring events. In the permit the cities and counties have to work to identify the sources of previously unidentified pollution. We are currently talking with municipalities to find ways to provide them our monitoring information and reduce their costs. If this cooperative program is green-lighted, you could work to directly hold polluters responsible for their actions and make San Diego’s waters that much cleaner.

If you haven’t already signed up for email updates about water quality issues in the San Diego region, do so here.

Published in Sick of Sewage

Working Together to Tackle San Diego’s #1 Pollution Problem

Urban runoff is San Diego’s #1 pollution problem.  Because San Diego gets rain so infrequently, pollutants build up on the land over time.  When it rains, those pollutants are carried into our storm drains and out to our creeks, rivers, bays and ocean.  This pollution harms water quality, making it unsafe to swim and impacting the health of the wildlife that live in our waters.

Urban runoff is a frustrating pollution problem to tackle because it comes from so many different sources.  But just because it’s a difficult problem to solve doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

In fact, that’s exactly what San Diego Coastkeeper and dozens of other stakeholders from San Diego, Orange and Riverside Counties have been doing for the past month.  Led by the staff at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, stakeholders from all three counties have gathered at three all-day meetings to address urban runoff.

The Regional Board is in the process of re-issuing the municipal stormwater permit required under the Clean Water Act that is the primary mechanism for cities to address stormwater issues.  As part of the permitting process, the Regional Board convened a series of roundtable discussions to discuss how we can best use limited resources to see the biggest water quality improvements.  A limited number of seats were allocated to representatives from cities in each county, environmental stakeholders, business stakeholders, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The meetings are open to the public, and each of the meetings has been attended by approximately 50 people. (Click here for the meeting schedule for the remaining meetings.)

These professionally moderated meetings provide an opportunity for the stakeholders to give feedback to the Regional Board staff about how the permit can allow, and in some cases compel, cities to improve their programs to tackle urban runoff issues.  They also give stakeholders an opportunity to dialogue with eachother to search for common ground and common solutions.

regionalWaterQualityControlBoardThe stakeholder meetings have fostered creative alternative approaches and encouraged stakeholder collaboration outside the formal meetings.  San Diego Coastkeeper has met with representatives from the San Diego regional monitoring workgroup to discuss collaboration and ways to ensure that the data collected by our volunteer water quality monitoring program is used and useful.

We have also begun discussions with the City of Del Mar about how we can adapt our volunteer Pollution Patrol program to collect information that will help curb urban runoff in Del Mar.

As we continue through the process of developing the new stormwater permit, one thing becomes clear: everyone has a role to play in helping reducing pollution and keeping our waters clean.  Over the next few months, as we refine and develop our Pollution Patrollers program, we will be calling for volunteers to step up and be the “eyes and the ears” out around the county looking for pollution problems.  For those who can’t commit to formal patrols, we ask that everyone get informed about what urban runoff looks like and learn how to report problems when you see them in your everyday life.  Our only hope of tackling this pollution problem is if all of us work together.

Published in Urban Runoff

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

Welcome to the First Flush: the Start of San Diego’s Rain

Ever wonder about that fresh and clean “just after it rains” feeling?

It seems to feel the most refreshing after the first big rainstorm of the year, when months of accumulated dust particles and leaves are washed away from paved surfaces to the vast underground network of storm drains.

San Diego’s rainfall patterns are such that we typically go about five months without a major rain storm, so as you can imagine there is quite a layer formed on our roofs, streets, and in stagnant pools near storm drains. Unfortunately, the bacteria, trash, and other pollutants carried with the rain water are at high enough levels that we can’t even swim, surf or play in the water for three days after the storm. Welcome to the first flush.

To stormwater monitorers, “major” is anything that registers over one quarter of an inch of rain. That one quarter of an inch is just enough to really get trash moving, to raise the plastics, cigarette butts, food wrappers, Styrofoam, and soccer balls from their temporary resting places and transport them a little closer to their final resting place in the bay or ocean. It’s marine debris in the making. And as Travis describes in his blog post, it’s coastal pollution and beach closures in the making as well.

san_diego_bay_shore_oct_2011_640x480After the flush, a short field trip to the beach, bayfront or your neighborhood creek will give a glimpse of how much trash is loose in our environment, and how much gets transported to our world’s ocean and potentially the Pacific Gyre with each storm.

But what can we do to prevent this flush from being so impactful? I have a few ideas:

  1. Don’t litter, intentionally or unintentionally. This is a no-brainer for most of us. But it also includes every little piece of wrapper and cigarette butt. Pack it in, pack it out.
  2. Participate in cleanup events each fall. Coastal Cleanup Day in September, and Tijuana River Action Month through October, are important efforts which span the period between summer tourist season, bird nesting season and the first rain.
  3. Organize your own cleanup in your neighborhood streets and canyons. Coastkeeper’s Cleanup in a Box Program helps you do just that and gets us important data to aid marine debris reduction advocacy efforts.
  4. Help with Coastkeeper’s plastic foam outreach to restaurants to get less take out Styrofoam in our waterways. Always sign petitions and action alerts for better policy.

 

Published in Marine Debris

Can Kayaking in La Jolla Keep our Water Clean?

This is the fourth 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.

Kayaking_Ang

Angela, co-owner of Hike Bike Kayak, looking for leopard sharks in Pinky, the kayak.

Hands down one of the coolest things about San Diego is kayaking in La Jolla.  In fact, when our staff first asked me for my bio for the website, they asked me to answer this question: “What is one thing I wish everyone knew about San Diego?” I promptly answered Adams Avenue Grill in Normal Heights, but kayaking in La Jolla came a very close second. I may be biased since I used to be a guide at Hike Bike Kayak Sports and spent nearly every day on the water teaching others to enjoy what I know now is an Area of Special Biological Significance, but it’s still downright awesome. And you should go . . . soon.

There are lots of scientists at Coastkeeper who can tell you why it’s so significant and special from an ecological point of view, and it’s all very impressive.  But as the only staff member with a bona fide college degree in Outdoor Recreation, what I can tell you is how amazing this area is for all of us to get out and enjoy.

I’ve kayaked so many places from remote Baja, the Amazon, Hawaii, and beyond, and I’d be hard pressed to say I enjoyed any of them more than some of my two hour tours in La Jolla.  I saw grey whales, green sea turtles, sea lions, common dolphins, bottle nose dolphins, blue sharks, angel sharks, a white shark, leopard sharks, limpets, shore crabs, garibaldi, sheapshead fish, harbor seals, skates, rays, guitar fish and the list goes on and on.  And the craziest part of it all is the area I kayak is less than 3 square miles and right outside a major city.

This is all in our backyard folks.  I implore you, if you haven’t already, wait for the tourists to leave, and sometime between Labor

Kayaking_Dave

Dave, co-owner, of Hike Bike Kayak and Water Quality Monitoring Volunteer, gets attacked by the elusive sand shark at La Jolla Shores.

Day and November, get down to my friends at Hike Bike Kayak for a tour.  And when you do, you’ll surely find a new appreciation for the biodiversity right here in San Diego.  With the fantastic guides still going strong at HBK, you will no doubt learn a lesson about how urban runoff continues to be the number one threat to our water quality in San Diego.  

When you come back with your new inspiration, hit me up (dylan@sdcoastkeeper.org) to get involved in protecting our ocean by joining a Coastkeeper program like our new Pollution Patrollers.  Hooray kayaking!

Published in Marine Conservation

Your Ticket to Preventing Urban Runoff

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: dylan@sdcoastkeeper.org, subject line: Pollution Patrollers) to become part of this exciting program.

Published in Urban Runoff

Swimming Pools to Tide Pools: Your Neighborhood and ASBS Pollution

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.

Published in Marine Conservation

Free Rain Barrels for San Marcos Residents

Good news for San Marcos residents who want to do their part to solve our urban runoff program.  This Saturday, the City of San Marcos and Vallecitos Water District will be giving away rain barrels—free—at a workshop.  

The event will take place from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Vallecitos Water District’s offices at 201 Vallecitos de Oro in San Marcos.  Space is limited, so to register, call Torrey Webb at 760-744-0460, ext. 238.

rainwater_harvestingRain barrels can be a great way to tackle two important water issues:  water quality and water supply.  By capturing water, rain barrels reduce the amount of water running off our roof, across our lawns and into the storm drain.  This reduces the total amount of pollution that makes its way into our ocean and waterbodies.  And it also reduces the amount of total water in our creeks during storm events, which reduces hydromodification, which includes devastating erosion of our creeks and waterways.

Rain barrels also address a water supply issue.  By capturing water in rain barrels,  residents can “harvest” the captured water and use it to irrigate their lawn and garden—reducing the amount of water they would otherwise use to irrigate their yards.

The city and the water district planned the workshop as part of long-term requirement to reduce pollution to San Marcos Creek.  The city needs to reduce pollution—including bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus—into the creek by 2021.

San Diego Coastkeeper has been involved in efforts with other stakeholders, including the City of San Marcos and Vallecitos Water District, to address pollution in Lake San Marcos, which was created by the damming of San Marcos Creek. To learn more about efforts to reduce pollution in Lake San Marcos and the Upper San Marcos Creek, click here.

Published in Urban Runoff