Using Conservation to Combat Pollution

Written by Meredith Meyers

We talk a lot about water quality here at Coastkeeper. We also talk a lot about water supply and conservation. Below, we’ll take a deep dive into just how those two topics are connected, and explore the science behind how wasting water leads to increased pollution in our communities.

Urban Drool

Outdoor water use in San Diego’s urban and suburban communities has significant downstream effects in our watersheds. Receiving waters (the creeks, rivers, lagoons, bays, and ocean waters that are downstream of urban areas and receive water running off concretized streets and storm drains) are exposed to variety of stressors from untreated urban runoff. Often that runoff is created not by big winter storms, but by what officials call dry-weather flows, nuisance runoff, or my personal favorite – urban drool. This wasted water from over-watered lawns, leaky pipes, hosing down driveways, and so on, not only strains our water supply but creates a chronic means for pollution to reach our local waterways.

The Pollutants

Excessive nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus found in fertilizers and detergents are major contributors to a condition called eutrophication in urban receiving waters. Eutrophication occurs when naturally occurring algae are stimulated to bloom by excess nutrients in the water. Dense algal blooms reduce water clarity, limit light penetration, and choke narrow waterways. And when the algae eventually, microbes get to work decomposing the dead algae cells, creating bad odors and severely reducing dissolved oxygen levels. These conditions damage habitat quality for aquatic life and reduce aesthetic and recreational opportunities in local waterways.

The Monitoring Program

Volunteers with San Diego Coastkeeper’s water quality monitoring program have been measuring nutrient concentrations at fixed sites in local waterways since 2010. While many local streams see spikes in nutrient levels during the winter rainy season, several watersheds have sites that are chronically elevated throughout the year. Our volunteers frequently witness the signs of eutrophication when they’re out collecting samples, such as seeing the slimy green or brown sheen of dense algal growth in the water, smelling their noxious odors, and even occasionally encountering fish kills on stream banks (from rapidly depleted oxygen levels).

How You Can Make a Difference

Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that residential sources dominate nutrient inputs in urban watersheds. In fact, the study found that nitrogen loading from household lawn fertilizer exceeded the combined inputs from golf courses, parks, schools, and other non-residential vegetated areas. Check it out here.

So, upstream solutions, or individual practices that stop or limit the problems of urban runoff in the first place, are key to managing urban eutrophication. You can limit the excess water and nutrients running off your property with a few simple steps:

  • Choose landscapes that need little or no fertilizers and water to thrive. Many native, drought tolerant plants are already adapted to low nutrient soils and the dry southern California climate, and as a bonus, provide habitat for native wildlife like birds and butterflies.
  • For plants that need a little extra water, try compost or mulch to help your soil store water and replenish nutrients more slowly than chemical fertilizers.
  • Use properly installed drip- or other water-efficient irrigation systems and check them frequently for breaks or leaks.
  • Sweep debris from decks or driveways, rather than using a hose.
  • Wash vehicles at a professional car wash, which recycles water, instead of washing them in your driveway.

And there you have it. Simple choices that will save you money on your water bill, and end up protecting the waterways and wildlife downstream. 

What does a year of better water really mean? – San Diego Coastkeeper 2016 Water Quality Report

Written by Meredith Meyers

 

For the first time since 2013, some of our watersheds scored “Good” on the Water Quality Index and many of our watershed scores improved significantly from scores over the last few years, but we can’t get too excited. One year of improvement isn’t enough to say for sure that water quality is improving overall, and we still see lots of occasions where excessive pollution is impacting our inland waters.

This one-year snapshot highlights why our long-term water quality monitoring efforts are so important. By continuing to collect data over the long term, our program contributes to a better understanding of the impacts of factors such as climate, land-use changes and restoration efforts on water quality in our region.

The Volunteer Scientists That Made This Possible

In 2016, 152 volunteer Water Quality Monitors spent a collective 1,908 hours collecting and analyzing water samples from across San Diego County. 

That work truly matters, making a difference that reverberates for generations. Our government doesn’t have the resources to keep as close an eye on our water as we do. Without San Diego Coastkeeper and the dedication of our Water Quality Monitors, the health of our inland waters would be even more of a mystery and even more difficult to manage and improve.

Our 2016 Water Quality Report, which we share with decision-makers across the region to inform better policy, wouldn’t exist without volunteers and donors like you.

  • Find out how your neighborhood watershed scored in 2016 below
  • Sign up to become a trained Water Quality Monitor
  • Donate to fuel San Diego’s clean water movement

Why Did Our Water Improve For The First Time in Five Years?  

Urban runoff continues to be the largest factor impacting people’s ability to safely fish and swim in San Diego County. Rain takes pollution from the surfaces of our streets into our storm drains, where it travels through to our rivers and streams and ultimately, to the Pacific Ocean. As a result, the overwhelming majority of San Diego’s waterways fail to the meet water quality standards that make them safe for recreation.

Though the cause of last year’s improved results can’t be directly identified, and we caution against giving too much credit to any one theory, we do have one idea about why water quality looked a little better in 2016.

Temporary water conservation regulations, implemented in response to the drought, may have helped water quality improve. When we prioritize our environment and water conservation over our front yard lawns, we reduce fertilizer use and fewer lawn sprinklers overflow onto our sidewalks. This may seem small when you think about a couple sprinklers, but San Diegan’s across the county stopped watering their lawns by the thousands. That meant less pollution washing from the street into our rivers and streams. It’s impossible to know for sure, but this one idea makes sense.

Click below to check your watershed’s report card.

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

  

  

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: San Diego River Watershed

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

San Diego River Watershed’s Score For 2016: 72, Fair 

The San Diego watershed stretches from the Cuyamaca Mountains in the east, to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and includes parts of Julian, Alpine, Lakeside, El Cajon, Santee, La Mesa, and San Diego. Nutrient levels were often elevated in our 2016 samples, especially phosphorus, an important factor in stream health. Freshwater streams are often phosphorus limited. This means that a major factor holding back excessive algae growth is a shortage of phosphorus relative to other nutrients in the water. The addition of phosphorus to a phosphorus-limited stream can result in eutrophication, a likely scenario here supported by the occasionally very low levels of dissolved oxygen we measured. Phosphorus can be naturally occurring through the erosion of rocks, but lawn fertilizers and detergents are common human sources.

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Tijuana Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: N/A

We’ve suspended our sampling in the Tijuana watershed for now.  We know that when it is flowing, the river is highly polluted with untreated sewage, and we’d like to keep our volunteers safe!

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Rose Creek Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: 87, Good

The Rose Creek watershed, containing Rose and San Clemente Creeks, includes parts of Scripps Ranch, Miramar, Kearny Mesa, University City, Clairemont Mesa, La Jolla, and Pacific Beach. Of all the watersheds we monitor, Rose Creek had the highest water quality index score in 2016. This is mainly because nutrient levels were rarely elevated. Fecal indicator bacteria were still occasionally high though, concerning because this watershed drains into Mission Bay, a major recreational destination.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Sweetwater Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: 74, Fair (20 point improvement from 2015)

The Sweetwater watershed begins in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the east and collects runoff from parts of Alpine, Spring Valley, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, San Diego, National City, and Chula Vista before draining into San Diego Bay.  We’re happy to report the Sweetwater River improved in several key indicators compared to our 2015 results, including ammonia and fecal indicator bacteria — although we still saw numerous exceedances of FIB throughout the year.  Dissolved oxygen levels were still very low for most of the year at our site off Plaza Bonita Road, likely caused by excess organic matter being broken down by bacteria in the slow-moving water.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: San Dieguito Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: 78, Fair

The San Dieguito watershed begins in the mountains north of Julian and includes parts of Ramona, Escondido, Rancho Bernardo, Solana Beach, and Del Mar.  Our monitoring data indicated that water quality was fair in the San Dieguito Watershed.  Like most of the sites our program watches over each month, fecal bacteria counts were often elevated, with 50% of the samples collected in this watershed in 2016 exceeding the water quality standard for Enterococcus.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Pueblo Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: 56, Marginal

The small, urban Pueblo watershed includes parts of the cities of La Mesa, Lemon Grove, National City, and San Diego.  Home to Chollas and Palleta Creeks, the watershed drains the most highly developed parts our region into San Diego Bay.  Water quality in these creeks is highly impacted by urban runoff; with many of the indicators we measure regularly exceeding the water quality standards.  The volunteers also note that the sites they visit each month are consistently plagued with large volumes of trash.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Otay Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

 

Water Quality Index Score: 70, Fair

The Otay watershed is the southernmost watershed we monitored this year.  The portion of the watershed drained by the Otay River includes parts of unincorporated San Diego County, Chula Vista, and San Diego before the river reaches the southern end of San Diego Bay. Both types of indicator bacteria were frequently elevated and were the main contributor to the “Fair” grade in 2016. Nitrate levels were also well above good water quality thresholds, especially towards the end of the year, a trend that has continued into 2017 and we’re keeping an eye on now.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Los Peñasquitos Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: 76, Fair

The Los Peñasquitos watershed originates in the foothills near Iron Mountain, and includes the communities of Poway, Mira Mesa, Sorrento Valley, and parts of Carmel Valley, Scripps Ranch, and Del Mar.  Precipitation and runoff is funneled through Los Peñasquitos Lagoon before reaching the Pacific Ocean. Our water quality results in 2016 were fair, with ammonia and phosphorus the main pollutants of concern. These excess nutrients often enter waterways in runoff from fertilized lawns and waste discharges.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff