Notes from the International Waterkeeper Alliance Conference

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Gabe and Bobby Kennedy Jr.

Last month I went to Chicago for the annual International Waterkeeper Alliance conference.  I packed up to the last minute, alternating throwing clothes into my suitcase with frantic last minute emails and calls to make sure Coastkeeper would survive until my return.  Spoiler alert: Coastkeeper survived my two-week absence.

The Alliance keeps nearly 200 Waterkeepers connected, uniting our voices as we take on major global water issues together.  Our annual conference is a homecoming; a place to share your ideas with folks who understand your passion for a stretch of river or coastline.  It’s the best and worst of a family reunion, all the squabbling, the cousins you haven’t seen in a few years, the cool uncle that’s taken on mountaintop removal coal mining… well it’s an interesting family.  

It’s difficult to pinpoint the best thing about the conference.  Certainly meeting some of the stars of our movement, like WKA President Bobby Kennedy Jr. or Rick Dove, a former Riverkeeper in North Carolina who’s taken on the destructive hog farming industry was inspiring.  Sleeping just 12 hours over four nights so I didn’t miss the impromptu jam sessions or late-night discussions (on the dance floor no less) about ocean acidification was exhausting and exhilarating.  And I got a lot of practical tips from the sessions led by experts in our field – everything from engaging volunteers, to better fundraising, to testifying in a water pollution lawsuit.

azzam-iraqHowever, I think my favorite moment of the conference came from the talk by the newest Waterkeeper program, the Upper Tigris Waterkeeper, a project of Nature Iraq.  Meeting Waterkeeper Nabil Musa and Nature Iraq CEO Dr. Azzam Alwash was so uplifting and inspiring.  We might think of Iraq as a warzone or a desert, but you’d be hard-pressed to describe it as the Garden of Eden, or a marshland.  Yet that’s what it has been, and, thanks to the work of this Waterkeeper program, that’s the future.  When we saw the pictures of restored marshes and returned species (including communities who depend on the reeds), there wasn’t much hope of a dry eye.  Knowing what’s possible with drive and determination (and a little bit of denial of the impossible) is extremely empowering.

So it’s not hard to say what the best thing about coming back to San Diego was: returning with that same sense of empowerment and walking into my office with a renewed sense of purpose to protect San Diego’s beautiful coastline and waters.  I can’t wait until next year’s conference.  Although I will start packing a little earlier.

San Diego Showdown: IPR vs. Purple Pipes

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

This is the fourth of a 5-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.

Today’s match-up features two contenders, both aimed at solving San Diego’s water crisis.  

In the first corner, the “purple pipe system” is looking to continue its reign in San Diego.  San Diego currently reuses a small fraction of its sewage for irrigation.  This recycled water is distributed through a separate purple pipe system.  Because the water is non-potable, it is not fit for human consumption.

In the second corner, the up-and-coming “Indirect Potable Reuse” (IPR) is looking to solve San Diego’s water problems.  In scientific terms, IPR is a process to treat wastewater and sewage using advanced technology to produce potable water fit for human consumption.  Essentially, we would be drinking purified sewage.  Right now, you are probably cringing at the thought of drinking recycled wastewater; I know I did.  But then I did some research, and I found out that the water produced from IPR is actually superior to our existing water supply.  How is this possible? 

First, advanced water technology removes any remaining solids through microfiltration.  Next, reverse osmosis is used to eliminate viruses, bacteria, pharmaceuticals, and other microbes.  The water is then disinfected by UV light and hydrogen peroxide.  Finally, it is added to groundwater or surface water reservoirs where it is further purified by natural processes.  Once drawn from the groundwater or reservoir, the recycled water goes through the standard water purification process all drinking water undergoes to meet EPA standards.  Once this IPR-produced water is fit for consumption, it is distributed through the existing drinking water infrastructure.  Now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Round 1:  Costs

The cost of producing one acre-foot of water with IPR ranges from $1,200-$1,800.  The purple pipe system ranges from $1,600-$2,600 per acre-foot.  

Purple pipe recycled water cannot be added to the existing drinking water infrastructure, so it requires a separate pipe system which costs about $2 million per mile to build.  It also requires homes and businesses to be plumbed with two sets of pipes—one for recycled water and one for potable water.  This is beginning to sound expensive!  

Although the purification process of IPR sounds expensive, the City of San Diego estimates that implementing IPR would be cheaper than expanding the purple pipe system.  This is because IPR negates the need for a separate water infrastructure and would maximize the use of the available recycled water supply.  

IPR – 1; Purple Pipes – 0

Round 2:  Energy

The energy intensity of the IPR process is higher than that of the recycled water in purple pipes.  Compared to non-potable recycled water, IPR generates a higher carbon footprint.  However, IPR uses significantly less energy than other potential water sources in San Diego, such as desalination or imported water.

IPR – 1; Purple Pipes – 1

Round 3:  Environmental Impact

By using recycled wastewater, IPR reduces the amount of waste flowing to the Point Loma Treatment Plant.  In doing so, IPR reduces the amount of potentially harmful pollutants being released into the ocean from the Point Loma Plant’s effluent.    

Purple pipe recycled water does have some red flags.  Particularly, the use of non-potable recycled water can lead to the accumulation of byproducts over time in the irrigated soil.

IPR – 2; Purple Pipes – 1

Round 4:  Water Quality/Safety

Studies show that water produced through IPR treatment processes contains fewer contaminants than our existing treated imported water supply.  Further, a study performed by the National Research Council concluded that there were no significant health risks as a result of IPR.  
Because the water in the purple pipes is not treated to the point that it is drinkable, it contains pathogens and harmful chemicals. Simply stated, the consequences of ingesting non-potable recycled water can be severe.      

IPR – 3; Purple Pipes – 1

After four hard fought rounds, IPR has dominated the ring, proving that it would be a strong, viable addition to San Diego’s arsenal for fighting the water crisis.  

Still think “from toilet to tap” sounds less than appetizing, or has your mind changed?  Tell us what you think!  

Where does San Diego’s water come from?

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

If you have lived in San Diego for any length of time, you have probably noticed that it doesn’t rain very often here.  Yet if you look around, you’ll find you’re surrounded by lawns and swimming pools.  Where does the water come from to support all of this?  The short answer – not here.  San Diego County is a dry one, where a few isolated areas, the wettest in the county, get up to 45 inches of rain per year.  The driest gets nine.  San Diego city, where Coastkeeper is located, gets between nine and twelve inches per year.  Compare that to Northern California, where the wettest areas get up to 125 inches annually and where 40 to 75 inches is not uncommon. See this map for a breakdown of the annual rainfall in San Diego County, and this one for the average annual rainfall in California.  


Image Credit San Diego County Water Authority, Sources of San Diego County’s Water Supply

San Diego’s limited amount of rainfall, in addition to other local sources, only accounts for about 20% of its water supply.  (Local supply includes surface water, or lakes and streams; groundwater; recycled water, also known as ‘purple pipe’; and conservation.)  The other 80% must be imported.

The Colorado River, source of half of San Diego County’s water, was first allocated in 1922 in the Colorado River Compact.  The Compact divides the usable flow of the Colorado River – 7.5 million acre-feet (an acre flooded a foot deep) – between the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), and the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, and Nevada).  Each basin subsequently divided its portion among its member states, assigning each state a number of acre-feet for its entitlement.  This is important, because that assigned number for each state stays the same no matter how much water is actually in the river.  Problems have arisen since the original apportionment due to both simple squabbling over who should have the bigger slice of cake, and more problematically, because the cake isn’t actually as big as it was thought to be when it was apportioned.  The 7.5 million acre-foot “total” that can be taken without harm to the river was measured during a wet year, and so when the states use their allocated amount of water, they use more than the river can spare.

The State Water Project has its own set of problems as a water source.  The water ultimately comes from the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta.  The Delta is currently overdrawn, menacing the seven endangered and threatened fish species that call it home.  One in particular has served as the poster child for the recent Delta debates – the Delta smelt.  It’s a small fish, easily held in the palm of the hand, and its susceptibility to pollution makes it a good water quality indicator.  Concern for the species’ survival helped push through the Delta Plan, new legislation from November 2009 which puts conservation of the Delta on par with providing more reliable water supply to Southern California.  This has the effect of reducing the water transferred to Southern California – good for the fish, but inconvenient for the humans.

The humans have always had a bit of a problem with water supply in Southern California.  They have refused to recognize its limits, preferring instead to rely on massive water relocation projects to meet their needs.  This is not a sustainable path – there are very few other places we can take water from.  We need to start learning to conserve and live within our limits.   Visit for some ways to conserve.

Water Unwise: Answers to the burning questions

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

This is the third of a 5-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.

Recently we posted a video of watering turf grass at Liberty Station. We asked you to see if you could spot whether there were any water unwise things in the video. I am sure you have been waiting with baited breath for the answer.

As I hinted in the last blog post, to get a sense of what is technically incorrect, we need a quick review of what our local ordinances say about irrigating.

  • First thing we need to know is that the San Diego City Council removed the Drought Level 2 status. Our City Council exercised some foresight last year and made a few of the drought level 2 restrictions permanent. Now, drought or no drought, there are just some things you cannot do, end of story.
  • Which brings us to the next important things you need to know – it is still illegal to water your lawn between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. (June to October) and 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. (November to May); and “City of San Diego water customers must prohibit excessive irrigation and must immediately correct leaks in their private water systems” (emphasis mine). The City’s regulations now state that customers “shall not allow water to leave their property due to drainage onto adjacent properties or public or private roadways or streets or gutters due to excessive irrigation and/or uncorrected leaks.”

Thus, according to the letter of the law, Liberty Station is within the bounds of legal limits in terms of when they water all that turf – the video was shot in May, at 9 AM. BUT, the video clearly shows excessive irrigation (as evidenced by the water flowing on the sidewalks, pooling around the sprinkler head and flowing into a drain).


Jill Witkowski

The video demonstrates a clear violation of the letter of the law.

But beyond that, there is a clear violation of the spirit of the law as well, which in my mind is meant to keep all San Diegans – whether they manage a small house or a large commercial development – living within our water means. Given our climate and troubled water supply, we should always be striving to make the best water use decisions possible. To their credit, Liberty Station is participating in a pilot Water Savings Performance Program. They have installed an automated irrigation system that determines the length of time and the days to irrigate based on weather, soil, microclimate and plant material. This is a good start but is clearly not sufficient.

But what is a historical site that is trying to pay tribute to its military roots supposed to do?

Well, there are many things Liberty Station could have done and still could do. As Morgan, one of our commentators pointed out “Turf is not water wise … period.” There are other native and drought tolerant ground covers that look similar to turf grass and would help maintain the look of old military training fields of yore.

While it is great that Liberty Station has installed a fancy water-saving irrigation system, they lose half the battle if they don’t check to make sure it is working properly:

  • sprinkler heads spraying water onto concrete should be addressed immediately;
  • lawns could easily be watered earlier in the morning (just around dawn is generally considered best);
  • water should be applied more slowly by switching to more efficient irrigation heads (thanks again to our commentator Morgan for that idea).

Of course, these kinds of changes cannot happen overnight. But with a thoughtful plan for improving water management on site, Liberty Station could identify opportunities over the coming years to change its water path. We believe that any place – not just Liberty Station – can and should craft plans of action that lays out a vision and tasks for achieving water sustainability.





Can you spot the water waste?

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

This is the second of a 5-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.

Among the many things that make working at Coastkeeper great is the location of our offices. We come to work each day at Liberty Station – from our windows we can see a glimpse of San Diego Bay, the old navy channel, gardens and playing fields and historic buildings. But our buildings also stand amid a sea of turf grass. Personally, I prefer walking around gardens and pseudo-open space over walking through looming skyscrapers. But, turf grass means water – a lot of it.

At Coastkeeper, we like to think of ourselves as good water-Samaritans, so our staff is always on the watch for water waste. Recently, our intrepid Communications Director Jamie Ortiz, noticed clear signs of water waste right outside our front door at Liberty Station. Being the tech savvy person that she is, she documented it on video. I thought this might make for a fun water-wise quiz – How many water unwise things can you spot in this video? The video was taken on May 3, 2011 at 9 a.m.

Hint: you might need to check the City of San Diego’s current water use ordinances to find out what is technically not allowed.

Feel free to fill out your answers in a comment box or just remember your answers and check back in one week when we post the answers.

Survey Says…. We still need to conserve more water

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper



Credit San Diego County Water Authority.  2011 Public Water Survey.

This is the first of a 5-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.

On April 12th, the Board members of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) voted to end the 2009 decision to limit water deliveries to the Southern California agencies. What does a board vote by a L.A. public agency have to do with San Diegans you might ask? Well, a lot actually.  In 1946, the County Water Authority joined the MWD to get deliveries of imported water from the Colorado River.  In addition, all the water San Diego receives from Northern California through the State Water Project comes via the MWD. The MWD, as the largest individual source of supply, controls the spigot to most of the water in San Diego.

In response, the San Diego County Water Authority board voted yesterday to end the mandatory cutbacks. Effective today, the County Water Authority will restore full urban water deliveries to its 24 member retail water agencies. Each of these agencies now has the opportunity to maintain or lift its own restrictions. To some, this news will be greeted with joy – no more “drought alerts”; no more worrying about when to water your lawn. Just green lawns, long showers, happy times. To others, the short-sightedness of these decisions brings concern and consternation.

On the surface it seems sensible – the past year has brought plenty of rain and snow in California and major reservoirs are re-filling across the state. No more drought means no need for extreme emergency measures. Mayor Sanders has called for the City of San Diego to lift its restrictions because “emergency regulations should be reserved for emergencies”. But he is missing the point – very low water years are a regular part of Southern Californian life – not something unfortunate that just happens occasionally.

To its credit, the County Water Authority acknowledged that despite this vote “our state’s water supply system is still in crisis” and we still need to do our best to use water responsibly. Maybe as an effort to balance its decision to end the restrictions, the County Water Authority also pointed to results from their annual public survey of County residents to reassure the public that “most residents plan to continue their water-saving practices under a variety of conditions, including the end of mandatory water use restrictions”. Eighty three percent of all survey respondents agreed that they would continue to comply with the mandatory water restrictions if they were lifted whether or not they had reduced their usage in the past.
















Now that does sound reassuring. But public opinion polls often produce conflicting results and this one is no different. If you look at the results of the survey, you will find some results that cast doubt that voluntary conservation will continue. The survey also found that only 31% of respondents reduced their household water usage last year. A majority of respondents also said they would return to a higher usage if their families grew, if there was a hotter/drier year, or they moved to a larger home). To me, these results among others demonstrate that despite the success we had in conserving water since 2009, maintaining these conservation gains in the future will require concerted regulatory effort.

The most encouraging results in the survey, was that support for treating recycled water to potable standards is increasing (over-half of respondents found it acceptable), something Coastkeeper has been promoting for our region. And a majority of respondents also indicated support for maintaining mandatory restrictions.

So, I am putting out a call for my own informal, perhaps not statistically-robust survey. Fill out a comment field and tell me what you think – should your local water agency keep its water restrictions in place? What, if any, actions have you taken to reduce your water footprint? Will you keep doing them if your local supplier ends the restrictions? Better yet, tell your local water supplier what you think.


San Diego Council members see benefit of water purification votes

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

The Environmental Quality Report Card series examines environmental stewardship of San Diego Councilmembers and the Mayor. The series looks at history of past reports, shows the voting record of individual Councilmembers, explains voting methodology and examines the environmental issues the Councilmembers voted on.

On Wednesday of this week, a coalition of environmental nonprofits will release their second annual Environmental Quality Report Card for the City of San Diego.
Last year’s Report Card made quite a splash.  (It is available online from the League of Conservation Voters San Diego.)  The Mayor and most of the City Council received fairly terrible grades. The media covered it extensively, and it even got some Councilmembers running scared.
But that’s the whole point.  The Report Card is intended to shine a spotlight on the environmental records of the Mayor and City Council, so that the public and the voters can demand they do better.
The Environmental Quality Report Card is actually an outgrowth of the Water Quality Report Card that San Diego Coastkeeper published annually, starting in 2001. From year to year, the Water Quality Report Card measured a statistical improvement in voting behavior for City officials, especially if they received a poor grade during their first year on the council.
In 2009, a coalition of environmental organizations adopted Coastkeeper’s report, and expanded it to quantitatively grade city officials on the full spectrum of environmental issues (including water quality). It continues to be our hope that with greater scrutiny, the City of San Diego will produce better environmental policy.
While the Report Card is commissioned by environmental nonprofits, the report is compiled by Strategic Community Consulting, an independent consulting firm staffed by UCSD graduate students at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. The consultants keep the Report Card objective and independent, and they bring to bear considerable rigor to their quantitative analysis of Council grades.
You’ll have to wait for Wednesday to find out how the Council and Mayor scored in 2010.  But I can tell you that the historical trends have continued, and most officials who scored poorly in 2009, improved in 2010. Some improved a lot.  But others have failed to treat conservation as anything more than a buzzword for their campaign mailers.
So stay tuned!  Copies of the 2010 report card will be available online at the website of the League of Conservation Voters after 11 a.m. on April 20, 2011. (
PS:  We’ll also be tweeting about the Report Card before and after its release by using the hash tag #EQRC.

Point Loma Sewage Treatment Facility photographed by Lighthawk and Matthew Meier Photography

Have you seen the 2010 Environmental Quality Report Card for the City of San Diego?  As you can see, one of the success stories last year was the Council’s approach to Indirect Potable Reuse.  This process of water purification recycles wastewater into water so clean that it can augment our reservoirs and help increase our drinking water supplies.

Once the third rail of San Diego politics, water purification became much more palatable at City Hall due to continuing periods of drought and budget shortfalls.  The purification process gives us a local source of water at a time when our imported sources are literally drying up.  A decade ago the process was tagged with the misnomer toilet-to-tap, and written off as politically unpopular.  But science ultimately convinced a majority of council members to revisit reuse. 

There were two important votes in San Diego last year on IPR.  The first, in January, authorized a contract for public outreach and project management of a demonstration project for advanced water purification.   It passed with five councilmember votes and a positive staff report from the Mayor.  The second vote in July actually passed with six votes, authorizing the contract to design and build the demonstration-scale facility.  The test plant will operate at the North City Water Reclamation Plant, where the City will gather data to plan a permanent full-scale project. 

The (not-so) strange part?  Opposition to last year’s votes was almost non-existent.  An unprecedented coalition of more than twenty groups supporting water purification was one reason, public outreach and education was another.  The Union-Tribune’s editorial support this year may have been belated, but it gave one more boost to council members who know that caring about water quality is the right thing in popular and unpopular times.  And for those that did, the Environmental Quality Report Card took note.


That’s Right: Get Over the Yuck Factor of Toilet-to-Tap

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Saturday’s Union-Tribune ran an editorial rescinding its previous opposition to indirect potable reuse, a water supply option which would recycle treated wastewater into water so pure we could drink it. We’ve been advocating for this water supply option for many years and would like to congratulate the paper for stepping back from the brink to re-think San Diego’s water crisis.

What a difference two-and-a-half years make.

In September, 2008, this Editorial Board’s assessment of the pilot project to recycle wastewater at San Diego’s North City Water Reclamation Plan did not mince words, advising the City Council to ‘face up to reality and kill the toilet-to-tap boondoggle.’  Further back in the archives, in 2006 the sentiment was even blunter: ‘your golden retriever may drink out of the toilet with no ill effects. But that doesn’t mean humans should do the same.’  Fortunately, in the intervening years the UT has got religion, or at least education, about water scarcity and the real science about recycled wastewater.  Now the message matches reality: indirect potable reuse produces a higher-quality water source than anything being imported into San Diego currently.

One area environmentalists, taxpayers, elected officials and even the media have always agreed on is the issue is one of education.  That’s why we’ve supported and fought for a public education campaign to go with the pilot project.  Hopefully, when that campaign gets into full swing later this year, the Editorial Board will be first in line to testify to the power of science and a little persistence.

From Organic Farming to Drinking Water: Water Purification in San Diego

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Our Tijuana River water quality tests from last week got me thinking about the safety of food grown at Suzie’s Farm, located in the Tijuana River Valley. I receive my Community Support Agriculture (CSA) box from Suzie’s Farm every Wednesday, and I wondered if the water quality of the Tijuana River put my organically certified grown food at risk.

So I asked.

Lucila, who owns the wonderfully titled job of Head Weed Puller, responded with this note:

Being a USDA certified organic farm we are concerned with water quality too. We use a well that is tested yearly and certified. The well has been found to be at a level consistent with 10,000 years ago; so it’s pretty deep. Our well water is then run through a reverse osmosis system, so the water with which we irrigate our fields is more pure than San Diego City water. We do not irrigate with water from the river.

Feel free to contact us with more questions or concerns regarding our water quality or any of our agricultural practices.

This means that Suzie’s Farm grows the food I serve for dinner with water so pure, it’s better than what comes out of my tap. Which begs the question, could this process be used to help with our currently endangered water supply?

At Coastkeeper, we advocate for a wasterwater purification process to help our region find reliable sources of water. The Point Loma Sewage Treatment Plant currently treats sewage and pumps it into to our ocean. Rather than dispose of that water, we want the city to run it through a similar reverse osmosis process used by Suzie’s Farm so that we can add the highly purified water to our drinking reservoir, and thus increase our water supply. It’s water so pure, it’s drinkable.

You can learn more about this process, called Indirect Potable Reuse, on our website. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on this potential water supply.

Reconnecting to healthy waters: an uphill battle

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper



I remember the first time I saw water flowing uphill – no, this was not an optical illusion like Magnetic Hill. it was in fact one of the many conduits of the State Water Project, snaking its way hundreds of miles from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California. I had been driving dusty roads out of Bakersfield west towards the coast after a backpacking trip. Of course, I had read about the massive canals and pipes that pushed melted snowpack from the Sierra mountains to Southern California; I had seen the figures of how much energy (average net use, 5.1 Billion kWh) it takes to pump that water over those mountains, among other things.

But I had to actually see the size of the pipes and how far uphill they had to move water, defying gravity every step of the way, before I could really fathom how crazy, fantastic and scary the California water supply really is.

With these concrete behemoths at the back of my mind, I was not that surprised to read that globally, water security and freshwater biodiversity are critically threatened. A recent report in Nature co-led by Peter McIntyre and Charles Vörösmarty analyzed simultaneously the effects of multiple stressors like pollution, dam building, agricultural runoff, wetland loss and introduced species on the health of the world’s freshwater systems. While some aspects of what they determined are not surprising (wherever there are too many people, watersheds get degraded; in developing nations, access to safe water is tenuous at best) – one finding was particularly striking to me: that even in highly developed nations like the U.S., water security and biodiversity were deemed to be highly threatened. It is only reliance on massive technological solutions – like California’s water infrastructure – that holds our water security in place. To people reading the thoughts and insights about water on Blog Action Day, the conclusions drawn by McIntyre and Vörösmarty will likely hit home – we need to rethink how we manage water.

Consider this – that for everything it gives (drinking water on demand, emerald lawns, swimming pools, playing fields; generally, our high quality of life), California’s vast water infrastructure takes away as well. Our reliance on imported water helps us to disconnect from problems in our local waters – polluted runoff, channelization, habitat destruction – we don’t think too much about our local creeks and rivers because we don’t have to.

At San Diego Coastkeeper, we are working to turn the tide on that disconnect. By doing things like training local residents to go out into their watersheds and monitor water quality and getting people out into their creeks and beaches to clean them up we are working to help people understand the true value of water.