Water Quality 2015: Pueblo Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality 2015 - Dieguito (1)

Water Quality Index Score: 56, Marginal

Pueblo Polar 2015A few key takeaways from our Pueblo Watershed data:

As this watershed is home to Chollas Creek, one of San Diego’s most urban rivers, these results aren’t unexpected. The high phosphorous and ammonia levels in this watershed are a common result of urban runoff, when rain washes pollutants, like lawn fertilizers and pesticides, down our storm drains and into our rivers and streams.

This creek is also infamous for drying up, so our dataset is missing many samples throughout the year. In fact, more sites went dry this year than any other year in Coastkeeper’s recent sampling history here. All signs point toward poorer water quality than shown with the samples that we could collect. With more flow and more samples, this watershed probably would have earned a Poor Water Quality Index Score.

Water Quality Index Score Explanation

Water Quality 2015: San Dieguito Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality 2015 - Dieguito

Water Quality Index Score: 76, Fair

San Diegito Polar 2015Our data in San Dieguito Watershed show:

Ammonia and Phosphorous

These are nutrients people add to farms, lawns and gardens to encourage robust and healthy plant growth. In our water, however, extra nutrients are harmful pollution. When rain washes these nutrients down storm drains and into our watersheds, it triggers an unhealthy chain reaction called eutrophication. Nutrient pollution can fuel massive, unnatural blooms of algae on the water’s surface that grow so big they block the sun from reaching plants below the water. When these plants die from lack of sunlight all at once, they begin to rot all at once too, producing an unnatural amount of bacteria that use up the dissolved oxygen that other wildlife depend on to breath. This puts stress on or kills our underwater wildlife.

Nutrient pollution is a huge concern for this waterway because our volunteers spotted lots of wildlife including blue herons, hummingbirds, ducks, bull frogs, carp, bass, crayfish, turtles, clams, crawfish and many insects.

Marine Debris

Volunteers noted this watershed was filled with trash including fishing gear, golf balls, old tarps, knitting needles, clothing, irrigation piping, and beer bottles.

Water Quality Index Score Explanation

Water Quality 2015: Sweetwater Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality 2015 - Sweetwater (1)

Water Quality Index Score: 53, Marginal

Sweetwater Polar 2015Our data in Sweetwater Watershed showed:

This is another watershed indicative of extremely low water flows creating high nutrient levels and low oxygen levels — so low that the river is nearly depleted of oxygen for many of the summer months.

Why should we care? Our volunteers also spot turtles in this watershed, which depend on the river for their livelihood.


Water Quality Index Score Explanation

Water Quality 2015: Los Peñasquitos Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality 2015 - Penasquitos (2)

Water Quality Index Score: 74, Fair

Los Penasquitos Polar 2015Well, here it is: the most typical, average watershed in San Diego County in terms of water quality pollution and health. Our data in this watershed did not change dramatically from the year previous, nor did it produce any intriguing results this year.

It’s typical.

The end point for this watershed, the Los Penasquitos Lagoon, has an official “pollution diet” in place for sediment, which means it’s a known problem here. We continue to monitor this closely.




Water Quality Index Score Explanation

San Diego’s Waters Deserve Our Best

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 QuTourmaline-storm-channelality 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.

What’s A Little Rain When You Have A Mystery to Solve?

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 Day In The Life of a Water Monitorhelpful 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.

Published in Urban Runoff

Weather Doesn’t Dampen Resolve to Get Answers

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 Testing Water Samplesin 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.

Published in Urban Runoff

Maintaining High Quality Data

This is part 1 of a 5 part series of results from our water monitoring lab. If you haven’t read our watershed report, head over here and check it out. In this first part, we are going to examine the high quality nature of the data generated by the water monitoring program.
Last month we trained our 700th water monitoring volunteer. I am proud of the work that our many water monitoring volunteers do. Their dedication and skill is admirable to us in the lab and to the rest of the organization.

I am most proud of the high quality data our volunteers are able to produce. The data they generate can stand up on it’s own with any other laboratory.  Ensuring high quality data is important to monitoring programs because high quality data tells a better story than questionable data. If you cannot be sure about the accuracy of a dataset, you cannot use it to identify and fix problems.

How do water monitoring volunteers collect good data?

The first step in ensuring high quality data is to have sampling methods that reduce the chance for errors. Any of the field samplers will tell you that the methods we use are a little bit over the top. We use a method developed by the EPA called Clean Hands/Dirty Hands. This method was developed for measuring very, very small amounts of metals in the water. Since the concentrations are so small, even a little bit of contamination can really mess things up. Even though it can be a bit of a pain, it seriously reduces the amount of sample contamination

We also have a pretty stringent Quality Assurance Project Plan , that describes all the field and laboratory process we go through to make sure only good data is kept, and poor quality data is discarded. This plan has been read over and approved by California Department of Water Resources, San Diego County Water Authority, and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. Among other things, randomly assigned sites have duplicate samples taken, randomly assigned samples are run in the lab twice, and clean distilled water is tested. If these duplicate or blank results show some funny business, we will look hard at the data and throw out possibly questionable data.

Our volunteers generate professional quality research data and should feel proud of the work they do. I know I am.




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.


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.


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

How can San Diego Coastkeeper help your future?

donate-water-quality-labHere at San Diego Coastkeeper, volunteer opportunities go a long way.  It is no secret that San Diego Coastkeeper depends on our super star volunteers to help us achieve the organization’s goals and protect water quality in San Diego, but what can these opportunities do for YOU?

Our 2011 volunteer of the year Taya Lazootin was recently accepted into two prestigious graduate school programs, the first being the Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in Miami Florida and the second is the Geography Department at San Diego State University.  Choosing a path a bit closer to home, Taya will pursue a Master’s degree in Geography where she will study coral reef management while researching marine protected areas for Indo-Pacific reefs near developing island communities.  Sounds AMAZING, right?  This program is currently ranked number 7 in the country and leads to a joint PhD program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Clearly, Taya is a rockstar!

You might be wondering, ‘How do I that?’ and you will be happy to know, San Diego Coastkeeper can help.  Taya is not the first volunteer from our Water Quality Monitoring program and lab who went on to graduate school with relevant work experience under her wing.  Lab intern Melissa Ta is writing her thesis using the research she did in our Water Quality Monitoring for her graduate school program at San Diego State University’s School of Public Health.  She has a pretty cool blog of her own, too.  Needless to say, our volunteers are intelligent, driven folks who followed their love of the environment straight to us, and San Diego Coastkeeper is proud to say we helped them achieve their goals.

Whether it is in the lab, office, legal clinic, marine conservation or public relations and social media realm that you are interested in gaining more experience, San Diego Coastkeeper can help.  As much as we love our volunteers and the work they do, we are equally as interested in helping them in their pursuits, whether they be academic or personal enrichment.  If you are interested in learning more about opportunities to help your future while protecting San Diego’s water resources, let us know by emailing volunteer@sdcoastkeeper for more information.