We may not think about it every day, but we all live in a watershed. A watershed is the area of land that catches all the rain and snow, which collects into a marsh, stream, river, lake or groundwater. What we do on the land affects the quality of water for all communities living downstream. So what does this mean? It means our rivers and streams are the report card for a watershed’s health.
San Diego Coastkeeper has been monitoring local waterways since 2000. We assess watershed health on a monthly basis by measuring nutrients, bacteria, and basic water chemistry (temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, etc). We monitor fixed sites in nine of San Diego County’s eleven coastal draining watersheds and use our data to assign water quality scores to each of our sites and annual watershed health reports. Most importantly (perhaps) is that we share these scores with the public by updating water quality information monthly on our website.
San Diego Coastkeeper is the only countywide, routine water quality monitoring program in San Diego, and we’re the largest volunteer-led effort of its kind in the state. We train over 100 volunteers each year to collect water quality data, and by analyzing the data that volunteers collect, we identify polluted waters and reduce sources of pollution.
We’ve learned a thing or two after 16 years of monitoring San Diego County’s water quality. These are our top five lessons learned.
- Urbanization is linked to poor water quality.
Want an example? See how fertilizers alone hurt our water.
- Nitrates are especially high in Escondido Creek.
At high levels, nitrates can be toxic to animals and humans. The best way you can prevent nitrate pollution in our waters is to limit the use of chemical fertilizers in your yard, or better yet rip up your grass and plant native plants that don’t need fertilizers.
- Bacteria levels are really high after a rain event.
Here are ten tactics to keep bacteria out of our waters by preventing polluted runoff.
- Drought affects water quality, not just quality.
Ambient measurements help us determine when poor water quality is harming the flora and fauna of our waters.
- We could not do this without our extraordinary volunteers.
Each month, 40 – 45 San Diego residents volunteer their Saturday to collect field samples and process them in the lab. During 2014 alone, 194 volunteers gave a total of 1,888 hours.
What is polluted runoff?
Pollutants like oil, grease, pesticides and litter build up on our streets and sidewalks each day. When it rains, and when sprinklers spill onto the sidewalk, water carries all of these pollutants through our storm drains directly into our rivers, bays and beaches without any treatment. Another large and related, and somewhat unquantifiable, problem is called industrial stormwater pollution. While this pollution reaches our waters in much the same way as everyday runoff, this type of pollution originates at the many industrial business sites across the county.
Why is polluted runoff the largest threat to our fishable, swimmable water?
Polluted runoff is the reason we can’t swim in the ocean for 72 hours after it rains, and it causes chemical build up in the fish we eat. But fighting polluted runoff isn’t as simple as stopping a single source of pollution. It’s a death by a thousand cuts, originating everywhere from car washes and sprinklers to streets, construction and industrial sites and farms. Imagine stopping the rain from pouring from the sky and running down the streets!
Dive into our polluted runoff series to explore the cutting edge of our work defending San Diego County’s water from urban and industrial runoff and learn how to make a difference yourself.
- Why We Spend Our Saturdays Collecting Water Samples
- Water Quality: What’s Drought Got to Do With It?
Stay tuned for more stories coming soon.
The challenge: Use the information on the water scarcity problems we face in San Diego to become the solution. That’s what Vicki Binswanger’s Biology class at Westview High School, Poway did. They used our education lessons and website for their class project and the results are very impressive. After learning how scarce our most important resource is, water, they were given the challenge to be a part of the solution. They had to either take action by:
- Persuading or educating others in their community.
- Reducing their own ecological impact.
- Designing an experiment to further understand conservation.
Overall, this small project made a huge impact on the environment:
- Several students managed to reduce their own water and electric bills, as well as trash production.
- Other students educated their sports teams and children at local schools as well as persuaded local business people to promote eco-friendly ideas.
- Many chose to design experiments where they answered their own questions related to the environment.
- All students used research skills, analyzed data, used critical reading and writing skills and demonstrated scientific thinking. This confirms that environmental education not only promotes stewardship but also increase student’s college readiness.
They also designed a website to share all their projects and titled it the Green Teen.
Ms. Binswanger loved the presentation materials, reports and data we provided. She was impressed with the outcome of the project and how well it reached the students. The project was especially successful in speaking to students that are less inspired by traditional activities because they saw authentic value in what we were doing. Using San Diego’s environmental real-life problems was important to help students connect with their science class.
Big thanks to Ms. Binswanger and her awesome biology class for sharing their project with us. You are a very inspiring group.
Every year, the first major rain after the dry summer season gives us an opportunity to see the complicated problem of urban runoff and its impacts to our water quality. Urban runoff is water that flows over thehard scape surfaces we fill our cities with and drains directly into our waters. Stormwater, irrigation, and other water carry pollutants such as trash, oil, grease, pesticides, metals, bacteria and viruses, and toxic chemicals.
And it washes into our rivers, bays, lakes and ocean – untreated.
To unwind this major water quality issue in San Diego would require turning back the clock to a time before we developed the county and rethinking how we paved, connected and changed the natural landscape. Still, today, we can do things to capture or slow down runoff before it hits our water or to prevent pollutants in the first place. In thinking about our upcoming stormy season, we tapped the brains of our water quality sampling volunteers, who collect water samples from nine of our eleven watersheds, to produce this list of the top ten places to watch urban runoff. In no scientific way, we ordered it from the most basic visual to the most compelling. We target different pollutants, diverse geographic locations, a varierty of infrastructure impacts and human health and use impacts.
Take a look. What do you see?
10. 2306 S Coast Highway: Open channel dumping onto the beach
This popular North County surf spot features an open channel carrying urban runoff from the adjacent parking lot and highway straight onto the beach. This location highlights how stormwater washes trash and dissolved pollutants from our developed places onto our beaches.
9. 300 Forward Street in La Jolla/Bird Rock: Drain at the street’s end
This is the most straightforward illustration of a storm drain labeled “drains to the ocean,” where you can see the drain, the end of the street and the polluted water and its entrance to the Pacific. It simply illustrates the complicated infrastructure our region built that assumed pushing all water into our bays and ocean was the smartest way to keep our homes and businesses dry.
8. Tourmaline Surf Park: Channelized stormwater outlet meets popular surf spot
This Pacific Beach surf spot is world-renowned for its waves, thankfully not for its urban runoff pollution. Risking intestional illnesses of all sorts, surfers get barreled here when its raining, unaware that a paved stormwater channel leads direct to sandy beach and into the water. Polluted runoff in this channel dumps directly in the surf zone.
7. Coast Boulevard Park: Cement pipe at ocean’s edge
The Waterkeeper movement started decades ago because fisherman saw large industrial sites using massive pipes to discard pollution directly into the Hudson River. This location symbolizes San Diego’s version of that as a cement pipe carries polluted water from the storm drain straight to the ocean. With the Hudson’s pollution, fishermen could pinpoint a specific corporation responsible for dumping pollution into the water. In San Diego, it’s impossible to target one contributor to this issue because every person adds to the problem as rain water runs over our homes, yards, driveways, workplaces and more, until it carries accumalted toxins to this singular end point. In this spot, a large algae plume from the excess nutrients (commonly caused by fertilizer) grows along the rocks at the end of the drain. You can even see the algae mat in this photo to the right.
6. Cottonwood creek at Moonlight State Beach:Storm Drain opening
We’re particularly aware of this polluted runoff example because Moonlight Beach is a favorite among locals, families and surfers. It’s one of those rare beaches where a community member organizes regular cleanups to keep it trash free. Surfers flock here. Families play here. But, it’s also a prime location to see an open channel storm drain flow right to the sandy beach.
5. San Dieguito River Park Stormwater Treatment lagoon: Treatment wetland in action
Is it too late to reverse the effects of polluted runoff? Absolutely not, especially when we get creative.
We chose this location because it showcases a stormwater pipe that drops large amounts of urban runoff from the nearby development. The folks at San Dieguito Lagoon built a treatment wetland to clean the water before it gets to the actual lagoon. Here, you’ll see the pipe dumping water into the first pond. This first pond always has stagnant algae pond water, even when it’s not raining. But, the good news in this solution-oriented example, is that you can see the treatment ponds prevent the gross water from reaching the lagoon.
This illustrates what many people refer to as stormwater capture, and it also depicts the role that nature plays in helping humans handle polluted runoff.
In their natural state, our inland creeks slow polluted water and force it through nature’s filter–offering a true eco-cleanse that can remove a lot of urban runoff pollution from water before it reaches the ocean. Sandly, by channelizing many of San Diego County’s creeks, we dehabilitated nature’s role by replacing vegetation with paved concrete to quickly move water away from our developed areas into our bays and ocean.
4. Tecolote Shores, Mission Beach: Creek emptying into man-made bay
Mission Bay is gross–in this part of the bay. Here Tecolote Creek drains into Mission Bay, a tourism hot spot that we engineered when we rerouted the mouth of the San Diego River. Due to the high bacteria counts in this creek, this section of Mission Bay is often closed for swimming, even when it’s not raining. It’s particularly polluted here year round because this far-back section of Mission Bay does not have much current to mix the polluted water into the open ocean.
3. Dog Beach, Ocean Beach: The mouth of our region’s largest river
The polluted runoff in this iconic location begins collecting bacteria and toxins from as far inland as Julian–the eastern edges of this watershed. The amount and the intensity of polluted runoff flowing through the mouth of this river demonstrate the gravity of our top water quality problem. Here, you’re also likely to see a secondary issue in urban runoff–marine debris.
2. 3001 Harbor Drive: Trash
This bridge overlooks the outlet for Chollas Creek, one of San Diego County’s most polluted creeks. Flowing through the most densely populated urban areas in the county, Chollas Creek is wrought with trash, oil, grease, pesticides, metals, bacteria and viruses and toxic chemicals. What makes this secure the #2 spot on our list of ten is that you can see a trash boom designed to capture trash flowing from upstream into the bay. Particularly with the popularity of photos on the Internet, many people have seen images from around the globe featuring humans in boats surrounded by massive amounts of trash in the water. It’s easy to dismiss that in San Diego because we do have strong trash and recycling systems in place. But, if you find yourself here at the end of Chollas Creek, you may see that marine debris issues are much closer to home than they appear.
1. Dairy Mart Road: Binational polluted runoff
During the winter, the Tijuana River overruns the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant in San Ysidro, California. It then runs through the Tijuana River Estuary, one of the largest remaining Southern California coastal wetland habitats. This area is as important stopover on the Pacific Flyway bird migratory route. Unfortunately, the river carries large amounts of raw sewage as well as trash and sediment straight through the estuary and onto the beaches near Imperial Beach. During the winter, the river flows close nearby beaches. This one location perfectly illustrates that urban runoff is not “one person’s problem” or even “one country’s problem.” It highlights trash management issues as well as chemical water quality issues. This location slots into #1 because of the severity of the polluted runoff, the amount of the water flowing in this spot and the complicated matter of finding solutions to polluted runoff that starts in the U.S., flows through Mexico and completes it journey back in America.
Did we miss a location that you think should earn a spot on our top ten list of places to experience and learn about polluted runoff issues? Please, share with us your ideas in the comments below.
Each year San Diego’s Equinox Center releases a Quality of Life Dashboard which analyzes the area’s environment, economy and communities for the year. As a San Diegan and San Diego Coastkeeper Waterkeeper, I am grateful for both the time they put into producing it and the useful information it provides.
The 2013 Dashboard was recently released and I want to take a few minutes to talk about it today because the quality and depth of their work and findings help us assess the state of our waters, in both quantity and quality, and figure out where we can focus our organization’s efforts. In the end, in producing this Dashboard, the Equinox Center helps make a significant contribution to fishable, drinkable, swimmable San Diego waters. So thank you, Equinox!
The report, which analyzes both water consumption and water quality, has some good news and the good news is that when it comes to water quality, there has been some improvement. We’re happy to see San Diego score so high when compared to California’s other major cities, because our waters make up so much of what defines us as San Diegans. For example, the water analysis section has a section on beach closures and advisories and it reports that, despite increased closures since 2011, 97 percent of San Diego’s beaches earned A or B marks during dry weather from Heal the Bay, although only 76 percent did during wet weather. That is the highest score for any of California’s major cities.
On the other hand, the report reflects an abundance of work still to be done. For example, did you know that water use in San Diego went up last year? This is not good news in a time of such serious drought. Now more than ever it’s important for all of us in the region to maximize conservation and work towards developing a new water conservation ethic built around zero waste.
While we’re reducing, we can also work towards reusing and utilizing local resources to help complement our existing water supplies. These strategies include increased stormwater capture and use when it does rain.
There are other steps that will have to be made on a larger scale. One example is wastewater recycling for potable reuse. I am excited to say that is something more and more local agencies, including the City of San Diego, are working towards implementing.
Of course, we at Coastkeeper will continue to work towards pollution prevention techniques and strategies that allow our beaches to remain open not only when it’s bright and sunny, but after it rains as well. One of the many lessons gleaned from review of the Dashboard is how important it is for us to continue our beach testing efforts that give us more rapid results to protect public health and recreational opportunities here in San Diego.
Do you want to be part of those testing efforts? Check out our Water Quality Monitoring Programs! If that isn’t your cup of tea, we have a beach cleanup, educational event or any number of other perfectly suited activities for you. Check out these opportunities on our volunteer opportunities and events pages.
Despite the stormy Friday morning weather, my water quality partner and I were excited to get to the bottom of a still unsolved mystery—the sources of urban runoff. Because rain is actually helpful in solving this mystery (due to the fact that you can often follow runoff back to the source), we welcomed the unusually intense weather.
When we arrived, the group divided the test area into mini-watersheds and we were assigned to collect water samples along the south bound of Chollas Creek. While the weather was helpful for data, it presented its own challenges. The collection efforts were marked by several strong gusts that pushed and pulled at me, at times nearly causing me to almost lose my balance. At another point I couldn’t see where I was going because my hair was flying in every direction, enveloping my entire face.
With dogged determination, we set out to get all the water samples we needed. Powering through the chaotic weather, climbing fences and walking through a windy swirl of muddy hills, steep pathways and graffiti-ed bridge underpasses, we were going to get this done!
Beside the waterway the evidence of some of the potential perpetrators of the pollution lay taunting us. Spray paint bottles were scattered lifelessly, as were many plastic cups and paper plates. What really captured my attention was a toilet seat cover lodged mid-creek. I still wonder how that ended up there—lots of explanations exist, but, in the end, there is no valid justification. It is amazing what discoveries can be found along the creek.
More challenges to our collection efforts continued to impact our efforts—it was very challenging to keep our paperwork dry! We had other difficulties when the readings on our instrument took longer than expected due to the many particles in the water. An eyeball analysis of the samples we collected made it clear that the water was a far cry from clean and crystal clear.
While the rain and everything its presence brought into Chollas Creek damped (pun intended) our efforts, this Southern Californian was happy to see at least a little of the much-needed rain we have craved for so long.
This whole experience was a wonderful adventure. Despite my thorough soaking and muddy boots, I felt accomplished. Accomplished enough to say that I will certainly do it again!
Are you interested in learning more about what happens to those samples and how they help us learn actionable information? Check out this blog post. Want to have your own happy adventure? Check out our volunteer opportunities.
When should you start your environmental education? No matter what your age, the answer is always right now! At a recent Project SWELL workshop, San Diego area 6th graders discovered that you are never too young to learn the dynamics of our local watersheds.
Environmental education has many goals, including engaging students in learning about the environment and creating a generation of citizens empowered to make environmentally responsible decisions. Project SWELL’s environmental science curriculum is designed to present hands-on, inquiry-based activities to engage students in scientific exploration, with the hope that those students leave with a sense of increased environmental awareness and responsibility. In particular, the project aims to raise consciousness about one of our most precious resources—water.
In addition to the excitement of learning to build their very own watersheds, these newly-minted environmentalist were quick to recognize that watersheds in urban environments like San Diego face a multitude of threats from a variety of everyday occurrences. Walking our pets, driving our cars, building construction and a variety of other activities all leave their mark, often in the form of pollutants.
Pollutants, the traces of human life on earth– pet waste, leaky cars/oil, car soap, detergents, trash, sewage and much more– usually end up in our waterways. The 6th graders discussed what pollutants were and how they entered our waters, followed by the fun of exploring their own ideas for solutions.
With common-sense and achievable solutions, such as “don’t litter” and “clean up after your pet,” the students proved that all of us can change our habits to help our waters.
This group of young people made it clear that passing the torch of environmental consciousness is well worth it. Here is to a new generation of stewardship of our waterways.
The massive amount of cars on San Diego County’s roads greatly contributes to water and air pollution. We breathe the chemicals from autos, which irritate our lungs, resulting in asthma, bronchitis, lowered-lung capacity and other respiratory illnesses. Cars also cover our streets with pollution, like copper dust and oil, that rain and runoff carry into our waters. Follow these tips to drive your car less and help reduce runoff and carbon emission pollution in San Diego.
- Get on your bike. We are lucky to live in San Diego – a bike-friendly city with paths, routes and lanes solely for biking. Take advantage of these. Instead of always relying on your car, try to make the shorter trips by bike. You will get exercise and won’t have to lose your parking space.
- Don’t sweat the sweat. It’s ok to sweat. Really, it’s ok- it’s actually good for you. Make a small bag of personal hygiene items to freshen up when you get to your destination.
- Shop local. Have you explored all the shops within walking or biking distance of your home? Give up the big shopping center and try nearby local businesses and farmers market.
- Public transit. You can get almost anywhere in San Diego with the extensive public transportation systems. Our Metropolitan Transit System covers a total of 3,240 square miles of San Diego County and serves approximately three million residents. There are also our Greyhound Lines, the North County Coaster and the Big Bay Shuttle to get you to any location, from any location.
- Carpool. Going somewhere with all your friends? There’s a lane for that. Save yourself the cost of gas and hitch a ride with people going the same direction as you.
- Have a block party. Want to go out, but don’t feel like driving? Good news is you’ve likely got friends all around you, and you don’t have to go far. And if you don’t know your neighbors, now is your chance. Organize a block potluck, or simply sit outside with your dog or someone you know for a fun night at home.
- Plan ahead. Instead of jumping in your car and running errands across town, take a minute to think about where you are going to get what you need. Maybe you can find all the things you need in one shopping center, or perhaps you can run one errand next week when you are in that part of town. Plan your errands to combine trips and save time and gas.
- Daily car rentals. If you don’t drive your car much but need it on occasion, consider a carshare. You use it when you need it and stick to biking and public transit the rest of the time.
- Set goals. For most of us, cutting driving cold-turkey wouldn’t work for very long. Make short-term and long-term goals and take it one day at a time. Try just one day a week when you find an alternative to driving.
- Enjoy it. Getting out of the car and biking, walking or riding the bus is a nice change from the stress of everyday driving. Driving is easy but there are other ways to commute that are healthier for you and the environment. Give them a try- you may be surprised how much you don’t miss your car after all.
Do you ever wonder where your water in San Diego comes from? Do you know what type of impact that has on our environment or how much energy it uses? Watch San Diego Coastkeeper’s video on the water supply in San Diego to learn more. Then visit us at http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper.
A watershed is an area of land where all the water from rainfall, streams and rivers drain to a common outlet like reservoirs, bays or larger rivers. It is the ecosystem in which we all live including the wildlife, surface waters and, of course, our neighborhoods. Sometimes, the word watershed is used synonymously with drainage basin or catchment. In San Diego County, we have a total of eleven watersheds.
Try this experiment: build your own watershed at home and explore how water flows across the land.
You will need the following:
- 1 large tupperware container or roasting pan
- Scrap paper or newspaper
- Rocks of various sizes
- White trash bag
- Cup of cocoa mix, iced tea mix, or other flavored drink mix (to represent chemicals)
- 1 spray bottle filled with blue-colored water
- Use the paper and rocks to make an uneven surface in you container. You are constructing the topography of your watershed.
- Cover your topography with the white trash bag; be sure to tuck in the edges under the rocks. It might be helpful to use some rocks to hold the trash bag in place.
- Spray your watershed with the blue-colored water to simulate precipitation. Where does the water in the watershed flow?
- Sprinkle the cocoa mix over part of your model. The cocoa mix represents chemical runoff that is polluting the watershed. Spray the model again and watch how the contaminated water travels through the watershed.
- What are some things that can pollute our watershed?
- How can we reduce the impact that we have on the watershed and the environment?
Did you build your own watershed? We want to see! Send us a picture at firstname.lastname@example.org and be featured on our blog.
Are you a teacher who wants to use environmental education lessons in your classroom? Checkout Project SWELL: a school-based science curriculum that teaches children about the importance of the San Diego region’s waterways. Project SWELL helps teachers empower students about how to understand and improve the condition of San Diego waterways. For more information go to www.projectswell.org.
Photo credit: Shannon Switzer