A Pollution Patrol Success Story

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

When you report a pollution issue to Coastkeeper, you’ll know that you were the catalyst to solving the problem.

Recently, a San Diego resident called our pollution reporting hotline to let us know that a neighbor was dumping paint into the storm drain. Nia, our education coordinator, took the call and passed the information on to me.  I sent the information to the City of San Diego’s stormwater hotline by e-mail, to swppp@sandiego.gov. In the e-mail, I asked the city to follow-up with me on the complaint so I could share the information with the concerned citizen.

A week later, Nia received another call from the concerned citizen because the problem was ongoing.  I also received an e-mail from the citizen, making the same complaint again.  I decided it was time to follow-up with the city to make sure the problem was addressed.

I called the City of San Diego’s Think Blue Hotline (619-235-1000) and asked the woman manning to hotline to help me get information I needed.  The woman was clearly busy and was reluctant to help because of all the other complaints she was fielding that day.  After some convincing, she finally gave me the information I needed.

It turns out that the city’s inspector had immediately responded to the complaint but had difficulty connecting with the residents causing the problem.  The day I followed up, the city inspector had been able to inform the resident that dumping paint down the storm drain is illegal and directed the residents to clean up the paint. The person who originally reported the issue to us told us that the efforts made a difference: “When I arrived home tonight the offending party was hard at work with a flashlight and a scrub brush cleaning up their mess.”

This story is a celebration of so many people doing good things–the concerned neighbor calling us and following up, Nia getting me the information and following up with me, the city inspector diligently working to connect with the offending resident, the city hotline intake person taking time out to help me get the information I needed, and ultimately even the resident finally cleaning up the mess they caused.

But it also shows where we can improve. First, the City of San Diego needs to do a better job of giving follow-up information to people who provide complaints.  I realize that sometimes complaints may merely be feuding neighbors tattling on one another, but many complaints are serious, legitimate complaints.  If those complaints are not actually problems for some reason, isn’t it better for everyone if the city explains why it isn’t really a problem?  And if the complaint was a legitimate problem that was resolved, shouldn’t the complaining person know that the problem was resolved and that they’ve made a difference?  I would love if the City of San Diego made their hot line complaints and resolution status public (keeping the identity of reporting individuals anonymous).  This way we can track where the problems are and notice when they are resolved.  I’m guessing the City of San Diego resolves more pollution problems than we know, and I would like to give the city credit for doing so.  I’d also like to help follow up where problems aren’t resolved, or do targeted outreach in neighborhoods that see the same issues over and over again.

This story also shows us that Coastkeeper and the municipal stormwater teams can’t be everywhere at once, spotting all the problems around the county.  We need informed citizens to be our vigilant eyes and ears in the community, spotting problems and help us get them resolved.  Coastkeeper is working on developing neighborhood-based education programs to ensure that people can be effective at identifying problems and getting them solved.

We need your help! It takes just a couple minutes to report a problem. You can report it to Coastkeeper online at http://localhost/sdcoastkeeper/act/report-a-pollution-incident.html or call our office at 619-758-7743 and leave a detailed message with your phone number. Or you can call City of San Diego Think Blue at 619-235-1000 or the county hotline at (888) 846-080. Together, we can achieve fishable, swimmable, drinkable San Diego waters.

Published in Urban Runoff

Coastkeeper Watershed Report Announced

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

The Water Quality Monitoring Lab here at San Diego Coastkeeper is proud to announce our 2009-2010 Watershed report. It’s taken us a while, but we have crunched down the data that our volunteers and partners have collected. You can read the full report here.

Here are some highlights–

Priority pollutants:

Coastkeeper data consistently points to ammonia, phosphorus and Enterococcus as the most widespread pollutants in San Diego County. Below I have attached a table (that is not in the watershed report) that shows percent of samples that exceed Basin Plan standards during the 2009-2010 period covered in the report. The color coding highlights the problem areas. As you can see, every watershed in San Diego struggled with ammonia, Enterococcus and phosphorus concentrations.


The very beginning of the watershed report highlights the impacts of urbanization and the water quality degradation due to watersheds becoming impervious. Every chapter in the report tells a similar story:

  • Los Penasquitos: Rapid development since the 1970s has led to high levels of total dissolved solids and fecal indicator bacteria during both the wet and dry seasons. The fragile Los Penasquitos Lagoon is filling up with sediment transported by the flows that have increased over 200% in the past 30 years. A TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) has just been written to try to limit the amount of sediments flowing into the lagoon.
  • Pueblo: “The dominance of hard surfaces drives many of the urban runoff problems in the creek, which in turn contributes to the degradation of water quality in San Diego Bay.” Nutrients, bacteria and trash are major problems in this watershed. These three constituents are very strongly correlated with development. This watershed is our most developed and is mixed residential, commercial and industrial development. Pretty much all of Chollas Creek is channelized or driven underground. The natural hydrology has been greatly disrupted. The water flows are quickly pushed into the creek and into the bay with almost no chance of remediation.
  • San Luis Rey: Our least developed watershed, yet it still has problems. While half of the watershed is open space, agricultural (cattle grazing, nurseries, citrus and avocado groves) and residential each account for about 15 percent of the watershed. This high amount of agriculture is probably responsible for the high nutrient concentrations we see. This river is home to historic steelhead trout runs, but habitat degradation threatens the dwindling number of these salmonids.
  • Tijuana: Not surprisingly the worst watershed in the county, in terms of water quality. Poor infrastructure across the border accounts for the vast majority of water quality problems in this watershed.

Other reports have established a strong relationship between percent developed and stream health.


We encourage the municipalities in San Diego to work closer with Coastkeeper, our members and our volunteers to continue to identify priority pollutants. Our input is a valuable component to protecting and restoring clean water in San Diego County.

These priority pollutants can be tied to development of the watershed and traditional storm water practices. Old school stormwater management was more concerned with flood control than water quality. The goal was to move stormwater away as quickly as possible. This is why you see many channelized rivers in San Diego. These allow us to push water quickly to the ocean. Unfortunately, this also limits the landscapes ability to rid itself of pollutants. Nutrients are not able to be taken up by plants as sediments with pollutants bound to them are not able to settle out.

Research shows that LID (low impact development) can remediate many of the problems that development has introduced. See “Widespread application of LID across basins will result in much needed pollutant concentrations.” LID irestores natural hydrologic processes to our disrupted system. LID works, and it looks nice also. Not only would it help with our water quality problems, we would reconnect our neighborhoods with their waters.

Collecting all this data is not easy, and our volunteers and groups like Surfrider San Diego and Golden State Flycasters have dedicated many many hours to it. We would like to thank the dedication and the tireless work our volunteers and project partners have put in over the years.

Published in Urban Runoff

Working Together to Tackle San Diego’s #1 Pollution Problem

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Urban runoff is San Diego’s #1 pollution problem.  Because San Diego gets rain so infrequently, pollutants build up on the land over time.  When it rains, those pollutants are carried into our storm drains and out to our creeks, rivers, bays and ocean.  This pollution harms water quality, making it unsafe to swim and impacting the health of the wildlife that live in our waters.

Urban runoff is a frustrating pollution problem to tackle because it comes from so many different sources.  But just because it’s a difficult problem to solve doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

In fact, that’s exactly what San Diego Coastkeeper and dozens of other stakeholders from San Diego, Orange and Riverside Counties have been doing for the past month.  Led by the staff at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, stakeholders from all three counties have gathered at three all-day meetings to address urban runoff.

The Regional Board is in the process of re-issuing the municipal stormwater permit required under the Clean Water Act that is the primary mechanism for cities to address stormwater issues.  As part of the permitting process, the Regional Board convened a series of roundtable discussions to discuss how we can best use limited resources to see the biggest water quality improvements.  A limited number of seats were allocated to representatives from cities in each county, environmental stakeholders, business stakeholders, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The meetings are open to the public, and each of the meetings has been attended by approximately 50 people. (Click here for the meeting schedule for the remaining meetings.)

These professionally moderated meetings provide an opportunity for the stakeholders to give feedback to the Regional Board staff about how the permit can allow, and in some cases compel, cities to improve their programs to tackle urban runoff issues.  They also give stakeholders an opportunity to dialogue with eachother to search for common ground and common solutions.

regionalWaterQualityControlBoardThe stakeholder meetings have fostered creative alternative approaches and encouraged stakeholder collaboration outside the formal meetings.  San Diego Coastkeeper has met with representatives from the San Diego regional monitoring workgroup to discuss collaboration and ways to ensure that the data collected by our volunteer water quality monitoring program is used and useful.

We have also begun discussions with the City of Del Mar about how we can adapt our volunteer Pollution Patrol program to collect information that will help curb urban runoff in Del Mar.

As we continue through the process of developing the new stormwater permit, one thing becomes clear: everyone has a role to play in helping reducing pollution and keeping our waters clean.  Over the next few months, as we refine and develop our Pollution Patrollers program, we will be calling for volunteers to step up and be the “eyes and the ears” out around the county looking for pollution problems.  For those who can’t commit to formal patrols, we ask that everyone get informed about what urban runoff looks like and learn how to report problems when you see them in your everyday life.  Our only hope of tackling this pollution problem is if all of us work together.

Published in Urban Runoff

May Water Monitoring Results

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper


Preliminary results are in for our May 19 water quality monitoring event. Water quality in May was overall pretty good. The map on the right shows the “winners” and “losers” for the month. The sites marked in green rated “excellent” in terms of water quality.

Since an “excellent” score requires there to be no measured water quality problems, it’s fairly hard to get. It’s a rare occurance for the county to have six sites ranked as “excellent,” so we are pretty proud of our waters this month.

Only one site rated “poor” and it’s marked in red. The Chollas Creek site had problems with fecal indicator bacteria and nutrients.

Thank you to our awesome water monitoring volunteers this month. You folks rocked it.

If you want to get involved, our next training is July 21, 2012. Send an email to volunteer@sdcoastkeeper.org and we’ll get you signed up.

Published in Urban Runoff

Earth Day 2012: Walk There

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

This tip is part of San Diego Coastkeeper’s Earth Day blog series running through April 22, 2012.

Do your mental and physical health a favor and make less pollution. Walk there.

When you need a sandwich for lunch, to pick up some milk or to get cash from the ATM, walk there. You might find that you walked an extra five miles in a week and got a little stronger. You might run into a neighbor you haven’t seen in a while and have a chat. You might gain 30 minutes of peaceful time to yourself. And you’ll definitely leave a little less copper on the road from your car brakes, burn a little less fossil fuel and contribute a little less CO2.

(Yes, my biking friends, go ahead and ride there.)

Want to get interactive? These Android apps could be fun.

However you do it, make your life easier. Walk there.

Published in Urban Runoff

Low Impact Development in Electric Style

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Bill-Harris-ThinkBlue-smLow impact development, or “re-development” as New School of Architecture and Design speaker Leslie Ryan emphasized on Tuesday night, is the key to reducing the amount of pollution that runs into our beautiful San Diego Bay and surrounding ocean areas. To ensure beautiful beaches and clean water, San Diego residents need to start redeveloping our streets and sidewalks to reduce urban runoff.

That’s what we learned at Signs of the Tide at the Electric Ladyland Art and Music Center in Ocean Beach. The venue created an exciting atmosphere for our moderator, Robert Santos, to set the tone of importance for low impact development in Ocean Beach.

We also heard from Edward Belden, the Principal of SCALEgreen LLC, who spoke about the issues surrounding urban runoff pollutants and where they originate. Runoff pollution consists of wet weather flows, when San Diego receives heavy rain, and dry (summer) weather flows from over irrigation of manicured lawns and carwashing in the driveway. He successfully proposed and implemented a project in Los Angeles that altered a neighborhood with a lot of runoff, to a neighborhood that is more conscious of the water that ultimately reaches the ocean. The project installed bioswales to catch water upstream, filter it into the ground and into the plants, and release less water downstream. And the project redesigned yards to have xeriscape lawns instead of water-intensive grass.

Mr. Stormwater, A.K.A Bill Harris from Think Blue San Diego, gave an expert opinion on how to reuse your stormwater runoff, by implementing the use of rain barrels; individual homes can place them under their gutter systems to catch water. In the near future, you may also be able to use a rain barrel and receive a rebate! How about that? Collect water, and get cash for it!

low-impact-development-ob-smLeslie Ryan, landscape architecture department chair at the New School of Architecture and Design, along with her students, developed a project plan to reduce stormwater flow along Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach. The roads would be redesigned to replace black-top and concrete with permeable pavement where water can soak in, instead of flowing downhill, new parking surfaces with permeable pavement, and planter systems to absorb water in the medians and on the corners of the street. Each intervention could be as small as incorporating a planter in front of a business.

So, what can WE do to reduce the amount of urban runoff NOW? Well, according to our speakers, the
most important takeaways from our LID discussion are these:

  1. Change small personal behaviors (pick up after your dog, don’t overwater your lawn, etc.)
  2. Make all possible surfaces permeable
  3. Change your Landscaping (Implement a xeriscape lawn, or climate friendly plants)
  4. Buy a rain barrel and collect your own stormwater runoff
Published in Urban Runoff

How Fertilizers Hurt Our Water

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Published in Urban Runoff

First Flush of Urban Runoff

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper
NERD ALERT: The vast majority of San Diego’s inland water pollution problems are caused by non-point source sources. As opposed to a factory which discharges pollutants from a single pipe (point source), non-point sources come from many areas at once and are generally more diffuse. Our stormwater system is one example of non-point source pollution. Water from a large area is collected when we overwater our lawns, or clean our sidewalks with a hose, or from just about everywhere during a rain event.

Urban runoff is the single biggest threat to healthy waters in San Diego.

During the long dry periods in San Diego, pollutants collect on the ground. Nutrients from wayward fertilizer applications, oil from leaky cars and copper from brake pads are examples. These pollutants are spread very thinly over a very large area and accumulate over time. When it rains, all this pollution get flushed down the stormwater system and into our rivers and eventually out into the ocean. We call the peak we see after a relatively long dry period a “first flush” event.

Take a look at this graph created by Weston Solutions, a local consultant group, made of copper concentrations in a creek during a storm event:StormCopper

Copper concentrations rise along with the rise in water flow, until it reaches a peak. We then see a steep decline. What’s happening here? The first bit of rain that falls flushes copper and moves it quickly to the creek. Levels quickly drop as the streets are washed clean and the pollution flows to the ocean.

You can read the whole report here.

Almost every single pollutant will show this trend. Look at the picture below taken in the San Luis Rey watershed after a rain event. You can see the pollution heading into the ocean. Dissolved metals, bacteria, sediment and even trash follow this same pattern. Be sure to read Alicia’s blog post to learn how this phenomenon affects our marine debris problem.

girlschasesglobedotcomSome of this pollution has serious health risks associated with them. This is why all of our beaches have advisories issued after a rain event. Since the county does not have the resources to post warnings after every rain event, be sure to check our beach status page before heading out into the ocean. We update this information as soon as the county releases updates. I check every time I go in.

How can we minimize problems associated with urban runoff?

Do you have any other clever ideas? Leave them in the comments.

Published in Urban Runoff

Revisiting The San Dieguito River Park Water Testing

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

CTCT_Ponds_from_trail10-8-08_004_size_adjusted.jpgWay back in January, I talked about the treatment wetlands that San Dieguito River Park put in to capture and clean the storm water runoff before it enters the San Dieguito Lagoon. We have some more data to share with you, now that the wetlands have matured a bit.

Fecal Indicator Bacteria: Affecting your surf days

Once the wetlands somewhat established themselves, the wetlands dropped the concentrations of fecal indicator. Fecal indicator bacteria coming from urban runoff from the storm drain system is the reason why our beaches are closed or under advisories for most of the winter. If we can clean the water before it gets to the ocean, it means more safe winter surfing days.



Nutrients and Oxygen: Affecting the health of the lagoon

As you can see by the graphs showing nitrate and ammonia, the treatment wetlands continue to do an amazing job filtering out nitrogen based nutrients. 100% of the samples from the storm drain pipe have ammonia values well above the basin plan standards. In contrast, all of the water coming out of the treatment ponds has ammonia concentrations below the water quality standards.  In a process known as eutrophication, high levels of nutrients cause algal blooms which can choke up the natural flow of the lagoon and cause a shift in plant communities that habitat the lagoon.



The treatment ponds also raise the levels of dissolved oxygen of the water entering the lagoon. Low levels of oxygen in the water will stress the fish and invertebrates that live in the lagoon, potentially causing them to suffocate.


All in all, it looks like the treatment wetlands that San Dieguito River Park installed work really, really well. Read more about the awesome work San Dieguito River Park does. I recoment going to the park and hiking the trails, they really are quite beautiful. For those of us who like to get our hands dirty, they have a lot of hands-on volunteer opportunities doing things like trail and habitat restoration. You can check out the rest of the San Dieguito River Park on our watersheds Wiki (the sites are SGT-040 and SGT-050). While you’re at the wiki, check out the water quality monitoring results at the other sampling locations we have throughout San Diego.

Published in Urban Runoff

Volunteer Scientists

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

The crew of laboratory volunteers that actually run the tests on the water samples is one aspect of our Water Quality Monitoring program that is not publicized as much as it should be. We have a wide range of people helping out, from high school students to grad students to the semi-retired. These volunteers gain valuable, real world lab experience in addition to providing data on the health of our inland waterways. These folks are learning the tools needed to become the next environmental protectors.

If you are interested in gaining some laboratory experience, or if you are just curious about the process, contact me at travis@sdcoastkeeper.org. Here are some photos from our last water monitoring event:


Prepping for Toxicity Testing





Sarah adjusting the salinity of the samples



Taya prepping for bacteria testing



Adrian and Kelley testing for nutrients.


Published in Urban Runoff