Toxic Waters in San Diego Archives - San Diego Coastkeeper

An El Cajon Business’s Journey from Polluter To Environmental Leader

Written by Matt O'Malley

stormwater after heavy rain

The United States and California have some of the best water quality regulations in the world. The problem is, they are seldom enforced. That’s where we come in. San Diego Coastkeeper’s identifies illegal polluters like government bodies and businesses and works, often hand-in-hand with polluters, to bring them into compliance with the law. The end result is a new industry leader in environmental stewardship.

Enter El Cajon Business Precision Metals Products

Precision Metals Products’ facility primarily fabricates steel columns, beams, braces and machines. As you can imagine, a lot of metals on this site that can leach into the water — and they have. Over the past five years, Precision Metals Products has polluted Forester Creek, the San Diego River, and ultimately, the Pacific Ocean. These polluted discharges make our water less fishable and swimmable.

In February 2016, San Diego Coastkeeper and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue Precision Metals Products, Inc. in El Cajon for violations of the California statewide industrial general permit and the Clean Water Act.  

A Win for Clean Water and Sustainable Business

Thanks to hard work from all parties, we now have an agreement that keeps our water clean. Coastkeeper recently filed an agreement between our groups and Precision Metals Products, and it’s now approved by the federal court system and the Department of Justice. This means there is a legally binding agreement requiring the operators to keep the site cleaner and repair cracked pavement. These major changes will prevent the following types of pollutions from entering our waters:

  • Zinc
  • Aluminum
  • Iron
  • Total Suspended Solids
  • Nutrients

Restitution for Past Pollution

While the past pollution cannot be undone, stormwater pollution settlements use the money won to further improve water quality — attempting to balance past damage with investments in the future. Different environmental groups apply for these grants, called Supplemental Environmental Projects.

In this case, the funds from the settlement will go to San Diego Audubon Society for its Supplemental Environmental Project called ReWild Mission Bay, a project to enhance and restore up to 170 acres of wetlands in the northeast corner of Mission Bay.

Setting the Standard

When a business is polluting, we always have the goal to work hand-in-hand with business leaders to help them come into compliance. When that happens, it sets a positive example for the industry that following the law is good for business and good for the community. Eventually, this leads to improved industry standards as a whole.

Everyone has a right to clean water — and our enforcement efforts make up part of the solution to creating a fishable, swimmable, drinkable San Diego County for all.

Will the Trump Administration Destroy San Diego’s Water? We Won’t Let Him.

Written by Matt O'Malley

Who is being put in charge of our nation’s environment?

President Elect Trump has appointed Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier with a history of suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to head the EPA. Along with a litany of other promised anti-environment policies and appointees, the new administration poses a real and serious threat to our fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters.

Not to fear. We’re here.

But amidst this threat, environmental activist groups like San Diego Coastkeeper will remain powerful. We rely upon environmental regulations like the Clean Water Act, laws that make the act of polluting a criminal offense, and that are enforced by U.S. courts and citizens. Although Trump may enjoy a sympathetic Congress, he will not be able to wave his hand and nullify the power of the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations set forth by the Obama administration. Why? Because clean water activists like us stand in the way.

With Pruitt in charge, what are the threats to San Diego’s water quality?

EPA’s budgets maybe at risk

With Pruitt, who already talks about unnecessary EPA regulations, we can expect an EPA that is likely to be on the receiving end of significant budget cuts. Without adequate funding and on top of the already reduced budget and staff at the EPA, we may see an EPA that ignores water quality issues and significantly curtails government enforcement of the Clean Water Act. One need look no further than Trump’s own transition website where he talks about reframing the EPA to be focused on “safe drinking water,” while he conveniently leaves out the Act’s goal of achieving fishable, swimmable waters for all. The new administration may accomplish through these cuts what it cannot otherwise accomplish through the slow, facts-based process of rule-making and obstruction.

Necessary infrastructure improvements may not happen

Much of our infrastructure that protects water quality – whether it’s wastewater treatment and conveyance infrastructure or stormwater infrastructure – is beyond its intended lifespan. The cost of replacing that infrastructure to ensure that we have clean water to surf in, swim in, drink is expensive (by some estimates in the hundreds of millions of dollars). As that infrastructure ages, water quality is suffering. If Pruitt’s past actions and statements are any indication, instead of the EPA leading the nation in efforts to incentivize or require infrastructure and action that address water pollution, we can expect an EPA that ignores water quality issues, or, at worst, actively stands in the way of efforts to address our polluted coasts and streams.

More offshore oil — and associated oil spills — may come to our coastline

The EPA under Pruitt’s leadership may be looking to expand oil and gas drilling off our coasts, including the coasts of Southern California, by expanding existing oil extraction industries into federal waters. With oil industry often comes oil spills, which could lead to large-scale disasters along our coasts as we’ve seen in Santa Barbara and the Gulf of Mexico.

We’ll lose ground on addressing climate change

And then there are the longer-term implications, such as losing ground on climate change initiatives, which will guarantee that our coastal resources will change in the years ahead due to sea level rise. Every day we delay implementing national and local measures aimed at curbing greenhouse gasses and addressing climate change and its impacts is a blow to our future. As sea level rises, many of the beaches and breaks we all love will be greatly changed. With what we’ve heard from the incoming administration and with Pruitt’s actions aimed against rules meant to lead to cleaner air, we can expect a retreat from the progress we’ve been making in climate change initiatives.

Here’s one more reason why groups like San Diego Coastkeeper are more important than ever during the next 4 years.

Under President Trump, we may face more serious and emergent threats to our environment than ever before, but we will not back down. With Pruitt’s appointment, we can see some near-term fights that we’re ready to battle to protect our water.

We will remain active in education and community engagement, and we will continue to enforce the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws when government cannot or is unwilling to do so. We will continue to advocate, either through outreach with our decision-makers, or through legal action, for infrastructure projects like stormwater capture projects that create water supply while reducing water pollution in our rivers and streams, along our coastlines, and in our surf breaks. We will continue to work with our statewide representation, California Coastkeeper Alliance, to ensure we protect our water locally and at the state level. We will continue this important work for you and everyone in this region who deserves clean water.

Will you stand with us in 2017 in the fight to protect our fishable, swimmable, drinkable water? Please donate today.

From Matt’s Desk: An Intro to Industrial Stormwater Enforcement

Written by Matt O'Malley

Local enforcement of the Clean Water Act by the government is rare.

This is a huge problem for clean waters in San Diego. But, the Clean Water Act itself recognized that government alone cannot do the job of holding polluters accountable, and encouraged citizens who value clean water to enforce the law on their own. So that’s what we do. This great empowering tool was one of the great victories for the environment some 40 plus years ago.

Today, without our stormwater enforcement program, business and government agencies in San Diego County could continue to pollute without consequences for decades. Sometimes citizen suits are necessary to stop a polluter from harming our water, but often we can transform a polluter to an industry-leading water steward with some cooperation and collaboration.


What is runoff? Watch to learn. Its causes are varied, and we use data and multiple tactics to solve all sorts of runoff pollution, including that coming from specific industries.

We offer to cooperate.

Our staff can pull a business’s mandatory, self-reported water quality data from California’s public database. This allows us to see if a business has failed to do water quality tests or if its data indicates they are polluting in violation of the law. Once we identify a business or government agency that is out of compliance, we send them a legal notice, which is required under the Clean Water Act, and we offer to cooperate with them to help protect our water and protect their business from legal consequences. Often, businesses are willing to upgrade their facilities and their practices to the legal standards necessary to keep our waters fishable and swimmable.

Businesses want to take action.

We love the results we’ve seen from our engagement with companies such as Quality Recycling in Vista. Its staff took action with our legal notice and now the stormwater samples taken at its facility show mostly clean results. We’re glad to see they are now responsible stewards of the environment, and look forward to engaging industry and government to protect our waters from ongoing pollution.

Top Five Things We’ve Learned from Water Quality Monitoring

Written by Meredith Meyers

wqm_volunteer_take_samples-1We may not think about it every day, but we all live in a watershed. A watershed is the area of land that catches all the rain and snow, which collects into a marsh, stream, river, lake or groundwater. What we do on the land affects the quality of water for all communities living downstream. So what does this mean? It means our rivers and streams are the report card for a watershed’s health.

San Diego Coastkeeper has been monitoring local waterways since 2000. We assess watershed health on a monthly basis by measuring nutrients, bacteria, and basic water chemistry (temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, etc). We monitor fixed sites in nine of San Diego County’s eleven coastal draining watersheds and use our data to assign water quality scores to each of our sites and annual watershed health reports. Most importantly (perhaps) is that we share these scores with the public by updating water quality information monthly on our website.

San Diego Coastkeeper is the only countywide, routine water quality monitoring program in San Diego, and we’re the largest volunteer-led effort of its kind in the state. We train over 100 volunteers each year to collect water quality data, and by analyzing the data that volunteers collect, we identify polluted waters and reduce sources of pollution.

We’ve learned  a thing or two after 16 years of monitoring San Diego County’s water quality. These are our top five lessons learned.

5.) Urbanization is linked to poor water quality. 
Want an example? See how fertilizers alone hurt our water.

 4.) Nitrates are especially high in Escondido Creek.
At high levels, nitrates can be toxic to animals and humans. The best way you can prevent nitrate pollution in our waters is to limit the use of chemical fertilizers in your yard, or better yet rip up your grass and plant native plants that don’t need fertilizers.

3.) Bacteria levels are really high after a rain event.
Here are ten tactics to keep bacteria out of our waters by preventing polluted runoff.

2.) Drought affects water quality, not just quality.
Ambient measurements help us determine when poor water quality is harming the flora and fauna of our waters.

1.) We could not do this without our extraordinary volunteers.
Each month, 40 – 45 San Diego residents volunteer their Saturday to collect field samples and process them in the lab. During 2014 alone, 194 volunteers gave a total of 1,888 hours.

When a Safe Harbor Isn’t Safe

Written by Matt O'Malley

Polluted runoff is San Diego County’s number one water quality problem.  It’s what causes the Department of Environmental Health to issue 72-hour polluted beach advisories when it rains and what causes our local streams and rivers to receive poor health ratings.

To address that issue, the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (“MS4”) permit requires our local governments to create and implement plans to prevent pollution in urban runoff and stormwater from reaching our waters. Naturally, Coastkeeper supports that permit and its goal to protect and restore our waters. Until recently, the permit required strict compliance with the Clean Water Act and with standards aimed at protecting our waters from pollution. It held the cities and other governments accountable if they weren’t achieving clean water.

But on November 18, 2015, the San Diego Regional Water Control Board approved an amendment known as a “Safe Harbor” that gives permit holders a pass from accountability for water-quality protection if they have a plan to eventually, someday reduce pollution into our waters and achieve fishable, swimmable waters. They get this “pass” from the moment their plan is approved and it continues indefinitely as long as they keep trying to do better, even if they continue failing to meet water-quality standards.  In December, we filed a petition to the State Water Resource Control Board to overturn these amendments and to restore accountability of our governments under the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act long ago recognized that the job of protecting our waters was bigger than the EPA or Regional Boards alone.  In doing so, it created a provision that gives citizens the right, if not responsibility, to enforce the laws meant to protect our waters. Since the Clean Water Act is the best – and many times only – tool we as citizens have to defend and protect our waters, it is crucial that we work to protect and preserve that right with the same devotion and intensity we put into protecting our rivers, streams and ocean.

What is A Waterkeeper?

Written by Matt O'Malley
San diego Coastkeeper Water Pollution Patrol

Photography By 9M Photo

As San Diego Coastkeeper’s Waterkeeper, Legal & Policy Director, and attorney, it is my job to ensure that those businesses, governments, and individuals who pollute San Diego’s waters are held accountable and that our waters are both protected and restored.

The honest truth is that while many of our pollution laws in San Diego and the U.S. are quite strong, they are seldom enforced. That’s where we come in. Waterkeeper organizations patrol local waters and prosecute polluters. We are the voice for the water and a defender of the right of every person in San Diego County to live with fishable, swimmable, drinkable water.

San Diego County’s rivers, bays and ocean are under a threat of a thousand cuts. Many different sources of pollution pour into our water every day, which combined become a powerful and often toxic mix poisoning our water and our livelihood. Because this threat is so distributed and gradual, it doesn’t create cause for alarm in the same way something like an oil spill does, making it much more dangerous. It’s easy to just accept the fact that, for the safety of swimmers and surfers, our beaches need to close for 72 hours after it rains. But as Waterkeepers, we do not and will not ever stop protecting our waters.

Our model is simple and powerful: find and fix. One by one, we identify sources of pollution and then use every tool at our disposal, most often legal actions and advocacy, to bring polluters into compliance with the law and heal the cuts that are harming our waters.

San Diego used to average a sewage spill-a-day. With strategic legal action, we were able to push the City of San Diego to invest $1 billion in infrastructure upgrades, reducing sewage spills by 90 percent. That’s just a single lawsuit of the many in our twenty-year history of turning pollution into clean water and polluters into responsible protectors of our water. Imagining San Diego County without San Diego Coastkeeper is, frankly, a bit too scary to consider.

This isn’t a new practice. It’s a tradition that’s proven incredibly effective—across the world. We’re part of an international movement of more than 300 independent Waterkeeper organizations all over the world dedicated to protecting and restoring a specific body of fishable, swimmable, drinkable water. We’re proud to be a part of this tradition, and proud to be one of the largest Waterkeeper organizations in the world.

But I can’t do anything without you by my side. We have to do this together. We all share our water. We all benefit from our water and a thriving, abundant ecosystem. So it’s all of our responsibility to protect it.

If you see something polluting our waters, let me know. I’m your Waterkeeper. If you want to join the Waterkeeper movement and support San Diego Coastkeeper, consider making a donation or joining our team of dedicated volunteers.

Finally, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so I can keep you up to date on the latest information you need to know about San Diego County’s water.

What Can Insects Teach Us About Our Water?

Written by Meredith Meyers

SDCK_water_quality_testingSan Diego County has at least 360 known pollutant impairments in 166 bodies of water. How do we know? One of the methods that San Diego Coastkeeper uses to identify polluted water is to take a survey of the insects that live there.

Some insects are more sensitive to pollution than others. By collecting information about the types and numbers of insects living in a waterway, we are able to determine whether the water is healthy enough to support the species that call it home.

We conduct these studies, called bioassessments, with teams of volunteers along rivers and streams in San Diego County. In addition to collecting and identifying aquatic insects, the volunteers work together to measure physical characteristics of the streams such as sedimentation and the state of the stream bed. We usually conduct these assessments once a year, during the springtime when our rivers are flowing most consistently.

San Diego Coastkeeper’s bioassessments go hand in hand with Water Quality Monitoring, our program to analyze water samples for basic chemistry, nutrients, bacteria and toxicity. Because they go beyond measuring chemical components, bioassessments help us to make connections between the quality of our water and the health of our animals that call it home. This gives us a deeper, more holistic understanding of water quality in San Diego County – and that’s the first step to making our water healthy for everyone to enjoy.

Water Quality: What’s Drought Got to Do With It?

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Every year, Heal the Bay puts out a beach report card, providing essential water quality information to the millions of people who swim, surf or dive in the coastal waters of the West Coast. The report card assigns A-to-F letter grades to 456 California beaches for three reporting periods in 2015-2016, based on levels of weekly bacterial pollution.

This year, San Diego led Heal the Bay’s honor roll with an A+ grade and many are attributing the drought for these “stellar” results. But while the test results for the coastal waters are looking better than usual, not all waters are making the grade.

Water-Quality-2015San Diego Coastkeeper also tracks water quality in San Diego, but instead of the coastal waters — where all the water eventually flows to — we track the quality of our inland water throughout nine of our eleven watersheds.

Inland Water Quality Vs. Coastal Water Quality

It’s all the same right? Actually, the water quality of our inland waters is worsening, partially due to very low water levels.

Our 2015 data reveal that more than three quarters of our water samples contained unsafe levels of fecal indicator bacteria. This means that our rivers and streams are carrying pollutants to the ocean that cause health problems like staph infections, ear aches, stomach issues, rashes, eye infections and cysts — just to name a few.

The fact that there has not been any rain to move the poor quality water may be the cause behind San Diego’s A+ grade. But, if the much-needed rain came and washed all the pollutants and bacteria into the ocean, it would stand to reason that San Diego would not be on the honor role.

Truly Improving Water Quality

The only real way to improve our water quality is to stop pollution and runoff at the source. Coastkeeper also works to stop industrial pollution, urban runoff, sewage spills and more.

We have successfully reduced beach advisories by 77 percent since 2000 and continue to work on making our inland and coastal waters swimmable and fishable. While the coastal waters are better today, our inland waters are a sure sign that overall there is more work to do.

Water Quality in 2015 – How Drought Causes Worse Water Quality

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality 2015

San Diego County Watershed Scores - 2015Water Quality Index Score Explanation

Each month, the trained volunteer scientists on our Water Quality Monitoring team collect water samples from nine of San Diego County’s 11 coastal watersheds. We measure and test the samples in our lab and analyze the data to build an ongoing picture of our county’s water quality, uncover sources of pollution and inform better decision making to protect and restore San Diego County’s fishable, swimmable, drinkable water.

Here are the results of the data collected throughout 2015 in our 2015 Water Quality Report.

Our Fourth Consecutive Year of Drought Continues To Worsen Water Quality

Jeremy hands off to Steven - Adrian KinnaneIn 2015, all nine of the watersheds tested as Fair, Marginal or Poor on San Diego Coastkeeper’s Water Quality Index scoring system, all earning the same abnormally low scores as 2014.

Poor water quality puts significant stress on the vital rivers and streams that we rely upon for everything from flood control and natural filtration of toxins to wildlife preservation. Since our watersheds drain to the Pacific Ocean, these inland water quality issues also make our precious, economy-powering coastline less safe to swim and fish.

Very low water levels as a result of our fourth consecutive year of drought are partially to blame for the continued poor water quality scores. In 2015, we had more sites with water levels so low they were too dry to collect samples than any other year in our recent history.

Our 2015 data reveal low dissolved oxygen concentrations in 38 percent of samples and unhealthy levels of fecal indicator bacteria in 59 percent of samples, both common results of drought conditions. Urban runoff, sewage and industrial pollution are also likely significant contributors to the poor water quality.

Fecal Indicator Bacteria: Our Biggest Concern

Volunteers_Testing_SLR-090Our water scientists use E. Coli and Enterococcus bacteria as indicators of water contamination by fecal material (animal poop or human sewage). These indicator bacteria are often present in some amount in our inland water, but high levels of them often indicate the presence of dangerous viruses and pathogens that can make you sick.

Over three quarters of our water samples in 2015 contained unsafe levels of fecal indicator bacteria. This means that our rivers and streams are carrying pollutants to the ocean that cause health problems like staph infections, ear aches, stomach issues, rashes, eye infections, and cysts — just to name a few.

When we collected samples 48 hours after a rainstorm in May 2015, every watershed but one exceeded unhealthy levels of Enterococcus. This is why the County’s Department of Environmental Health closes the beaches countywide after it rains — water quality is so poor that it becomes unsafe to swim.

This data also raises a question that we need more research to answer: “Is the drought reducing water levels so much that shallow, slow-moving and warm streams allow Enterococcus and E. coli to stick around much longer?” As in 2014, many of our testing sites in 2015 were so dry that we could not gather samples. We’re curious to explore this question with further research.

Low Dissolved Oxygen Levels Make It Hard For Aquatic Wildlife To Breathe

lab volunteerOur 2015 data revealed low dissolved oxygen concentrations in 38 percent of samples. This means our underwater wildlife is in significant distress. We can partially blame drought conditions for this problem, but urban runoff pollution is also a likely contributor.

When rain washes nutrient pollutants, like agricultural and lawn fertilizers, down storm drains and into our watersheds, it supercharges plant growth in our rivers and streams just like it does to grass in our yards. But this growth triggers a nasty chain reaction called eutrophication. Nutrient pollution can fuel massive, unnatural blooms of algae on the water’s surface that grow so big they block the sun from reaching plants below the water. When these plants die from lack of sunlight all at once, they begin to rot all at once too, producing an unnatural amount of bacteria that use up the dissolved oxygen that other wildlife depend on to breath. This puts stress on or kills our underwater wildlife.

Volunteer-Powered Data

Water-Quality-Monitor-1Our 194 volunteer Water Quality Monitors gave a collective 1,808 hours to collect this important data. In 2015, we trained 74 new Water Quality Monitors and plan to triple our volunteer force by 2018.

Our Water Quality Monitoring program is the largest of its kind in the state and is one of San Diego Coastkeeper’s most powerful tools in protecting and restoring our water. The work of our passionate volunteers generates the vital, scientifically sound data our government agencies can’t collect, allowing us to keep a vigilant watch over San Diego County’s water quality.

In 2011, our Water Quality Monitoring team discovered a 1.9-million sewage spill upstream of the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon. The program provided authorities with the only available baseline water quality data and tracked the lagoon’s recovery. Water Quality Monitor testimony then contributed to a $12 million investment in basic sewage infrastructure, ending San Diego’s “sewage-spill-a-day” reputation.

Click below to check your watershed’s report card.

Read the specific water quality scores for each of the nine tested watersheds below.

San Diego River   tijuana   Otay

Pueblo   San Dieguito   San Luis Rey

sweetwater   Peñasquitos   Carlsbad


Water Quality 2015: Carlsbad Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality 2015 - Carlsbad

Water Quality Index Score: 66, Fair

Carlsbad Polar 2015To no surprise, our 2015 data showed that:

  • Nitrate continues to be  consistently high in upper Escondido Creek. Every single sample collected from our three upper Escondido Creek sites was above the basin plan standard.
  • Fecal indicator bacteria counts were also high.

In fact, the ten samples with the highest nitrate concentrations collected anywhere in San Diego County in 2015 came from Escondido Creek. Because of this, our volunteers report seeing a lot of algae growth in the water.

We’re not surprised because nitrate always measures high in Escondido Creek, but we’re interested in learning why this consistently happens. Recently, we inquired with the City of Escondido, and representatives say it comes from groundwater and the legacy pollution from the agriculture industry. Thankfully, our longtime volunteer and board member, Taya Lazootin, is running a research project to examine nitrate in Escondido Creek to figure out what’s happening. We’ve also implemented stormwater monitoring in the upper Escondido Creek sites to investigate the pollution issues here.

Fun fact: Our volunteers in Carlsbad are some of our longest serving volunteers. Many of them have been water quality monitors for over 5 years.

Water Quality Index Score Explanation