This is part 2 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 second part, we are going to take a look at the Los Peñasuitos lagoon.
Water Quality Data Supports Restoration of Los Peñasquitos
The Los Peñasquitos watershed comprise two separate and distinct drainages: the Los Peñasquitos Creek watershed, which drains into the Los Peñasquitos lagoon and the Mission Bay watershed, which drains into Mission Bay. The combined watershed lies almost entirely west of Interstate 15, and comprises a rough triangle between parts of Del Mar, Mission Bay and Poway.
For the 2009 – 2010 dataset, Los Peñasquitos watershed received a score of “Good” on our water quality index. This does not mean, however, that the watershed is healthy. Our scoring system is not comprehensive, it only looks at what we measure in the water monitoring program. Factors other than chemistry play a part in watershed health. Let’s take a look at the problem’s Los Peñasquitos faces.
The story of Los Peñasquitos’s water quality problems is a story of rapid development. Take a look at these two aerial satellite shots. The top is from 1994, and the bottom is from 2010:
From 1973 to 2000, runoff into the creek increased by 200% , or about four percent per year. This water picks up pollutants such as nutrients from fertilizer and metals from road surfaces as it flows across the developed areas. In this watershed, dry weather urban runoff (overwatering, for example) increases the total nitrogen, total phosphorus and fecal indicator bacteria problems in the creeks.
Excessive sediments in the creek are a major problem for the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon. The deposition and build up of sediments into the lagoon alters the natural exchange of freshwater and seawater. This has led to the destruction of sensitive saltmarsh habitat. As a result of this habitat degradation, invasive plants and animals are replacing the sensitive native flora and fauna of the lagoon.
The Regional Water Quality Control Board has just finished up the cleanup plan for this sedimentation. Pre-1970’s levels of sedimentation will increase the amount of saltwater marsh habitat. It won’t be a quick process, however. the sediment reduction is scheduled to happen in the next 10 years.
This watershed highlights the need to consider water quality issues on a watershed basis. The increasingly rapid sedimentation of the lagoon is driven in a large part by land use decisions. The vast majority of our urban runoff pollution comes from upland areas. Water quality improvements will happen if we take a holistic, watershed view of water protection. Read more about how Jill and our brilliant student attorneys are starting this process with the new stormwater permits.
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.
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–
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.
For years, shipyards dumped pollutants into the sediments of San Diego’s waters.
Since the approval of the cleanup plan, they’ve been good about listening to our feedback on how to cleanup the problem, but they haven’t been good about listening to yours.
The Remedial Action Plan, adopted back in March, set forth a strong cleanup order to get metal discharges and other pollutant wastes out of the sediment. The plan outlined how the shipyards were to dredge without harming water quality, and to make sure no more pollutants end up in our water. It has specific goals for these shipyards to reach. And the shipyards have done a good job at incorporating our feedback on how to reach those goals.
But why aren’t they incorporating your feedback?
The Shipyard Sediment Site Group needs a new communication plan. The current one isn’t cutting it. Right now, their plan is to essentially to direct people over to the Water Board’s site, which is full of lengthy PDFs that do nothing but confuse the average citizen.
In their current Community Relations Plan, the group acknowledges, “the community needs to have access to information and have the opportunity to understand how the remedial action may affect them.” Acknowledging that is great, but making sure it happens is the only thing that matters.
The Shipyard Sediment Site Group needs its own website, one that’s constantly updated with information on everything the group is doing. Simply sending out newsletters doesn’t get the job done. The “Potential Community Relations Tools and Materials” in the current Community Relations Plan lists advertisements, information displays, blogs, comment databases, presentations, briefing packets, and a website to name a few. Where are they?
The Shipyard Sediment Site Group is starting to make progress, and Coastkeeper is appreciative that they’ve been responsive to our feedback. But without a strong community relations plan, the public, who are the real stakeholders, has no way of giving their input in this case. The public needs to be able to see the changes that are happening, and comment on them. This is a two-way street.
What do you think the Shipyard Sediment Site Group can do to better increase community input?
About two months ago, I went to Portland for the annual Waterkeeper Alliance conference. This year, we joined the folks from River Network for one big happy 700-person celebration of all the things that make fighting for our waterways fun, challenging and important. The Hurricane Creekkeeper patrols a 32-mile creek and spent four days railing against coal ash and rallying people to fight The Dirty Lie. The Long Island Soundkeeper has spent 25 years crusading against pollution that robs him and his community of the fishing industry that forms the backbone of that area’s history and future. And in Tennessee a young activist founded not one, but two riverkeeper organizations.
So many people, so passionate about their water. For most, that passion connects them to a place: The Hudson River; Lake Ontario; Humboldt Bay. Keepers from around the country, around the world even, have vehement passion for the patch of water in their backyard.
It left me wondering, what is my place? I have that passion, but how do I describe it? The belief in protecting our water is part of me, just as the water is part of my identity. I grew up fishing in Lake Hodges, boating in Lake Poway, swimming at Fletcher Cove and Moonlight Beach. Now I live in Ocean Beach, surf at Sunset Cliffs and 15th Street and Pipes, hike around the lakes and have the freedom to wander the county in search of sunshine and cool water.
How does that compare to being connected to a single, specific waterbody? What do I protect? Where do I draw the conviction and energy to fight day after day?
My “place” is everywhere. That’s why San Diego Coastkeeper is special and why I give up weekends and evenings to protect our waterways. All of them. I do not crusade for a single source. I declare personal accountability for a lifestyle built on an entire, interconnected county full of water. It’s my home; it’s your home. We can all “keep the coast clear;” we must. This is our place and we are the only ones who can do it.
Is my tap water safe to drink is probably the most frequent question I hear when I tell people I do water quality monitoring. Here at Coastkeeper, we monitor inland water quality in our rivers and streams, but I just got my copy of the Annual Drinking Water Quality Report from the City of San Diego. There is a ton of acronyms and jargon terms, so I thought I’d help you look through it.
Acronyms and Jargon
This box below shows the different jargon terms and acronyms the labs use in their reporting. Here are the important ones:
- Action Level: For certain contaminates, such as lead, the EPA sets maximum concentrations that are safe levels for human consumption. If the treatment plant tests the water at or above these concentration levels, the facility must take action to fix the problem and lower the concentration levels.
- CA SMCL – California Secondary Maximum Contaminate Level: These are non-mandatory guidelines set by the State of California. These guidelines are not enforced; there is no penalty for going over them. They are generally measuring aesthetic qualities like taste, odor and color. They help the treatment facility operators have something to shoot for.
- MCL – Maximum Contaminate Level: Much like the Action Level, this sets the maximum level a contaminant can reach in the water.
- MCLG – Maximum Contaminate Level Goal: This is the real goal of the treatment plant. This is the level at which the contaminate has no health risks associated with it. The difference between the MCL or the Action Level and the MCLG is a bit confusing. Let’s look at lead to see how it works. The action level is 1.3 mg/L but the goal is 0.3 mg/L. The treatment facility wants to get the lead concentrations down to 0.3, but it may be impossible to bring the levels down to that level. The 1.3 is the enforceable standard; the 0.3 is what we would like it to be.
Most everything else you can ignore for now.
Also, since I live in the city of San Diego, I’m looking at its water quality report, but every city in our county will also have one. Use Google to search for your city’s Drinking Water Quality Report or look through your recent mail.
How did the City of San Diego’s drinking water rate?
The drinking water at my house is pretty good! Here are the numbers I’m looking at:
Total Coliform Bacteria:
This is the same bacteria Coastkeeper’s water monitoring program tests. This indicates that there is something in the water that could make you sick, like sewage cross contamination. As you can see, the Maximum Contaminate Level was less than 5% of samples containing these bacteria. On average 0.1% did. That’s pretty significantly below the standards.
The Action Level for lead is 15 ppb (parts per billion) and the goal is 0.2 ppb. Let’s get a visualization of how small a part per billion is. One ppb is about equal to a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool. It’s a super small number. Because lead is so toxic, they don’t just report the average concentration. They report the concentration that is above 90% of all the samples (90th percentile concentration). In this case, their tests did not detect any lead at all in 90% of the samples and only 3 total samples had concentrations of above the Action Limit. This test was done at residence’s tap, not at the plant. So this takes into account lead added from old lead pipes. If your house is relatively new, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Odor and Color:
Odor and color were both either very low, or below the test’s detection limits. These are not dangerous, but I’m glad our water doesn’t have much flavor or smell.
I personally am not too concerned about many of the other tests, but as you go through the report yourself, you can see everything is generally pretty low and well below the standards set by the EPA or the state.
Would you drink the tap water?
I hear this question all the time, and my answer is an emphatic yes! I drink tap water every day. San Diego’s tap water is safe, clean and inexpensive. The bottled water companies do not have to publish these reports, so I have no idea how safe it really is. Tap water is more environmentally friendly; it doesn’t have to be packaged up in single-use plastic bottles. Bottled water is also more expensive the gasoline whereas a glass of tap water is practically free.
Preliminary results are in for our May 19 water quality monitoring event. Water quality in May was overall pretty good. The map on the right shows the “winners” and “losers” for the month. The sites marked in green rated “excellent” in terms of water quality.
Since an “excellent” score requires there to be no measured water quality problems, it’s fairly hard to get. It’s a rare occurance for the county to have six sites ranked as “excellent,” so we are pretty proud of our waters this month.
Only one site rated “poor” and it’s marked in red. The Chollas Creek site had problems with fecal indicator bacteria and nutrients.
Thank you to our awesome water monitoring volunteers this month. You folks rocked it.
If you want to get involved, our next training is July 21, 2012. Send an email to email@example.com and we’ll get you signed up.
I would like to share what is going on with the Los Penasquitos sewage spill from September 8. Since the spill, Coastkeeper conducted additional monitoring in the creek as well as in the lagoon. The last sampling we did out there was on Tuesday, Sept. 20, so these results are almost a week old. Additional sampling will be performed this week, now that the city has stopped their pumping (as of Friday, 2 p.m.).
As you can see the E. coli levels in the creek have dropped dramatically since the city started pumping the creek out. As of Tuesday, E. coli concentrations were still elevated downstream in the lagoon, flowing slowly to the tidal area of the lagoon.
Dissolved oxygen levels remain low for all sites. The oxygen concentrations in the normal sampling location in the creek are steadily rising but the lagoon site shows a decrease over time. This could be indicating that the sewage effects are slowly making its way down the lagoon, past the pumping area of the city. The red line in the chart above is the state standard of 5 mg/L, so all areas of the lagoon and creek still have some room for improvement.
Ammonia concentrations show a similar patter to Dissolved Oxygen. This further indicates that the negative effects of the sewage are slowly making its way down the stretch of the lagoon.
These results are alarming, but not unexpected. The sewage will flow downstream. Despite the city’s attempts to pump it down, it will affect the land that the creek flows into. In this case, the Los Penasquitos lagoon is classified as a State Park Preserve. According to its website, “This label, which is pinned to only the rarest and most fragile of the state owned lands, reflects the increasing concern of ecologists and wildlife managers for the progressive destruction of coastal wetlands, a habitat vital for the preservation of migratory waterfowl and certain species of fish and shellfish.” This habitat is extremely delicate, and this sewage spill further harms this ecosystem, which is already fairly stressed.
Fortunately, Coastkeeper continues its vigilance in monitoring, tracking, and responding to the spill.
To highlight San Diego Coastkeeper’s efforts in this spill thus far:
- Our monitors were the ones that discovered the effects of the spill. Without the efforts of our volunteer monitors, the effects of this spill would have been noticed days later, if at all.
- Our monitoring data was used to establish the baseline conditions of the creek. The city pumped down the creek until their monitoring showed that the creek had returned to baseline conditions. Since our volunteer monitors study such an extensive portion of the county, our data was the best the city had to compare to. It was our data that established those baseline conditions.
- We were the first ones to monitor the effects of the spill on the downstream lagoon. When we saw where the spill was and noticed the extremely fragile ecosystem immediately downstream, we performed follow-up testing in the creek. Governmental agencies have since asked for our data, since we have the earliest available monitoring data in the lagoon.
I will leave you with this video of one of the park rangers in the lagoon discussing the effects he has personally seen.
This is the seventh of a 10-part blog series examining the nature of our local water supply and how to increase the reliability of our supplies now and into the future.
The watershed that drains to the La Jolla ASBS includes beautiful stately homes, dramatic gardens and the quaint streets of the Village. It seems hard to imagine that such an attractive area can be a source of pollution.
And yet it is.
The watershed of the La Jolla ASBS, like any urban watershed, suffers from an abundance of hard surfaces (streets, roof tops, parking lots), aerial deposition of pollutants, over-irrigation of lawns and uncollected pet waste. This means that beneath all the beauty of La Jolla, the same basic water quality problems occur: urban runoff pollution. And it showed in water quality data in runoff from the area and at the coast – monitoring found that concentrations of pollutants like copper, fecal indicator bacteria, dioxins/furans, total PAHs, and turbidity were high enough to be of concern.
To meet the challenge of eliminating discharges to the ASBS, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, the City of San Diego Storm Water and San Diego Coastkeeper came up with a plan to protect the ocean and its special treasures. Recently, Coastkeeper and UCSD staff had the pleasure of introducing the jewel in the crown of that plan – four ‘ecology embankments.’ If you are wandering near the Shores, you will notice that there are two large, newly installed landscaped areas.
But don’t be deceived, these are no ordinary gardens.
Beneath the dirt and plants lie a special mixture of soil, plants and beneficial micro-organisms. Urban runoff drains from the surrounding residential and university properties into these areas and gets treated by this special garden. As runoff flows towards the ocean, it will first get filtered and then pass through the special soil mixture that contains important minerals (dolomite, gypsum and perlite) that remove pollutants. Dolomite and gypsum absorb pollutants like metals and phosphorus. Perlite, a volcanic mineral, keeps air and moisture in the soil. This in turn helps beneficial micro-organisms thrive and be ready to filter phosphorus, metals and petroleum pollutants flowing through the soil mixture. The complex soil mixture slows down the runoff, reduces slope erosion and allows for the soil matrix to do its job – absorbing and transforming pollution that may harm organisms dependent on the ASBS.
Water comes out on the beach side cleaner. But wait there is more – the ecology embankment cleverly relies on native and climate-appropriate plants to help do its work. The plants help keep the soil alive and healthy below ground and above ground they provide habitat for other local creatures. The perfect combination of form and function.
Like planets that orbit around a sun, the ecology embankments are surrounded by other smaller but still innovative projects that also help to protect water quality in the ASBS. There are bioswales that collect runoff from parking lots; permeable pavement areas that infiltrate runoff from residential areas near Scripps, and a rain barrel connected to a rain garden that collects and filters runoff from Scripps’ buildings. These rely on the same principles: slowing the flow, letting it soak in and be treated, relying on plants and soils to do the work. All with the same goal – of keeping a special place beautiful.