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.
Shortly before the Governor declared an emergency state of drought in California, a question of supply arose.
In the news recently is a story about the ongoing drawdown of water from Lake Morena. To sum it all up, the City of San Diego has begun drawing water out of Lake Morena for water supply, while the County, which runs the public park surrounding Morena, is opposed to the drawdown because it claims less water in the reservoir means harm to the environment and fewer recreational opportunities.
So who is right? The City? The County?
Trick question, because there is no right or wrong answer. Lake Morena is a reservoir. This is one of the safeguards our region has against drought. And yet, as of January 27, 2014, Lake Morena is only 5.4% full, at a depth of 91 feet, out of 157 possible, so the limit to which this reservoir should be drawn seems pretty close. The Lake Morena situation shows just how complex water issues are in San Diego County.
Whether we’re dealing with drinking water supply, recreational use, or wastewater impacts on our environment, each of these issues is closely connected. And, we should expect to see more conflicts such as this one unless we change our thinking about water source and water usage.
For starters, California just had its driest year ever on record. Yes, you read that right. Less rainfall and snowpack means less water available to you and me. And for those who haven’t yet heard, the Governor declared a drought. And so our water providers look to our storage reservoirs to supply our needs.
Shouldn’t a reservoir that is at just 5.4% its capacity point strongly to a need for immediate and drastic action?
So where do we begin? Immediately: conserve. The governor called for voluntary 20% reductions and is considering mandatory restrictions. The Metropolitan Water District doubled its conservation budget to $40 million. Our County Water Authority has done nothing. It may be true that we have enough water to last the year, but what of the future? And what about the fact that most of our water comes from Northern California and the Colorado River, both of which are under dire strain? We must all voluntarily conserve now, even if the Water Authority won’t help us.
And then, a long-range plan. As it just so happens, the San Diego County Water Authority is working on developing a long-range water supply plan for our area, and it falls far short of being a usable document to lead us into a more sustainable water future. The Plan fails to promote recycling and conservation as its top priority. If we want to help alleviate situations like Lake Morena in the future, we should encourage the County to work with the cities of our area and stakeholders (such as San Diego Coastkeeper!) in the implementation of far greater conservation and potable water recycling on a large-scale.
What can you do?
1. Contact your County Water Representative and ask them to fund and support greater conservation and recycling measures than their Master Plan does.
2. Conserve water. You can make a difference today. Follow a conservative watering schedule, and capture and use the rain when it does fall. Here’s our Top Ten water conservation tips. We can all do our part to make San Diego a more water-friendly environment.
Protecting and restoring fishable, swimmable, drinkable San Diego waters. That’s San Diego Coastkeeper’s mission. Our mission echoes the goals of the Clean Water Act, which aims to protect all waters for all people–not just for the rich or the powerful.
Too often environmental protection is the privilege of select communities, not the masses. The Clean Water Act and other environmental laws are more likely enforced in wealthy communities that can afford lawyers, while socio-economically disadvantaged communities and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harm. I saw this pattern play time and again as an attorney in New Orleans with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, and I see it continue in San Diego.
To more effectively fight inequality and strive for clean water for all of us, I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a national conversation about environmental justice. This spring, I was invited to join a U.S. EPA-sponsored work group to address ways to build community resiliency in industrial waterfront communities. Over the past several months, I joined work group calls with environmental justice advocates, government officials, business representatives and academics to share threats that industrial waterfront communities in San Diego face and brainstorm solutions to build resiliency in these communities. In particular, we’ve discussed threats from sea level rise and storm surge and discussed ways that EPA can work with local governments to avoid and minimize harm to industrial waterfront communities.
Last week, U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy appointed me to a three-year term on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. The council comprises various stakeholders involved in the environmental justice dialogue and provides advice to the EPA on environmental justice issues. As the first Waterkeeper to be appointed to the council, I’m honored to share my experiences from San Diego and New Orleans and to bring attention to environmental justice issues that my fellow Waterkeepers around the country struggle with. With many environmental issues– air pollution, hazardous waste, and energy–connected to and impacting our water quality, my participation on the council allows San Diego Coastkeeper to have a broader reach to protect San Diego’s waters.
I hope that my participation in the national environmental justice dialogue moves us closer to fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters for all San Diegans.
We’re always in a drought. Seriously, people, I grew up here. There’s never been a time when it wasn’t important to conserve water. We watered our yards after 6 p.m., turned the faucet off when washing dishes or brushing our teeth and took brief showers. Some of that was mandated; some was common sense. And that’s what we need today: common sense.
Recently, the Fresno Bee reported state water officials saying that 2014 may be a real challenge for water supply in our state. “January through May 2013 were California’s driest in about 90 years of recordkeeping. Dwindling reservoirs should be a wake-up call to Californians.”
At the same time, 10News reported last week that the San Diego County Water Authority says that no water restrictions are needed in 2014 because San Diego should have sufficient water supply in 2014. Read CWA’s press release.
Despite the headline, the 10News story quotes the County Water Authority Board Chair saying, “We are in better shape than we were two years into the last drought, but we still need to practice smart water use no matter the weather.”
Now, this is common sense. THIS is what should have been the headline. Or how about the new rebates offered to residents and HOAs through the County’s WaterSmart program. In 2009, we had water use restrictions, and residents responded by conserving. Not a little, but 20 percent. And in 2009-2011, we reduced our use by 14 percent. There’s no reason to turn back from that. Here in San Diego, we use about 140 gallons of water per day per person. That compares to less than 50 gallons/day/person in Australia, where they have similar weather patterns and living standards. How can we say that almost triple their use is acceptable when we are draining the Colorado River, named 2013’s #1 Most Endangered River.
Maybe San Diego reservoirs can handle the demand of 2014, but if we already know that 2015-2016 could be problematic, then how can we take the short-sighted view that we have enough water? Today, when we have enough water, when our residents have embraced water conservation, is the time for consistent messaging. We take almost half our water from the Colorado River and 20 percent from the San Joaquin Bay-Delta in Northern California. The Water Authority has taken a long-term view, committing to 30 years of water supply from the Carlsbad Desalination Plant and the City of San Diego is moving ahead with a decades-long commitment to build our water purification capacity (a.k.a., potable reuse or wastewater recycling). We must continue on the path of long-term security and diversification.
Groups like San Diego Coastkeeper that watchdog our water issues, agencies charged with providing our residents with sustainable, reliable water supplies and the news professionals who so often interpret information and shape residents’ thinking about complex issues, must give facts and offer commentary. That commentary must discuss and reinforce practices that will see us not just one year into the future, but five, ten and twenty years from now. So, when the County Water Authority says that we’re okay for a year, let’s look beyond the next 365 days and talk about the true value and cost of our water supply, and how we can conserve this year, and the next, to keep those balanced.
Photo credit Peter McBride
Indirect Potable Reuse vs. Desalination: We support a diverse water supply portfolio. However, with the region’s limited resources, San Diego County’s immediate capital investment—and corresponding rate increases— should focus on potable reuse projects.
Updated October 4, 2012
San Diego Coastkeeper supports a diverse water supply portfolio. However, with the region’s limited resources, San Diego County’s immediate capital investment—and corresponding rate increases—should focus on potable reuse projects.
- Potable reuse solves two problems for the price of one. Potable reuse will add a high quality, reliable water source to the region’s supply. It will also decrease pollution. The Point Loma Sewage Treatment Facility discharges approximately 140 million gallons of advanced primary treated wastewater into the ocean daily under a Clean Water Act waiver. The current cost estimate to upgrade Point Loma to secondary treatment and compliance with the Clean Water Act is $1.2 billion. Potable reuse projects offload wastewater from Point Loma, reducing—or potentially eliminating—the costs of upgrading Point Loma, while at the same time building water supply infrastructure.
- Ratepayer fatigue means limited opportunity for significant capital projects. Resources are limited, and asking ratepayers—particularly low- or fixed-income families—to pay multiple rate increases will be unpopular. The Poseidon Water Purchase Agreement anticipates water rate increase of $60-$84 annually per household of 4 by 2016. How much more of an increase could ratepayers stomach for potable reuse projects if the Carlsbad desalination goes forward? And how would ratepayers fare with the desalination rate increase along with a rate increase to upgrade Point Loma?
- Capital investments requiring rate increases should be prioritized by greatest long-term benefit. Decisions should be based on the best strategic opportunity, not which project gets shovel-ready first. Potable reuse packages pollution reduction and local water production into one project, making it the best capital investment for the region now. Ratepayers deserve fair rates and strategic capital improvements based on the greatest efficiencies
- Potable reuse water is cheaper than desalinated water. The City of San Diego’s Recycled Water study estimates that the net cost per acre foot of indirect potable reuse water will run between $700 and $1200. A large chunk of that cost comes from pipelines to transport ultra-clean water to reservoirs to mix with dirtier, imported water. Direct potable reuse water will likely be even cheaper than indirect potable reuse water. The proposed water purchase agreement for Poseidon desalination is $1,876 to $2,097 per acre-foot in 2012 dollars.
- Potable reuse rates can be split between water and wastewater ratepayers. While the cost of desalinated water would be carried by water rates, the cost of capital upgrades for potable reuse water could potentially be shared among water and wastewater ratepayers.
- Potable reuse projects are better for the environment than desalination plants. Potable reuse projects not only reduce the amount of pollution discharged into the ocean, but they also are less energy-intensive than desalination plants. Not only is lower energy use cheaper, but it is the preferred approach in light of global climate change.
What is the National Young Farmer’s Coalition and why does San Diego Council President Todd Gloria care?
Thirty million people in seven states in the Southwest use the Colorado River’s water for their survival. California—including San Diego—has more people depending upon Colorado River water than any other state.
Competing demands make the Colorado River one of the most contested and controlled rivers on Earth. Over the last decade, humans have drained all of the river’s water – all 5 trillion gallons – before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. The Colorado River is in very bad shape and deeply threatened.
In total, about twenty million Californians rely, at least in part, on the Colorado River for their drinking water, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. In San Diego, we import 70 percent of our water and about half of that comes from the Colorado River. Does that sound efficient or secure to you?
We say no, and it’s time to change our ways. In 2009, San Diego Coastkeeper and our partners reached a Cooperative Agreement with the City of San Diego to plan how we can reduce our dependence on imported water and secure a local water supply. This year, in 2013, City Council unanimously instructed its staff to move forward with wastewater recycling to bring us about 100 million gallons per day of clean local drinking water. Success!
But guess what? Around 78 percent of the water drained from the Colorado every year goes to agriculture. Colorado River irrigates an amazing 15 percent of our nation’s crops – so we’d better get busy on that front, too.
In California, over a half million acres of agricultural land is irrigated by the Colorado River and most of the vegetables consumed by people in the United States in winter months come from California crops irrigated by the Colorado River. The Department of Interior and the seven Colorado River states are now meeting to figure next steps on agricultural conservation and efficiency and keeping healthy flow in the river.
Thanks to the Colorado River Basin Study, we know that we could save three million acre feet per year, if only we’d take action. That’s enough to cover San Diego in 13 feet of water.
And that’s why we and Councilmember Gloria care about the National Young Farmer’s Coalition.
It’s a truism that how our young generations think and act will define the future of our society—and in this case our river. So the fact that the National Young Farmer’s Coalition supports sustainable farming and is a leader in demanding that agricultural users protect the Colorado River tells us something important. A thriving Colorado River is our future. San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria is joining farmers on July 25, Colorado River Day, in a plea to the Basin Study planning group that the outcome of their meeting is actionable proposals—things we can do NOW–to reduce agricultural pressure on the Colorado River while maintainin its strong industry here in San Diego.
This issue has been studied thoroughly, the time for action is now.
The following blog about potable reuse was written by student attorney Courtney Cole.
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To learn more about water recycling, I recently toured facilities in both San Diego and Orange County that treat wastewater to better-than-tap quality. I’ll have to admit, I had my reservations. What about all of the teeny tiny bacteria and viruses and…stuff? But that was before I knew how things worked.
Once biosolids are removed, the water undergoes a three-step process: microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and UV + H2O2. Microfiltration uses hollow fibers, similar to straws, with tiny holes (1/300 the diameter of a human hair) in the sides to remove suspended solids, protozoa, bacteria, and some viruses from the water. Next, during reverse osmosis, water is forced through the molecular structure of plastic membranes, removing dissolved chemicals, viruses, and pharmaceuticals. Water is near distilled quality after this step, but as an additional safeguard it is treated with a combination of high-intensity ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide. This destroys the DNA of any organism that might have made it past microfiltration and reverse osmosis. So much for my concern about the teeny tiny stuff.
An important part of the tours for me was the drink test. After hearing about destroyed DNA, my main concern was what the water would taste like. I hesitantly filled my test cup and raised it to my nose. It seemed fine, so I drank. Better than fine, the water tasted wonderful! It was clean and refreshing, and better than any bottled water I have ever had.
Aside from tasting great, recycled water has other benefits for San Diego. Over 80% of our drinking water is imported from the Colorado River or northern California, which uses energy and costs money. To address this, Coastkeeper advocates for potable reuse – a process in which highly-treated wastewater is added to local reservoirs to increase drinking water supply. Utilizing recycled water will help secure a local and reliable source of water for our city. And if I’m still here to write this blog post, maybe toilet to tap isn’t so bad after all.
The next chapter in the San Diego Bay sediment cleanup has begun. The Shipyards are finally preparing to begin dredging by applying for permits that would allow the dredging to go forward. On Monday, June 25, I, along with the help of student attorney Courtney Cole, submitted comments to the Regional Water Quality Control Board on the proposed water quality permit. At the same time, we have developed suggestions on how to improve the proposed safeguards to protect water quality during the dredging. We are also working with Regional Board staff and some Shipyard representatives to ensure that the dredging is done in a way that contains pollutants and protects San Diego Bay water quality. The Regional Board hearing on the permit is set for Wednesday, July 10th at 9am.
The endangered San Diego fairy shrimp is in a fight for survival, and two San Diego area projects plan to destroy the rare shrimp and its vernal pool habitat. On June 13 and 20th, student attorney Morgan Embleton and I asked the City of San Diego Planning Commission to delay approval of the Brown Field Metropolitan Airpark project in Otay Mesa until the City of San Diego finishes its planning process to protect vernal pool habitat. The Planning Commission sent the project, which would destroy four vernal pools and their resident fairy shrimp, forward to San Diego City Council despite the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet approved killing the fairy shrimp or decided whether vernal pool creation is feasible mitigation. The Castlerock project, a monstrous housing development in San Diego and Santee, will come before the Planning Commission on July 11th. It also proposes to destroy four vernal pools and fairy shrimp, without examining the cumulative impact of these projects on the San Diego fairy shrimp.
Part four of four in our Annual Report blog series highlighting everything Coastkeeper in the year of 2012.
How can you get involved this year?
Adaptable– From rinsing your fruits and veggies in a bowl of water to recycling graywater in your home, there are so many ways to adapt your water habits to use only what you need.
Advisable– Go one step beyond making a change at your own home: challenge yourself to convert a friend or family member’s water usage, even it if it means changing one bad habit at a time.
Shareable– With just a click, a like or a share, you can spread the word about Coastkeeper’s mission, events and volunteering through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Volunteerable– Whether it’s with our Water Quality Monitoring Program , through our MPA “CLICK” mobile website or participating in our twice-a-month beach cleanups, there is always a way to help maintain fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters.
Sponsorable– Endorse our movement in San Diego by sponsoring an event and feel great knowing that your support will outlast the event and continue its impact directly through Coastkeeper’s programs like the Volunteer Core, Project SWELL and more.
Joinable– Whether you’re a seasoned water quality monitoring veteran or just getting started at your first beach cleanup or by reading our website, you can join Coastkeeper’s cause by becoming a member for as little as $25.
A Look Ahead at Coastkeeper in 2013 and Beyond:
Find and Fix: Coastkeeper identifies water quality issues around San Diego and works with our partners to get them resolved. We will focus on helping to create new Water Quality Improvement Plans to prevent stormwater pollution, resolving issues reported to us on our hotline and empowering high school students to address environmental issues through the LEAP program.
Water Supply: Coastkeeper will continue to work with local cities on developing and implementing policies to reduce demand for water and to create a safe, reliable, local water supply. We will work with the City of San Diego as it finalizes its Long Range Water Resources Plan and continues to make purified water a reality in San Diego.
MPA Watch: Coastkeeeper’s MPA Watch program trains volunteers to help monitor and record activities in our marine protected areas so we have the information we need about how people use them. Our MPA Watch volunteers contribute to a statewide data collection effort for evaluation, education of users and enforcement.
Training Tomorrow’s Professionals: A well-informed, involved community has the power to improve its quality of life by influencing decisions—their own, their neighbors’, their businesses’ and their elected and appointed officials’. By training tomorrow’s professionals, San Diego Coastkeeper ensures that future leaders have the knowledge they need to make good decisions (for us and our environment.)
Water Quality Monitoring
Trash Assessment: San Diego Coastkeeper partners with a number of organizations to help conduct the first coordinated regional assessment of marine debris. We will look at trash accumulation in ocean waters, inland streams, coastal estuaries and even inside of fish guts. This work will help figure out the source, movement and fate of marine debris for the whole of southern California
Bioassessment: Next spring, San Diego Coastkeeper will conduct bioassessment–we’re looking for bugs! Trained volunteers will wade directly into streams to collect and identify aquatic insects. This bug hunting gives us a more holistic picture of stream health, since insects are the base of the food web. We have measured pollutants in the rivers for a decade now and bioassessment allows us to see the effects of that pollution on the stream ecosystem health.
Part two of four in our Annual Report blog series highlighting everything Coastkeeper in the year of 2012.
Restorable – Coastkeeper Helps Clean San Diego Bay
Knowledgeable – Project SWELL Expands its Teacher Resources
Shareable – Coastkeeper Publishes Watershed Report
Protectable – Partnership Brings Technology to Marine Protected Areas
Empowerable – Coastkeeper Launches Community Advisory Council
Cleanable – Volunteers Storm the Beaches for Trash
Swimmable – Check the SwimGuide for Safe Waters
Fixable – Find and Fix Empowers Residents
Attendable – Events Bring Water Quality to Life
Honorable – Coastal Champions Crowned at World Oceans Day