Water Quality Index Score: 82, Good
The San Luis Rey watershed, the northernmost watershed on our list, is dominated by the San Luis Rey River whose headwaters begin near Warner Springs and Ranchita. The watershed also includes parts of Valley Center, Bonsall, Fallbrook, and Oceanside. In 2016, San Luis Rey held the distinction of being the only watershed where the fecal indicator bacteria counts in all collected samples fell within the objectives for good water quality. Nutrient scores – particularly ammonia – were occasionally high though. Ammonia doesn’t usually stick around in aquatic systems very long as it is fairly quickly converted into nitrate, and so high level of this indicator can be a sign of industrial or fertilizer waste.
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.
We 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.
- Urbanization is linked to poor water quality.
Want an example? See how fertilizers alone hurt our water.
- 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.
- Bacteria levels are really high after a rain event.
Here are ten tactics to keep bacteria out of our waters by preventing polluted runoff.
- 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.
- 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.
Susan Cobb, one of San Diego Coastkeeper’s most dedicated Water Quality Monitors, spends her weekends collecting water samples from across San Diego for scientific analysis. Passionate volunteers like Susan are the reason we can catch sewage spills early and find and fix the sources of pollution making San Diego less fishable and swimmable. We sat down with Susan to find out why she loves water and what drives her to protect it.
Why do you volunteer as a Coastkeeper Water Quality Monitor?
I began volunteering when I was a teenager. My mom recycled everything (newspapers, cans, glass) and I spent a few hours every weekend at the local recycling center. When I moved to San Diego County many years later, I started volunteering everywhere I could. Finally, after helping with a few beach cleanups in North County I heard about San Diego Coastkeeper. When I read about their Water Quality Monitoring program and commitment to the waterways in San Diego, I knew I wanted to be involved. That was May of 2015 and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Besides the obvious fact that our environment is worth saving, when I joined San Diego Coastkeeper I met a room full of people that felt the same as I did. My first day as a Water Quality Monitor, I was paired up with Adrian and Steve Kwik. As we drove up the coast to the Los Penasquitos sites, I knew that I wanted to make a commitment to the Water Quality Monitoring program. Those two had been doing it for 8-9 years and I was so impressed with their attitude and longevity.
I love the outdoors. My family and I hike and camp as often as possible. We enjoy the beach and my husband’s hobby is ocean fishing. So, I consider this a perfect fit. I can spend about 5 hours once a month and know that I’m having a positive impact on this big beautiful rock we live on.
Why is it important to return every month?
I see quite a few others that make this a regular part of their schedules each month so I know that I’m not alone. For me, it’s important to come every month because I can. I put it on my calendar, and when other things come up, I work around the water quality monitoring schedule. I am proud to say that I’ve only missed a few since starting in May of 2015.
One thing I love about coming every month is the friendships I’m forming. All of the volunteers care about the environment, but also many are in education (teachers and students) or their jobs are directly related to the environment. Also, it’s not surprising that since I am here on a regular basis, I feel confident in my knowledge of the proper procedures; which I know is important. It’s important for team members to participate each month so we can help train those who are either new or only help occasionally. A strong base of volunteers is essential to the success of the water quality monitoring process to ensure consistency in the data collection itself; whether it be location or the procedure of collecting the data.
What should everyone in San Diego know about this program?
People in San Diego should know that local and state agencies don’t have the funding and/or man-power to monitor our water ways as they should. The data we collect and analyze is used to keep our local industries in check. Since we collect in compliance with scientific procedures (clean gloves, dirty gloves, double bagging, keeping samples on ice, etc) and the lab follows set procedures to ensure accuracy, the data can then be used to support environmental laws if and when the need arises.
Our waterways are the foundation of our life in Southern California. The diversity of our plants and animals cannot survive without a healthy foundation and they deserve protection. Human activity in the outdoors must also be protected. We all should have fishable, swimmable, and drinkable waters. We should be able to enjoy seeing clean water and the wildlife it supports. Our environment is worth saving for ourselves and for our future.
How do you feel about the health of San Diego’s inland waters?
The health of San Diego’s inland waters fluctuates based on numerous factors. Water quality is not solely based on how industries treat our water, it also depends on how the general public, regular people like us, act in our daily life. Runoff from homes and roads, lawn fertilizers, oil from driveways, miscellaneous trash, and more can all have a negative impact on our watersheds. We all can make a difference. What we do matters when it comes to the health of our precious watersheds.
What do you do outside of Coastkeeper?
I’m a middle school science teacher. I encourage my students to participate in beach clean ups and any other causes they find worthy. I volunteer with Coastkeeper because I want them to know the importance of our waterways, and the environment in general. Leading by example is important.
What we all do can, and does, make a difference to others. We impact the world around us whether we realize it or not. I’ve shared with them some of the news that I learn from reading San Diego Coastkeeper’s newsletter. When the new law regarding microbeads passed, we did a mini-unit on plastics and their negative impact on the environment. One of the students this year mentioned how she thought that microbeads were part of the problem and that they should not be allowed. I let her know that the law had been passed and they were being phased out; which made her happy to say the least.
Outside of work, I love to be outdoors. My husband, daughter and I take a yearly camping trip, most often to Sequoia National Park. We have also been to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and others. Locally, we enjoy our local coastline, Anza Borrego and Palomar Mountain. I’ve also done summer traveling with some work friends to Yellowstone and Glacier National Park.
And perhaps — your favorite San Diego beer and why?
My favorite beer is called Headbasher IPA. It’s made by a Carlsbad Brewery by the name of Arcana. We belong to Arcana’s ‘Mug-Club’ and I can’t say enough positive things about it. The owner and staff are amazing people and the two dart boards, along with the variety of food trucks, just can’t be beat. They have a nice selection of brews and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. If you’re in North County and are thirsty for a great brew, stop into Arcana and tell them I sent you.
What is polluted runoff?
Pollutants like oil, grease, pesticides and litter build up on our streets and sidewalks each day. When it rains, and when sprinklers spill onto the sidewalk, water carries all of these pollutants through our storm drains directly into our rivers, bays and beaches without any treatment. Another large and related, and somewhat unquantifiable, problem is called industrial stormwater pollution. While this pollution reaches our waters in much the same way as everyday runoff, this type of pollution originates at the many industrial business sites across the county.
Why is polluted runoff the largest threat to our fishable, swimmable water?
Polluted runoff is the reason we can’t swim in the ocean for 72 hours after it rains, and it causes chemical build up in the fish we eat. But fighting polluted runoff isn’t as simple as stopping a single source of pollution. It’s a death by a thousand cuts, originating everywhere from car washes and sprinklers to streets, construction and industrial sites and farms. Imagine stopping the rain from pouring from the sky and running down the streets!
Dive into our polluted runoff series to explore the cutting edge of our work defending San Diego County’s water from urban and industrial runoff and learn how to make a difference yourself.
- Why We Spend Our Saturdays Collecting Water Samples
- Water Quality: What’s Drought Got to Do With It?
Stay tuned for more stories coming soon.
Did you know that clean water is protected by law?
A Clean Water Law is Born
Prior to 1972, people across America could pollute waters freely — and without much consequence. It wasn’t until the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire that the EPA decided to do something about the pollution across our nation.
That’s when the Clean Water Act was born. This federal law regulates what industries and government can and can’t do to water that we all share. Though locally the law is implemented by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, actual enforcement is rare.
The Power of the People
The Clean Water Act long ago recognized that the job of protecting our waters was a much bigger task than the EPA or Regional Water Boards could handle alone. In doing so, it created a provision that provides citizens with the right to enforce these water-protecting laws.
This law is the best – and many times the only – tool we have to defend and protect our waters here in San Diego. 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.
Cooperation is Key
Today, without Coastkeeper’s stormwater enforcement program, business and government agencies in San Diego County could continue to pollute without consequences for decades. To prevent pollution, our model is simple: find and fix. We identify industrial stormwater polluters and remedy violations using every tool available like the Clean Water Act and the California statewide Industrial General Stormwater Permit.
Since the Government is not actively identifying industrial polluters and bringing them into compliance, we step in by analyzing data and taking proper steps to notify and work with the facility to come into compliance. Our team can pull a business’s mandatory, self-reported water quality data from California’s public database, and at times we may also take our own water quality samples to determine if a facility is doing enough. This analysis 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 required under the Clean Water Act. We also offer to cooperate with them in order to not only protect our water, but protect their business from further legal consequences. Often, industry and government are willing to upgrade their facilities and their practices to the standards necessary under the Clean Water Act to keep our waters pollution-free. In this way we hope to build partnerships and environmental stewards who bring value to our community.
Coastkeeper’s Role in Pollution Prevention
Our industrial enforcement efforts have focused, in part, on areas where environmental injustice continues to occur. A few of our more recent enforcement actions have focused in areas such as Barrio Logan, Chula Vista, and National City, where facilities pollute in close proximity to residential areas and into waterways that residents rely on for fish to feed their families. Often, residents are unaware of the harmful pollution resulting from these businesses in their communities, and the proximity and concentration of industrial pollution near residences and public resources is troublesome.
It’s in our best interest to work with these businesses or government agencies to help them come into compliance. It sets a positive example for industry that following the law is good for business and the community, and can eventually lead to improved industry standards as a whole. Since San Diego’s biggest water issue is runoff pollution, we will need all industries to comply with the Clean Water Act to solve our problem. This takes leadership from our governing agencies like the State and Regional Water Boards, the cities that hold municipal stormwater permits, and the industrial businesses that are part of our community.
Do Your Part
Everyone has a right to clean water, and our industrial enforcement efforts help to create a clean, healthy environment for all. With your help and watchful eyes, we can ensure our waters remain fishable, swimmable, and drinkable.
We have laws in place to limit industrial pollution and ensure that our water can support all of its uses, from swimming and fishing to hosting endangered wildlife. But without enforcement, these regulations cannot keep our water healthy. That’s where San Diego Coastkeeper comes in.
Urban runoff is the single biggest threat to water quality in San Diego. During the dry season, pollutants build up on hard surfaces like roads and parking lots. When it rains, stormwater pushes the accumulated pollutants into our storm drains. In San Diego, like most of California, our storm drains generally do not connect to wastewater treatment plants, so everything flows untreated into our waters. Pollutants created by industries, like metals and oils, are especially serious because they can be toxic in very low concentrations.
The Clean Water Act is a federal law that lays out the legal requirement for protecting, maintaining and improving the health of our water bodies. It is our most powerful tool for making sure San Diego’s water is healthy because it mandates that all states identify creeks, rivers and shorelines that are severely impaired by pollution.
Unfortunately, state and local regulators often don’t review water quality reports or conduct monitoring to make sure that industries are meeting Clean Water Act standards. San Diego Coastkeeper steps up to make sure that industries are doing everything they can to reduce pollution to our rivers and beaches. We review water quality reports, but that’s only the first step.
San Diego’s local government agencies have limited resources and they monitor infrequently, providing only a snapshot of water quality. To solve this problem, San Diego Coastkeeper also conducts our own monitoring to ensure compliance of clean water rules. We collect and analyze water samples from nine out of 11 watersheds in San Diego County every month. To ensure that our data meets the highest quality standards possible, Coastkeeper follows a rigorous quality assurance and control plan and standard operating procedures that have been approved by our state regulatory agencies. Sounds like a big job, right? That’s why we train over 100 volunteers each year and rely on them to help.
When we find polluting facilities, we use the Clean Water Act to bring them into compliance through enforcement actions. Our goal is to force industry operators to install and use best management practices that will meaningfully reduce pollutants in our waterways.
Want to see what kind of report card your local watershed is getting? Click here to explore a map of the most recent data we have for locations from Otay to Carlsbad.
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.
San 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.
In 2014: Looks like San Diego’s drought affects more than water quantity—and we have the data to show it.
We proudly announce the results of our 2014 Water Quality Monitoring efforts, and a few key takeaways from this year’s data. One of the most striking trends we see is that our third consecutive year of drought (7.77′ total rainfall in 2014 compared to the 10.34″ average) has likely contributed to inland water quality issues.
One issue likely related to drought conditions that our 2014 data revealed is low dissolved oxygen concentrations. Turns out that 30 percent of our inland water quality samples that we gathered from across the county measured below healthy levels. Sadly, when dissolved oxygen measurements reach levels this low, aquatic life dies. In April 2014, we even ran across a fish kill in San Luis Rey from just this.
Another trend related to low water levels that shows in our 2014 numbers is that fecal indicator bacteria levels (especially Enterococcus) were a concern across all watersheds. Of our samples in 2014, 57 percent of the Enterococcus samples exceeded healthy standards, and eight of nine watersheds scored marginal or poor for their E. coli scores.
What does this mean?
Enterococcus indicates whether water conditions are safe to swim, most commonly used to measure healthy conditions of salt water. Since all of our inland waterways empty to the ocean, it’s not a good sign that we’re measuring so much Enterococcus in our fresh waters. If you don’t know, this means that the water has pollutants in it that can cause staph infection, ear aches, stomach issues, rashes, eye infections, cysts, and others—just to name a few.
To be accurate, there can always be an amount of Enterococcus in our water due to natural causes (aka bird poo), and those may not cause human health impacts. But the levels in our data are so high, we have major concerns. To illustrate the degree to which this is a problem, our December sampling event took place on the day after a heavy rain, and every single sample collected far exceeded healthy levels acceptable for Enterococcus and E. coli. This is why the County’s Department of Environmental Health closes the beaches countywide after it rains–water quality is extremely poor.
These sort of data sets also raise a question that we can’t answer: Is the drought reducing water levels so much that shallow, slow-moving and warm streams create a breeding ground for Enterococcus and E. coli? More so than any other recent year, a lot of our sites even dried up in 2014 so that we couldn’t gather samples. But given our analysis and the increase in water quality impacts shown by fecal indicator bacteria, we’re curious to explore this question. Unfortunately, the data that we collect can’t help us answer this question.
As you can see in the countywide map, Water Quality Index Scores grouped the map’s color-coding into three sections: fair scores in the north, marginal in the middle and poor in the south. We’re not surprised to see this as we think that these groupings of scores relate to the various land-use types and density of development within the watersheds. The north has more open space and agriculture, the middle has more density and developed land area and the south struggles with cross-border water quality management challenges.
We encourage you to click through to each of our nine watersheds to learn more about water quality scores unique to each. This year, San Diego’s coastal watersheds ranged from fair to poor according to our Water Quality Index scoring system.
- Two watersheds scored lower than they did in 2013 (Los Peñasquitos and San Diego—they were good last year)
- One watershed improved its score from 2013, going from Marginal to Fair (Carlsbad)
We’re thankful for our 194 volunteers who gave a total of 1,888 hours. And we’re encouraged by our 83 newly trained volunteers from 2014.
What watershed do you live on? Find out and click the watersheds below:
Water Quality Index Score: 12, Poor
Let’s acknowledge that we only gathered one sample from the Tijuana Watershed in 2014. Thankfully, the Tijuana-based sewage treatment plant handles and purifies 50 million gallons of river water every day, but it can’t handle wet weather flows. So, when it rains, the operators divert the river flow without treatment, and that’s when we can sample the river. This is also why Imperial Beach beaches are frequently closed during the winter.
Our only sample in 2014 follows a massive rain event in December. That sample showed:
- Bacteria levels were extremely high – even diluting the sample 100 fold, the concentrations were still higher than our test kits can measure
- Ammonia, nitrate, and phosphorus levels were off the charts
- Volunteers had to sludge through very sticky, smelly mud to collect the water samples – thanks!
This watershed presents a lot of cross-border collaboration and love to truly understand and solve the interconnected water quality issues. We’re looking for passionate volunteers to get trained in water quality monitoring so they can champion efforts in this challenging watershed. What are you waiting for? Sign up to get trained!
Water Quality Index Score: 53, Marginal
If we’re going to call Los Penasquitos the average watershed example of San Diego County, we’re going to call Otay Watershed the most consistent watershed in the county. Its consistently high numbers showed:
- Consistently high bacteria levels – Every sample collected exceeded healthy standards for Enterococcus.
- Consistently high Nitrate levels – almost every sample exceeded standards
This also means that this wasteshed runs consistent with our theory that the region’s drought has affected water quality in addition to water quantify. At no point in 2014 did the data from Otay Watershed put it into healthy ranges for fecal indicator bacteria or nitrates. But, consistent with all the watershed scores in December, Otay Watershed’s scores did worsen after the rain event.
We loved hearing that our volunteers in this watershed also consistently spotted dragonflies, crawfish, and herons while sampling.