Water Quality Index Score: 62, Marginal
Our data in Sweetwater Watershed showed:
Again, another watershed indicative of extremely low water flows creating high nutrient levels and low oxygen levels — so low that the river is near depleted of oxygen for many of the summer months.
Why should we care? Our volunteers also spot turtles in this watershed, which depend on the river for their livelihood.
Water Quality Index Score: 64, Marginal
A few key takeaways from our Pueblo Watershed data:
- Chollas River sites often had very high phosphorus and ammonia
- Volunteers found and removed lots of trash from our sampling sites in this watershed
As this watershed is home to Chollas Creek, one of San Diego’s most urban rivers, these results aren’t unexpected. This creek is infamous for drying up, also, so our dataset is missing many samples throughout the year. In fact, more sites went dry this year than any other year in Coastkeeper’s recent sampling history here.
We think all signs point toward poorer water quality than shown with the samples that we could collect, and we wonder with more flow would the Water Quality Index Score have returned a Poor rating?
The high phosphorus and ammonia results belong in the nutrient category, which is common in urban areas with regular use of fertilizers and pesticides on outdoor spaces. An extreme example of this sort of pollution occurred in November, when our volunteer team encountered very black water with a foul odor .
That water sample exceeded healthy standards for nitrate, ammonia, phosphorus, and both types of fecal indicator bacteria. It’s dissolved oxygen was also extremely low. At first, we thought the black water could have been sewage, but an inspector from the city ensured no sewage lines travel to that location. Turns out, it was just really bad water quality. Our guess? Rotting organic matter or some other industrial waste. As indicated in so many of the other watershed data, the low flows and higher-than-normal water temperatures turned Cholla Creek into the perfect breeding ground for rotting vegetation.
Water Quality Index Score: 62, Marginal
2014 was not a good year for the San Diego River. It dropped two levels on our Water Quality Index score, moving from Good in 2013 to Marginal in 2014, and giving it the dubious honors of being the only watershed to get worse. Key data takeaways include:
- Commonly high levels of phosphorus and ammonia
- Extremely low levels of dissolved oxygen more often than not
- Repeated reports from our volunteers noting excessive amounts of algae and duckweed
This is an excellent example to demonstrate how the region’s historic drought conditions impacted water quality in our inland waters last year. I grew up playing in the water at the old mission dam, which has one of our sampling sites nearby, and I can’t recall the water levels ever reaching the lows that we saw this year
All three bullet points in the San Diego Watershed data relate to one another and differently demonstrate high amounts of nutrients in the river. To say the least, this river is out of balance.
High nutrient levels, which often start as fertilizers on our lawns and gardens, cause algae and duckweed growth, which ultimately deplete oxygen levels and kill marine life. We think the low water levels contributed to slower flows and warmer waters, creating the perfect breeding ground for explosive algae growth in the San Diego River. And greatly impacting water quality.
Water Quality Index Score: 76, Fair
Well, here it is: the most typical, average watershed in San Diego County in terms of water quality pollution and health. Our data in this watershed did not change dramatically from the year previous, nor did it produce any intriguing results this year.
The end point for this watershed, the Los Penasquitos Lagoon, has an official “pollution diet” in place for sediment, which means it’s a known problem here. We continue to monitor this closely.
Water Quality Index Score: 76, Fair
Our data in San Dieguito Watershed show:
- Ammonia, phosphorus, and turbidity measuring at marginal on our Water Quality Index Scores
Ammonia and phosphorus are nutrients. In the farm or garden, people add nutrients to encourage robust and healthy plant growth. In the water, however, nutrients are rarely beneficial. Too many nutrients can cause algae to grow out of control, which will blanket the stream and bank with unsightly algae. These mats of algae ultimately lead to oxygen depletion that kill the aquatic life.
This is a huge concern for this waterway because our volunteers spotted lots of wildlife including birds, fish, turtles, clams, crawfish and insects.
The unhealthy levels of turbidity point to excessive sedimentation in the San Dieguito River. The river empties to the San Dieguito lagoon, which is sensitive to this sort of pollution because the river brings sediment into the east side of the lagoon and the Del Mar Racetrack and associated parking lots impact sediment flows on west side.
Water Quality Index Score: 72, Fair
To no surprise, our 2014 data showed that:
- Nitrate is consistently high in upper Escondido Creek
In fact, four of the five samples with the highest nitrate concentrations collected anywhere in San Diego County this year 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 new board member, Taya Lazootin, is running a research project examining nitrate in Escondido Creek to figure out what’s happening. We’re hoping her final report has more insights into this problem.
Water Quality Index Score: 77, Fair
We tracked two parameters of concern in San Luis Rey Watershed:
- Turbidity: Two-thirds of the turbidity samples exceeded healthy standards
- Levels of pH: Over half of the pH samples collected exceeded healthy standards
Spoiler alert: Our volunteers saw the impacts of these poor water quality indicators play out when they reported numerous dead fish along the river’s bank in March and April.
When turbidity exceeds standards it means too many sediments are moving through the waters. We especially care about this in the San Luis River because it has a small tidal wetland where the fresh river water meets the coastal salt water. When the river carries unusually high amounts of sediment, it will deposit into the wetland, building it up and changing the habitat in this critical area. We’ll lose marine habitat because the ratio of salt and fresh waters will change if the salty tides can’t breach the sediment build up. This tidal wetland is an important brackish habitat for species like mullet fish and birds.
We’re not sure what’s raising the pH, and we’d like to research mines or factories in this watershed to understand how they may affect pH levels. We can tell you that it’s unusual for pH to be high, especially in river water. For healthy fresh waters, every river needs a certain window of pH–not too low and not too high. In San Luis Rey, the high levels of pH essentially stress the organisms that live in the river. It can also increase the toxicity of existing pollutants like metals and ammonia.
Unfortunately, our volunteers spotted fish kills in March and April–dead mullet fish that suffered from these exact cycles.
Side story, when we found these fish kills, we worked with the Regional Water Quality Control Board to understand more about what was happening. High nutrient levels in the water right after a rainstorm cause algae growth. During the day, algae pumps out oxygen, and then it reabsorbs it during the night. During our daytime tests, oxygen values were through the roof. When we investigated further, in the middle of the night at 2 a.m., oxygen levels dropped causing oxygen depletion, and dead fish.
Every year, the first major rain after the dry summer season gives us an opportunity to see the complicated problem of urban runoff and its impacts to our water quality. Urban runoff is water that flows over thehard scape surfaces we fill our cities with and drains directly into our waters. Stormwater, irrigation, and other water carry pollutants such as trash, oil, grease, pesticides, metals, bacteria and viruses, and toxic chemicals.
And it washes into our rivers, bays, lakes and ocean – untreated.
To unwind this major water quality issue in San Diego would require turning back the clock to a time before we developed the county and rethinking how we paved, connected and changed the natural landscape. Still, today, we can do things to capture or slow down runoff before it hits our water or to prevent pollutants in the first place. In thinking about our upcoming stormy season, we tapped the brains of our water quality sampling volunteers, who collect water samples from nine of our eleven watersheds, to produce this list of the top ten places to watch urban runoff. In no scientific way, we ordered it from the most basic visual to the most compelling. We target different pollutants, diverse geographic locations, a varierty of infrastructure impacts and human health and use impacts.
Take a look. What do you see?
10. 2306 S Coast Highway: Open channel dumping onto the beach
This popular North County surf spot features an open channel carrying urban runoff from the adjacent parking lot and highway straight onto the beach. This location highlights how stormwater washes trash and dissolved pollutants from our developed places onto our beaches.
9. 300 Forward Street in La Jolla/Bird Rock: Drain at the street’s end
This is the most straightforward illustration of a storm drain labeled “drains to the ocean,” where you can see the drain, the end of the street and the polluted water and its entrance to the Pacific. It simply illustrates the complicated infrastructure our region built that assumed pushing all water into our bays and ocean was the smartest way to keep our homes and businesses dry.
8. Tourmaline Surf Park: Channelized stormwater outlet meets popular surf spot
This Pacific Beach surf spot is world-renowned for its waves, thankfully not for its urban runoff pollution. Risking intestional illnesses of all sorts, surfers get barreled here when its raining, unaware that a paved stormwater channel leads direct to sandy beach and into the water. Polluted runoff in this channel dumps directly in the surf zone.
7. Coast Boulevard Park: Cement pipe at ocean’s edge
The Waterkeeper movement started decades ago because fisherman saw large industrial sites using massive pipes to discard pollution directly into the Hudson River. This location symbolizes San Diego’s version of that as a cement pipe carries polluted water from the storm drain straight to the ocean. With the Hudson’s pollution, fishermen could pinpoint a specific corporation responsible for dumping pollution into the water. In San Diego, it’s impossible to target one contributor to this issue because every person adds to the problem as rain water runs over our homes, yards, driveways, workplaces and more, until it carries accumalted toxins to this singular end point. In this spot, a large algae plume from the excess nutrients (commonly caused by fertilizer) grows along the rocks at the end of the drain. You can even see the algae mat in this photo to the right.
6. Cottonwood creek at Moonlight State Beach:Storm Drain opening
We’re particularly aware of this polluted runoff example because Moonlight Beach is a favorite among locals, families and surfers. It’s one of those rare beaches where a community member organizes regular cleanups to keep it trash free. Surfers flock here. Families play here. But, it’s also a prime location to see an open channel storm drain flow right to the sandy beach.
5. San Dieguito River Park Stormwater Treatment lagoon: Treatment wetland in action
Is it too late to reverse the effects of polluted runoff? Absolutely not, especially when we get creative.
We chose this location because it showcases a stormwater pipe that drops large amounts of urban runoff from the nearby development. The folks at San Dieguito Lagoon built a treatment wetland to clean the water before it gets to the actual lagoon. Here, you’ll see the pipe dumping water into the first pond. This first pond always has stagnant algae pond water, even when it’s not raining. But, the good news in this solution-oriented example, is that you can see the treatment ponds prevent the gross water from reaching the lagoon.
This illustrates what many people refer to as stormwater capture, and it also depicts the role that nature plays in helping humans handle polluted runoff.
In their natural state, our inland creeks slow polluted water and force it through nature’s filter–offering a true eco-cleanse that can remove a lot of urban runoff pollution from water before it reaches the ocean. Sandly, by channelizing many of San Diego County’s creeks, we dehabilitated nature’s role by replacing vegetation with paved concrete to quickly move water away from our developed areas into our bays and ocean.
4. Tecolote Shores, Mission Beach: Creek emptying into man-made bay
Mission Bay is gross–in this part of the bay. Here Tecolote Creek drains into Mission Bay, a tourism hot spot that we engineered when we rerouted the mouth of the San Diego River. Due to the high bacteria counts in this creek, this section of Mission Bay is often closed for swimming, even when it’s not raining. It’s particularly polluted here year round because this far-back section of Mission Bay does not have much current to mix the polluted water into the open ocean.
3. Dog Beach, Ocean Beach: The mouth of our region’s largest river
The polluted runoff in this iconic location begins collecting bacteria and toxins from as far inland as Julian–the eastern edges of this watershed. The amount and the intensity of polluted runoff flowing through the mouth of this river demonstrate the gravity of our top water quality problem. Here, you’re also likely to see a secondary issue in urban runoff–marine debris.
2. 3001 Harbor Drive: Trash
This bridge overlooks the outlet for Chollas Creek, one of San Diego County’s most polluted creeks. Flowing through the most densely populated urban areas in the county, Chollas Creek is wrought with trash, oil, grease, pesticides, metals, bacteria and viruses and toxic chemicals. What makes this secure the #2 spot on our list of ten is that you can see a trash boom designed to capture trash flowing from upstream into the bay. Particularly with the popularity of photos on the Internet, many people have seen images from around the globe featuring humans in boats surrounded by massive amounts of trash in the water. It’s easy to dismiss that in San Diego because we do have strong trash and recycling systems in place. But, if you find yourself here at the end of Chollas Creek, you may see that marine debris issues are much closer to home than they appear.
1. Dairy Mart Road: Binational polluted runoff
During the winter, the Tijuana River overruns the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant in San Ysidro, California. It then runs through the Tijuana River Estuary, one of the largest remaining Southern California coastal wetland habitats. This area is as important stopover on the Pacific Flyway bird migratory route. Unfortunately, the river carries large amounts of raw sewage as well as trash and sediment straight through the estuary and onto the beaches near Imperial Beach. During the winter, the river flows close nearby beaches. This one location perfectly illustrates that urban runoff is not “one person’s problem” or even “one country’s problem.” It highlights trash management issues as well as chemical water quality issues. This location slots into #1 because of the severity of the polluted runoff, the amount of the water flowing in this spot and the complicated matter of finding solutions to polluted runoff that starts in the U.S., flows through Mexico and completes it journey back in America.
Did we miss a location that you think should earn a spot on our top ten list of places to experience and learn about polluted runoff issues? Please, share with us your ideas in the comments below.
Despite the stormy Friday morning weather, my water quality partner and I were excited to get to the bottom of a still unsolved mystery—the sources of urban runoff. Because rain is actually helpful in solving this mystery (due to the fact that you can often follow runoff back to the source), we welcomed the unusually intense weather.
When we arrived, the group divided the test area into mini-watersheds and we were assigned to collect water samples along the south bound of Chollas Creek. While the weather was helpful for data, it presented its own challenges. The collection efforts were marked by several strong gusts that pushed and pulled at me, at times nearly causing me to almost lose my balance. At another point I couldn’t see where I was going because my hair was flying in every direction, enveloping my entire face.
With dogged determination, we set out to get all the water samples we needed. Powering through the chaotic weather, climbing fences and walking through a windy swirl of muddy hills, steep pathways and graffiti-ed bridge underpasses, we were going to get this done!
Beside the waterway the evidence of some of the potential perpetrators of the pollution lay taunting us. Spray paint bottles were scattered lifelessly, as were many plastic cups and paper plates. What really captured my attention was a toilet seat cover lodged mid-creek. I still wonder how that ended up there—lots of explanations exist, but, in the end, there is no valid justification. It is amazing what discoveries can be found along the creek.
More challenges to our collection efforts continued to impact our efforts—it was very challenging to keep our paperwork dry! We had other difficulties when the readings on our instrument took longer than expected due to the many particles in the water. An eyeball analysis of the samples we collected made it clear that the water was a far cry from clean and crystal clear.
While the rain and everything its presence brought into Chollas Creek damped (pun intended) our efforts, this Southern Californian was happy to see at least a little of the much-needed rain we have craved for so long.
This whole experience was a wonderful adventure. Despite my thorough soaking and muddy boots, I felt accomplished. Accomplished enough to say that I will certainly do it again!
Are you interested in learning more about what happens to those samples and how they help us learn actionable information? Check out this blog post. Want to have your own happy adventure? Check out our volunteer opportunities.
While most of you were trying to stay dry and cozy during this past storm, several intrepid volunteers offered to brave the elements and help us figure out the source of urban runoff pollutants.
Urban runoff is the biggest threat to water quality in San Diego County, and we know that the problem gets worse when it rains. Rain washes pollutants from our urban environment and into our streams. What is unknown, however, is from where exactly these pollutants come. That sounds like a perfect job for San Diego Coastkeeper and its amazing volunteer base.
We divided up the Pueblo Watershed, the watershed for Chollas Creek, into sub-drainage basins. These are the colored areas displayed on the map. By analyzing the water coming out of these mini watersheds, we can hopefully determine the worst offenders for urban runoff. Once gathered, we will model this data to determine which of these basins has the highest pollutant concentrations, allowing us to better target our outreach and education efforts on the areas that disproportionately contribute to our urban runoff problem.
Sampling these areas was no small task, as we had to sample during the rain to catch the pollutants. We are deeply grateful to our amazing volunteers who ventured into the storm to conduct this sampling. They fought rain, wind, and traffic to help us collect this dataset. Hector Valtierra even sampled twice, spending seven soggy hours collecting data. Thank you, Hector!
It will take us a few weeks to analyze the data, but it looks interesting so far. There was a ton of bacteria in the water and nutrient levels look super high also. Trash was everywhere. We even unfortunately found a floating chihuahua. We’ll keep you updated as we work the data..
We thank the County Board of Supervisors and Union Bank for funding to support this project. In addition our thanks to Supervisor Greg Cox’s office for its involvement in getting this project started.
Interested in a volunteer’s perspective? Check out what Lynna Moy has to say about the day.