Polluted runoff is San Diego County’s number one water quality problem. It’s what causes the Department of Environmental Health to issue 72-hour polluted beach advisories when it rains and what causes our local streams and rivers to receive poor health ratings.
To address that issue, the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (“MS4”) permit requires our local governments to create and implement plans to prevent pollution in urban runoff and stormwater from reaching our waters. Naturally, Coastkeeper supports that permit and its goal to protect and restore our waters. Until recently, the permit required strict compliance with the Clean Water Act and with standards aimed at protecting our waters from pollution. It held the cities and other governments accountable if they weren’t achieving clean water.
But on November 18, 2015, the San Diego Regional Water Control Board approved an amendment known as a “Safe Harbor” that gives permit holders a pass from accountability for water-quality protection if they have a plan to eventually, someday reduce pollution into our waters and achieve fishable, swimmable waters. They get this “pass” from the moment their plan is approved and it continues indefinitely as long as they keep trying to do better, even if they continue failing to meet water-quality standards. In December, we filed a petition to the State Water Resource Control Board to overturn these amendments and to restore accountability of our governments under the Clean Water Act.
The Clean Water Act long ago recognized that the job of protecting our waters was bigger than the EPA or Regional Boards alone. In doing so, it created a provision that gives citizens the right, if not responsibility, to enforce the laws meant to protect our waters. Since the Clean Water Act is the best – and many times only – tool we as citizens have to defend and protect our waters, it is crucial that we work to protect and preserve that right with the same devotion and intensity we put into protecting our rivers, streams and ocean.
San Diego County has at least 360 known pollutant impairments in 166 bodies of water. How do we know? One of the methods that San Diego Coastkeeper uses to identify polluted water is to take a survey of the insects that live there.
Some insects are more sensitive to pollution than others. By collecting information about the types and numbers of insects living in a waterway, we are able to determine whether the water is healthy enough to support the species that call it home.
We conduct these studies, called bioassessments, with teams of volunteers along rivers and streams in San Diego County. In addition to collecting and identifying aquatic insects, the volunteers work together to measure physical characteristics of the streams such as sedimentation and the state of the stream bed. We usually conduct these assessments once a year, during the springtime when our rivers are flowing most consistently.
San Diego Coastkeeper’s bioassessments go hand in hand with Water Quality Monitoring, our program to analyze water samples for basic chemistry, nutrients, bacteria and toxicity. Because they go beyond measuring chemical components, bioassessments help us to make connections between the quality of our water and the health of our animals that call it home. This gives us a deeper, more holistic understanding of water quality in San Diego County – and that’s the first step to making our water healthy for everyone to enjoy.
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.
This last legislative session was good for California’s waters. Our elected officials passed a package of bills to initiate regulation on the use of our overtapped groundwater resources, — a long time in the making. They also passed a bill that makes California the first state to ban single-use plastic bags, an issue San Diego Coastkeeper has passionately pushed for many years. The statewide California Coastkeeper Alliance represented the environmental voice at the capital, working tirelessly to educate legislators and advocate for strong bills.
But there’s one-little-known bill that they passed for which I am super thrilled–SB1395. Officially known as “Public beaches: inspection for contaminants,” this new law has the potential to change the way we monitor beaches for public health. We unofficially call it: rapid water quality information to keep us safe at beaches.
Currently, state law mandates that public health officers monitor our beaches for fecal indicator bacteria and issue an advisory when the beach has a high bacteria count. We use these date to update our Swim Guide beach closure map.
There is one (major) problem with this testing program. The county uses the same tests we use at Coastkeeper in our lab. This test requires the county to culture out the bacteria, a process that takes 18-48 hours. This time difference between sampling and results means water quality warnings actually say: “This beach should have been closed yesterday; today we should keep it closed.” And because the county needs two clean tests to reopen a beach, it could be closed for three days.
About a year ago, we discussed this health issue with County Supervisor Greg Cox, and we told him about a new way to quantify the amount of bacteria in the water. Instead of the culturing process, we can measure the amount of fecal indicator bacteria DNA present in a water sample. This quicker method is called quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR). We can have results in two to four hours as opposed to 24 hours. This means we can close the beach the same day as the sampling happens AND reopen beaches a whole day earlier than we can now.
Supervisor Cox’s 2013 State of the County speech pleasantly surprised us when he directed county staff to do a one-year pilot study to look into the feasibility of using qPCR to monitor our beaches. On the heels of that study, Supervisor Cox worked with State Senator Marty Block to introduce a bill allowing public health officers to choose to use this new testing method. This is the bill that was passed recently and waits for the Governor’s signature.
We give thanks to Supervisor Cox, Senator Block and our partners at the California Coastkeeper Alliance for their efforts in helping to protect our state’s beaches and the health of all beach users. Now, it’s up to Governor Brown to sign this bill and make it a reality for the state.
Please join us in urging Governor Brown to sign this bill. You can contact him at this link.
High Tech High Blog Series: Blog 1 of 7
To Cut to the Chase:
A Look Back
I grew up in San Carlos and Santee, so Mission Trails Regional Park was practically my backyard. Before the visitor’s center opened in 1995, not many people utilized the park– it felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. I remember just my family and the old lady collecting crawfish with a piece of hotdog on a fishing pole. My dad, my brother, and I would walk down to the San Diego River after a major stormand watch as the river swelled, unleashing a torrent of water past the old dam, which is pretty impressive, if you get a chance.
This month, I headed down to the park to get training for the upcoming bioassessment project. Before I describe the training, let me give you some background.
Some Background on our Monitoring Program
The monitoring program we have run for more than a decade has focused on chemical constituents. We measure nitrate and ammonia concentrations. We measure the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. We measure bacteria concentrations. Measuring stream pollutants is important data, and we use them to compare the stream to regulatory standards. But, this picture of the ecological health of the stream is incomplete. We can say if a stream has pollutant problems, but can’t really say what effects those pollutants have on the stream.
At Coastkeeper, we want to round out our monitoring program and add physical and biological integrity measurements to our picture of stream health. We can get a sense of overall watershed health by collecting and analyzing the insects that make the stream their home, as well as noting how intact the physical habitat of the stream is. I am super excited to be adding this component to our program.
Now to the Good Stuff–Bugs and Bioassessment Trainings
Back to the training. Last week we brought Jim Harrington from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to train our volunteer team leaders. Myself, three of our volunteers, and Shannon Quigley-Raymond, who is a partner of ours at the San Diego River Park, learned the ins and outs collecting insects, assessing their habitat, and running a bioassessment program. This training was hardcore–three full days of learning.
Local environmental consultants joined our training: staff from the San Diego, Los Angeles, and Riverside Water Quality Control Boards; and Fish and Wildlife staff members. This diverse group got me thinking about the value of volunteer-generated water quality data. Here we were getting the same training that the “professionals” get to conduct this work. And these professionals got trained because San Diego Coastkeeper brought the trainer down!
Just look at these photos and see how beautiful San Diego’s water are. These pictures of Mission Trails shows how lush and beautiful our rivers can be if weprotect them properly.
Join the Fun
If you like playing with bugs, getting muddy, and telling the story of our watersheds, keep your eye out for our bioassessment program announcements. We hope to get started in June, and we will need a bunch of help.
Like our monthly water quality monitoring program, this bioassessment work is funded with support from the Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2006 of the State of California.
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.
The following was written by Coastkeeper’s Jo Brooks and Everett Delano of our board of directors in response to a February 23 U-T San Diego editorial that criticized stormwater runoff requirements. This is the full text of their response, a partial response was published in the March 15, 2014 U-T.
A recent U-T San Diego editorial complained about the “ridiculousness” of stormwater runoff requirements adopted last May by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. Alleging the rules would cost the city $4 billion over the next 17 years and cause a 1,000 percent increase in the (miniscule) stormwater portion of water bills, the U-T San Diego Editorial Board urged that somebody “needs to stop the madness.” While the editorial was filled with hyperbole and sought to entertain, particularly the line about having to put diapers on waterfowl, the problem of water pollution is no laughing matter.
A Region in Trouble
Our region’s waters are in bad shape. In 2013 alone, San Diego County had over 3,000 beach closure days. More than 160 water bodies in the county are listed as polluted and not meeting federal water quality standards for, among other things, bacteria, lead, nickel, pesticides, thallium and trash. An urban runoff report on the biological integrity of San Diego’s streams in 2011-2012 listed only 3% as in “very good” condition while 79% were listed as “poor” or “very poor.” San Diego Coastkeeper’s own monitoring in 2013 revealed “marginal” water quality for the Carlsbad, Sweetwater, Pueblo, and Otay watersheds, and “poor” water quality for the Tijuana watershed. San Diego’s waters, inextricably linked to our own health and to the health of our economy, need our protection and our action.
The editorial’s complaint that the standards would require the city to “scrub its urban runoff” is simply wrong. Yes, even under prior permits, washing a car in a driveway and allowing dirty wash water to escape to the street or a storm drain system is “strongly discouraged.” So are a host of other bad practices that flush water with chemicals and pollutants into storm drains, where it collects with other pollutants that feed into San Diego’s streams, beaches, lagoons, bays, and eventually the ocean. While there are no permit requirements to “scrub runoff,” there are appropriate requirements to adopt “maximum extent practicable” levels of protection of San Diego’s precious water bodies.
Fishable, Swimmable & Drinkable
As members of San Diego Coastkeeper’s board of directors, we take seriously the federal Clean Water Act’s mandates of fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters. As San Diegans, we should all ask ourselves – what is it worth to be able to eat fish from our waters, recreate in our bays and ocean, and drink water without fear of illness? There can be little doubt but that clean water is important to all. A 2004 study conducted by the University of Southern California and UCLA estimates that for every dollar spent on compliance with stormwater requirements, two to three dollars in benefits will result, including benefits to tourism, property values, public health, and public recreation.
A Questionable Price Tag
In reality, the $4 billion 17-year price tag listed in the editorial is suspect – like many things, there are often less expensive ways to address the same objective. Certainly the permit contains no requirement to spend any particular amount of money. But some of the very things the editorial complains about, like improving our irrigation systems and capturing stormwater for reuse, have tremendous potential to save both money and water in the long run, particularly when we are faced with a drought and the inevitably increasing costs associated with a reliable water supply for a growing population. Coastkeeper participates in the permit’s stakeholder process and supports constructive approaches to meeting permit requirements at reasonable cost.
It is also important to remember that visitors to San Diego spend nearly $8.4 billion annually, with an economic impact of over $18.7 billion generated for our regional economy. These visitors, just like residents and businesses, depend on healthy beaches and bays. Our healthy economy, like our public health, depends on healthy San Diego water bodies.
The U-T editorial correctly notes that our antiquated sewage-processing facility, the country’s last large municipal treatment plant not to meet basic secondary-treatment standards, requires significant upgrades. But we cannot afford to pollute our region’s water bodies either through inadequate sewage treatment or through polluted urban runoff.
The editorial derides the Regional Water Board’s permit as “environmental extremism.” In fact, it implements obligations set forth in the very mainstream 40-year-old federal Clean Water Act. We think of it more as an appropriate, measured step to address one of our region’s greatest assets. Our public health, our ecological health, and our financial well-being deserve nothing less.
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.
While most of you were trying to stay dry and cozy during this past storm, several intrepid volunteers offered to brave the elements and help us figure out the source of urban runoff pollutants.
Urban runoff is the biggest threat to water quality in San Diego County, and we know that the problem gets worse when it rains. Rain washes pollutants from our urban environment and into our streams. What is unknown, however, is from where exactly these pollutants come. That sounds like a perfect job for San Diego Coastkeeper and its amazing volunteer base.
We divided up the Pueblo Watershed, the watershed for Chollas Creek, into sub-drainage basins. These are the colored areas displayed on the map. By analyzing the water coming out of these mini watersheds, we can hopefully determine the worst offenders for urban runoff. Once gathered, we will model this data to determine which of these basins has the highest pollutant concentrations, allowing us to better target our outreach and education efforts on the areas that disproportionately contribute to our urban runoff problem.
Sampling these areas was no small task, as we had to sample during the rain to catch the pollutants. We are deeply grateful to our amazing volunteers who ventured into the storm to conduct this sampling. They fought rain, wind, and traffic to help us collect this dataset. Hector Valtierra even sampled twice, spending seven soggy hours collecting data. Thank you, Hector!
It will take us a few weeks to analyze the data, but it looks interesting so far. There was a ton of bacteria in the water and nutrient levels look super high also. Trash was everywhere. We even unfortunately found a floating chihuahua. We’ll keep you updated as we work the data..
We thank the County Board of Supervisors and Union Bank for funding to support this project. In addition our thanks to Supervisor Greg Cox’s office for its involvement in getting this project started.
Interested in a volunteer’s perspective? Check out what Lynna Moy has to say about the day.