Annual Report Part I: Fishable. Swimmable. Drinkable. _________able.

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Part one of four in our Annual Report blog series highlighting everything Coastkeeper in the year of 2012.

Fishable. Swimmable. Drinkable. _______able.


How do you fill in the blank?
Kayakable. Protectable. Enjoyable. Knowledgeable. Dependable.

The waters of San Diego County give something different to each one of us. From those who camp and fish at Lake Jennings to those who make a living from the ocean to those who bird-watch in the Tijuana Estuary, our waters channel adventure, relaxation and business to everyone who lives in and visits San Diego.

That’s the beauty of San Diego Coastkeeper—we protect and restore fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters in San Diego County so that you can fill in the blank with what matters to you.

Here’s a peek at how we filled in the blank in 2012:


Restorable – The Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered a cleanup of San Diego Bay.

Understandable – Community forums, our countywide watershed report, educator trainings on environmental science, internships and media coverage informed San Diego County.

Protectable – UCSD’s Global TIES helped us create a web-based app to monitor activity in marine protected areas.

You can read more about our top ten accomplishments in 2012, and we also invite you to hear from Board of Directors President Jo Brooks as she reflects on the year. We like that she filled in the blank with “invaluable”– as that perfectly describes how we feel about you. Last but not least, find out how you can get involved with Coastkeeper in 2013 and beyond.

Thank you for your support of San Diego Coastkeeper,

Megan and Jill

Over-tapped: The Most Endangered River in the Country

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

How You and IPR Can Save the Colorado River

In its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2013, American Rivers has named the Colorado River as the number-one Most Endangered River in the country. Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers, identified that the Colorado River is “so over-tapped that it no longer reaches the sea.”

The Colorado River is, simply put, the lifeline of the Southwest. It supplies drinking water to 36 million people from Denver to LA, irrigates four million acres of land and supports a 26 billion dollar outdoor recreation economy.

Yet it currently stands as the Most Endangered River in America because of outdated water management that can’t respond to the pressures of over-allocation and persistent drought. This led American Rivers to sound the alarm for Congress to support state-of-the-art water supply programs that can positively and sustainably impact how the water in the Colorado River is managed.

This also highlights to the significance of what we can do in San Diego—both as a region through potable reuse and individually as water-conscientious citizens and community members.

Currently, the City of San Diego is deciding whether to move forward with full-scale water purification projects in San Diego. San Diego Coastkeeper and the Water Reliability Coalition—a groundbreaking collaboration between environmental and business-oriented groups—are encouraging the San Diego City Council to approve full-scale water purification projects to create more potable water in San Diego. Creating a reliable, secure local water supply is both good for the environment and good for business.

Potable reuse projects use special technology to purify water, leaving it extremely clean. Just how clean? The ultra-purified water is actually cleaner than the water we import from the Colorado River or the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The ultra-purified water can then be mixed with imported water either at a reservoir or at a drinking water treatment plant before it gets another round of treatment.

The City of San Diego has run a pilot project of this technology since early 2012. When they tested the ultra-purified water for over 300 compounds, the purified water met all drinking water standards. Not only that, but the purified water contained only two of the 91 Chemicals of Emerging Concern, while imported water that makes up the bulk of our drinking water contained 13 of these chemicals.

While the City of San Diego is working to implement potable reuse projects, there are a lot of things that we can do, both large and small, that can make an impact on water conservation efforts like that of saving the Colorado River. See what positive changes you can make to reduce your daily water use. And please contribute to Coastkeeper’s efforts with the City and other decision makers.

Together, we can make a lasting impact on San Diego’s water supply and save the Colorado.



How Do Climate Change and Population Growth Affect Our Water Supply?

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

While San Diego has a variety of climates, it is overall fairly arid and cannot sustain a significant human population without importing massive quantities of water from other regions. With a population of just over 3 million, San Diego must import approximately 70 percent of its water, mostly from the Colorado River. Our demands for water, however, already exceed the Colorado River’s supply. Compounding matters, anticipated climate change and population growth will combine to exacerbate San Diego’s water supply issues.

Climate Change: Climate change is expected to reduce the Colorado River’s water flow and could have a drastic impact on the supply to San Diego. A study performed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation projects a nine percent decrease in the River’s water flow over the next 50 years, and anticipates that 40 percent of the time, the region will be subject to droughts spanning five or more years. According to the California Climate Change Center, the availability of water imports from the River to San Diego may decline by 20 percent, with models estimating the actual decline will be anywhere from 6 to 45 percent.

Population Growth: If current population growth trends continue, another 1.5 million people will reside in the county by 2050, bringing the total number of residents to 4.5 million. Increasing humans means increasing demand for water. By 2050, desired water use is likely to exceed current demand by 37 percent increase.

The increasing demand for water, combined with the decreasing supply, makes conservation more important now than ever. There is a lot you can do, including utilizing low-flow showerheads and ultra-low-flush toilets, remembering to turn the water off while brushing your teeth and reducing shower times, or turning the shower off while you suds up. Outdoors, use a pool cover to reduce evaporation, water your lawn in the hours between sunset and dawn when the water is less likely to evaporate and, importantly, make sure you’re watering your lawn instead of the sidewalk or driveway. These are just a few of the ways that you can help conserve water. Click here for more.

Additionally, the City of San Diego provides certain rebates and incentives to residents who implement water-efficient landscaping or rainwater harvesting. Through their program, you can not only save money, but you can also become part of the effort to reduce San Diego’s water demands to sustainable levels.

One small step for City Council; one giant leap for San Diego’s water supply

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

We’re running out of water.

san-diegp-water-supplySan Diego imports more than 80% of our water supply, with approximately half our water coming from the Colorado River.  As Mike Lee’s recent article in the Union Tribune emphasized, our water supply has passed a tipping point.  The Colorado River no longer reaches the Gulf of California, and the river is over-allocated–meaning that when water rights were handed out, they were based on the wettest years on record.  The only certainty is that imported water prices will continue to rise.

And while we’re running out of water, we’re also flushing approximately 175 million gallons of partially-treated sewage out into the ocean every day.  San Diego has repeatedly sought special permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to let the Point Loma Sewage Treatment Plant skirt Clean Water Act rules that the rest of the country has to follow about how clean our wastewater needs to be before we can dump it into local waters.  Those rules were passed in 1972, a mere nine years after Point Loma opened.  For 40 years, San Diego has failed to meet the national standard, instead relying on the “301(h) waiver” as justification to pollute our ocean.

But there’s hope.  Yesterday, the City Council unanimously accepted the City’s Recycled Water Study, which lays out a path forward to increase local water supply as we decrease our pollution from the Point Loma Sewage Treatment Plant. As Council member David Alvarez said, indirect potable reuse is “one solution to two problems.”

Indirect Potable Reuse, or IPR, involves hyper-treating wastewater and then injecting it into groundwater or adding it to a reservoir, which ultimately joins the rest of the water supply. The Recycled Water Study sets out several alternatives for offloading over 100 million gallons a day from Point Loma and treating it to create both non-potable and potable water.

San Diego Coastkeeper urged the City Council to accept the study and move forward with implementation. We were joined by friends and colleagues from Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, Surfrider Foundation, the Independent Rates Oversight Committee, Otay Water District, and the Metro Wastewater Joint Powers Authority.

City Council members spoke with one voice in emphasizing that water supply is a critical issue for San Diego.  Council member David Alvarez, chair of the Natural Resources and Culture Committee, championed the issue, urging that we need to move forward with IPR implementation now. Council member Sherri Lightner, who led the City’s  recent efforts to create a Comprehensive Water Policy, reacted to the recycled water proposal with a simple request: “More, please!”  Council member Marti Emerald recognized the need for San Diego to stop relying on the 301(h) waiver.

Council member DeMaio explained his view that an effective water policy includes water supply options that are (1) affordable, (2) secure, (3) reliable, and (4) environmentally responsible.  He also recognized that all decisions about implementing IPR in San Diego need to be made in the context of the 301(h) waiver and invited environmental stakeholders to the table to discuss implementing IPR in conjunction with addressing pollution from Point Loma.

Council member Todd Gloria highlighted that “we are already reusing our water,” since we are downstream from so many other users, like the city of Las Vegas.  Council President Pro Tem Kevin Faulconer thanked Coastkeeper for our work “consistently nudging” the City to move forward on IPR.

Not only did the City Council adopt the study, but it authorized the Mayor “to refer a prioritization of the key implementation steps… to the Natural Resources and Culture Committee for its consideration.”  This means that the City Council has given the green light to move forward with next steps on IPR, which include determining how costs for the project are split between water and wastewater agencies and customers, figuring out who owns the water, and beginning to design the facilities.

San Diego Coastkeeper is committed, as part of our mission, to ensuring “drinkable” waters here in San Diego.  This means that we will continue to be actively engaged on this issue to make full-scale indirect potable reuse a reality here in San Diego.


Is My Tap Water Safe To Drink?

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

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.

Earth Day 2012: Rip Out Your Front Yard

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

dsc00328-sThis tip is part of San Diego Coastkeeper’s Earth Day blog series running through April 22, 2012.

I can count on one hand how many times I have seen folks utilizing the grass lawn in their front yard. Backyards I kinda understand, you can let the dog run around, give a spot for your children to play, and wiggle your toes while you BBQ. But front yards? When is the last time you used the grass on your front yard?

The concept of grassy lawns dates back to 1500s England where it rains every month, no irrigation necessary. That model does not make sense in San Diego when we have to import our water. Why pump in water from long distance and at great cost, in both money and energy, to water a lawn that you don’t use? Especially when San Diego is home to many very beautiful plants that evolved to thrive in our dry climate.

Take a walk around Torrey Pines or our many canyons to see how nice these native plants look. You can have that in your front yard. Let’s blur the lines between “nature” and “urban” and make our city look how it is supposed to. You would save water and be the envy of your neighborhood.

To start you out, here is a list of easy-to-grow native plants.

Ultra-purified Recycled Water Cleaner Than Imported Water

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

The City of San Diego’s  Water Purification Demonstration Project has been on-line since last summer, and the first set of water quality testing results are just rolling in. As expected, the news is great!  The City tested the ultra-purified water for more than 300 compounds and tested the equipment to make sure it works. The purified water met all drinking water standards, and the equipment works properly. (Take a virtual tour of the facility here.)

The City even tested for 91 Chemicals of Emerging Concern —compounds found in personal care products and endocrine disruptors that might be found in wastewater, but are not currently regulated as drinking water pollutants by state or federal law. Of the 91 compounds, only two were detected in the ultra-purified water.  By comparison, 13 of those 91 compounds (including the two found in the ultra-purified water) were detected in the imported water that makes up the bulk of our drinking water.

This is excellent news for San Diegans.  The City Councilmembers on the Natural Resources & Culture Committee appeared excited about the results when the City presented them at the committee’s February 1 meeting.  Committee Chair David Alvarez asked the City to spread the good news to the public, and Councilmember Lori Zapf asked about cost for a full-scale project.  Deputy Director of the City Water Department, Marsi Steirer, explained that the biggest cost of a full-scale project would be a 23-mile pipeline to put the ultra-purified water into San Vicente Reservoir.

That raises an important question:  If the ultra-purified water meets all drinking water standards and is cleaner than imported water, why should we waste the money to pump that water all the way out to San Vicente?  Why can’t we just add it to our raw water supply, which goes through yet another treatment process before it ends up at our taps?

The National Academy of Sciences recent report “Water Reuse: Potential for Expanding the Nation’s Water Supply Through Reuse of Municipal Wastewater” recognized that “environmental buffers are not essential elements to achieve quality assurance in potable reuse projects.”  The renowned scientists who wrote the report also noted that classifying potable reuse projects as ”indirect” or “direct”— to distinguish between projects where ultra-purified water is injected in groundwater or piped to a reservoir before being added to the water supply and those where the ultra-purified water directly supplements the raw water supply– is “not productive from a technical perspective because the terms are not linked to product water quality.”

If we focus on water quality, like the scientists urge us to, the results of the City of San Diego’s water quality testing for the water purification demonstration project speak for themselves.  The project is producing cleaner water than we import.

Have an opinion about this?  I’d love to hear it.

Indirect Potable Re-Use: It Works!

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

In an attempt to solve its water crisis, San Diego has explored several alternatives that include sea water desalination, water recycling and Indirect Potable Re-use (IPR). Out of all these, IPR provides the best results.   

Desalination may seem like a good idea because the ocean is so vast, but it’s expensive and energy intensive, ranking it low on the sustainability scale.

Water recycling, or “purple pipe” systems, cleans waste water enough so that we can spray it on our lawns and golf courses. The non-potable water is not meant for human consumption or to replenish any of our water sources and actually encourages water-hogging lawns and golf courses.

IPR on the other hand, takes wastewater, filters it and leaves it extremely clean to be re-introduced into a water source. To learn more, I decided to tour the Orange County (OC) Groundwater Replenishment System and the North City Water Reclamation Plant.

The OC Groundwater Replenishment System has been operating for several years now. This facility has been a model not only for San Diego, but for other facilities worldwide. Here, water is put through a very simple filtration system that takes in wastewater, cleans it and it exposes it to ultraviolet rays to make sure all pollutants are removed. The water, clean as whistle, is then pumped into the Orange County groundwater basin. At the end of the tour, I was given the opportunity to taste the water. A little skeptical at first, I decided to taste it. The water was the best water I had ever tasted! It was so fresh and soft that I wished I had been given the opportunity to take some it home!

Anxious to see what San Diego was up to, I took a tour of the North City Water Reclamation Plant. San Diego is currently in its third month of its Advanced Water Purification Demonstration Project. The filtration process is the same as that of the OC facility, giving the same water quality results. San Diego is assessing the possibility of using IPR water to augment the San Vicente water reservoir.  

IPR works! This is not a case of toilet to tap or dirty water aimed only for low income communities. The water would be the same for everyone. IPR is a great way to replenish our water levels without having to import more water. Many question the use of wastewater, but the process is extremely clean and by re-introducing it into a groundwater basin or reservoir, it allows it to clean itself even more!

If you have doubts, don’t hesitate to tour these facilities. They’re open to the public and welcome public input. We cannot continue to claim that we do not have a water crisis. We must act to solve our water crisis and a great way to do so is to support IPR.

Stop the Flaming Gorge Pipeline!

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

It may seem strange for San Diego Coastkeeper to call a project happening almost 1000 miles away to your attention, but the Flaming Gorge Pipeline has a strong San Diego connection.  

The Pipeline is a water project that would divert at least 250,000 acre-feet (81 billion gallons) of water annually from the Green River and Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming, across the Continental Divide, and down the Front Range of Colorado, a total of between 550 and 580 miles. The Green River is the chief tributary of the Colorado River, where San Diego gets half of its water supply. Check out this map of the area and proposed pipeline. The pipeline, a hydropower project as well as a water transfer, would generate up to 1000 megawatts, and the water is intended for future population growth. (Originally the project was solely for water supply, but it is now primarily a hydropower project.)

One complicated detail is the amount of water that will be delivered. Aaron Million, the Colorado businessman proposing the project, intends to transfer at least 250,000 acre-feet. A study by the Bureau of Reclamation, however, found that the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, where most of the water is coming from, has only a 165,000 acre-foot surplus. The remaining 75,000 acre-feet is coming from the Green River above Flaming Gorge. This will drain an approximate 20-25% of the Green River’s flow annually, which has negative impacts on both the environment and the tourist economy. The Colorado River Water Conservation District is opposed to the project, due to concerns about how much water can sustainably be delivered. Million believes that there is plenty of water in the Colorado River Basin for the project, and says that if major environmental problems are found, the project should not go forward. Million also claims that the project will cost only $2.8 to $3.2 billion, while the State of Colorado finds a figure of $9 billion far more likely. The water could cost up to $30,000 an acre-foot, the most expensive water in Colorado history.

A coalition of nineteen conservation groups is opposed to both the project and a $150,000 grant currently under debate that would set up a task force to consider the pipeline. Million himself estimates that $5 million has been spent already on studies, and that $8 million to $12 million more could be needed to finish studying the project. The coalition hopes to avoid spending more money on a project that should not even be considered, due to a number of problems including environmental issues and negative impacts on the tourist industry.  

Whether we like it or not, San Diego will be affected by the pipeline. Since we get half of our water from the Colorado River, there is a potential for reduced water supplies or perhaps higher prices due to lower supply, if the pipeline goes through. The pipeline stands to drain all of the water that can be spared from Flaming Gorge, possibly more, which could lead to shortages throughout the Colorado River basin in dry years.

The coalition has a petition at that anyone can sign, regardless of where they live. The petition closes September 12, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board votes on whether to fund a study of the project on the 13th and 14th. Sign now to show your opposition to the Flaming Gorge Pipeline!

Wastewater Recycling: Creating Water So Pure We Can Drink It

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Wastewater recycling, reclaimed water, and Indirect Potable Reuse (or IPR) are all ways of treating wastewater and reusing it rather than treating it and dumping it into the ocean.

San Diego reuses wastewater for irrigation, in its purple pipe system.  Purple pipe is so-named because it requires two sets of plumbing, one for drinking water (potable use) and a second (purple) set for reclaimed water for irrigation.  It’s easy enough to install when constructing a new building, but otherwise it’s a major retrofit, and either way it’s not cheap.  But during a bad drought in 1989, purple pipe was touted as the only way we would


Photo Credit Lighthawk / Matthew Meier Photography

make it through with enough potable water for showers and drinking.  The City Council even passed an aggressive ordinance to force anyone who could reasonably use reclaimed water for irrigation or industrial uses to do so.  But the drought ended, and since then the ordinance has been largely forgotten and essentially unenforced.  In fact, according to a Sign On San Diego article, San Diego only uses 15 percent of its two reclaimed water plants’ capacity.


Now, the city is taking another look at wastewater recycling for drinking water.  (Check out how purple pipe and IPR compare – spoiler, IPR wins.)  Mayor Jerry Sanders supports a new demonstration project to test the safety of IPR for drinking water – a definite improvement on his previous stance of ceremonially vetoing the “toilet to tap” project.  The latest test builds on the successful use of wastewater recycling in:

  • Singapore, where they use reservoir augmentation, the very same process proposed for San Diego, and bottle and sell the stuff under the brand name NEWater

  • And closer to home, Orange County, where they use wastewater recycling for groundwater replenishment

The demonstration project will last a year and is required by the California Department of Public Health to prove the project adequately protects the public health.  Tours of the facility are open to the public so you can see the high level of treatment the water receives.

The Advanced Water Purification process, which consists of microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and treatment with hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light, actually removes more contaminants from the water supply than do the processes used to clean raw imported water.  IPR water has been found to contain lower levels of all but six of the 232 tested pollutants, and those six were all still below levels that cause health concerns (check out page 108 of this report for details). The tested pollutants include pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupters, which are a common concern about IPR water.

In the words of Ronald Coss, the technical manager of the Water Reuse Study that made the above finding, “the human health risk from consuming [IPR water] directly is negligible, especially when compared to current drinking water standards and with other water supplies available to San Diego.  Augmenting San Diego’s raw water supply with [IPR water] would result in an improvement to water quality over current water supplies.”