Keeping the Boat on Course

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

I can fully declare the Coastkeeper boating outreach program is officially in action. After months of arming ourselves with knowledge about environmental issues involving and impacting the boating community, recruiting a team of five volunteer boat captains, and learning how to find boaters to talk to on the water, our figurative anchors are away and we’re full steam ahead.  Pardon the nauti talk if you will (as in nautical of course).

kona-kai-marine-sLast week, we had what you might consider our first day of formal outreach on the water.  We had some great conversations with recreational boaters, talked to three underwater hull cleaners about the best management practices for reducing copper pollution and even talked with a suspected sewage pump out violater about how dangerous that habit really is.

It was one good day and the boating world, even in San Diego, is a big place.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we’ve got the right blend of legal advocacy, empowerment and education to keep the ship on course and an eye on the horizon.

If you are a member of the boating community and want to get involved with our program, please get in touch. We are always looking for more volunteer boat captains and business/organizations with which we can partner to improve environmental awareness in this important community.

Published in Urban Runoff

Your Ticket to Preventing Urban Runoff

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

I sit at my desk a lot.  Considering I have a job that works to protect our coastline and outdoor environment, I still spend lots of time at a desk.  And as I sit here, I often wonder despite the work of our amazing staff, the thousands of hours of service our volunteers provide, the work of all the other organizations trying to protect our waterways, and the increasing knowledge that our community has about pollution problems, how much pollution is building up right now?

How much oil is dripping from cars in San Diego and how much excess fertilizer is being applied to lawns, farms, nurseries and golf courses? How many dogs are pooping without it being picked up, how many cars are being washed and leaking junk into the gutter and how many construction sites are letting loose dirt erode into our creeks and rivers?  It’s kinda mind boggling when you think about it.  All that pollution just building up and waiting for rain or urban runoff to pick it up and take it to the ocean I love to surf and sail in.

Urban runoff and the pollution it picks up is the biggest threat to water quality in San Diego.  But now we’re going to turn the tides, and use what I consider our biggest asset to combat our biggest threat:  Our incredible volunteer base.

Announcing our newest volunteer program: Pollution Patrollers

We’ll be training volunteers to identify true pollution incidents and violations of Best Management Practices (all the things businesses and residents should be doing to reduce urban runoff) and using the power of our Environmental Law & Policy Clinic to report and follow up on getting them cleaned up.

Pollution Patrollers is a twofold program:

  • The county and all the cities have a legal obligation to ensure those BMP’s are being met, and we’re going to audit them.  We need your help to be a part of organized patrols to gauge whether or not this is happening.
  • You can also use this training to identify true pollution problems in your daily life.  If you’re driving around town, riding your bike, out on your boat, or taking a walk, you’ll be able to document and report those incidents to us, and we’ll help you make sure the cities follow up.

The training is June 14 from 6-8pm in La Jolla, and I’d be stoked to see you there.  Shoot me an email (email:, subject line: Pollution Patrollers) to become part of this exciting program.

Published in Urban Runoff

Free Rain Barrels for San Marcos Residents

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Good news for San Marcos residents who want to do their part to solve our urban runoff program.  This Saturday, the City of San Marcos and Vallecitos Water District will be giving away rain barrels—free—at a workshop.  

The event will take place from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Vallecitos Water District’s offices at 201 Vallecitos de Oro in San Marcos.  Space is limited, so to register, call Torrey Webb at 760-744-0460, ext. 238.

rainwater_harvestingRain barrels can be a great way to tackle two important water issues:  water quality and water supply.  By capturing water, rain barrels reduce the amount of water running off our roof, across our lawns and into the storm drain.  This reduces the total amount of pollution that makes its way into our ocean and waterbodies.  And it also reduces the amount of total water in our creeks during storm events, which reduces hydromodification, which includes devastating erosion of our creeks and waterways.

Rain barrels also address a water supply issue.  By capturing water in rain barrels,  residents can “harvest” the captured water and use it to irrigate their lawn and garden—reducing the amount of water they would otherwise use to irrigate their yards.

The city and the water district planned the workshop as part of long-term requirement to reduce pollution to San Marcos Creek.  The city needs to reduce pollution—including bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus—into the creek by 2021.

San Diego Coastkeeper has been involved in efforts with other stakeholders, including the City of San Marcos and Vallecitos Water District, to address pollution in Lake San Marcos, which was created by the damming of San Marcos Creek. To learn more about efforts to reduce pollution in Lake San Marcos and the Upper San Marcos Creek, click here.

Published in Urban Runoff

Conversations at the Gym: Try Sustainable Gardening

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

landscaping-gymI love my community.

I live near a locally owned grocery story; I walk to work; I ride my bike to the beach, and I live just outside of the marine layer. I also just joined my community gym with its hometown feel and members who smile and say “hi” every morning. We trade the shiny leggings and fitted tanks for old tees and over-sized shorts. Some of my gym friends have grey hair and holes in their socks. And others might be their grandchildren. And we meet every morning (not too early, though, as we’re not the uber, time-crunched businesspeople) around an aging set of weights and those cute community bulletins that remind me of display cases in my elementary school hallways.

To my chagrin, a few weeks ago as I was running on the treadmill (it had been raining that week), I noticed the gardeners walking around with chemical tanks on their backs spraying to kill those pesky little bugs that nature lets crawl on vegetation. My disappointment in this pest-management decision quickly turned to worry as I realized the landscapers had squeezed the pesticide bath in between rainstorms.

Didn’t my community gym know that rain will wash the chemicals into our storm drains, which empty into our ocean?

pesticide-gardenI contacted the general manager to alert him to my concerns. When he responded to my email, he outlined a list of steps he had already taken to address the issues. His pest management company put the gym on an “IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program that limits pesticide use and replaces most pesticides with monitoring, baiting and inspection.” The company is also designing a new program for the gym and will implement it while keeping the GM informed on the changes.

Our staff scientist and lawyer inform me that an IPM isn’t the complete answer, but it’s a better step in the right direction.

It also leaves a couple of questions unanswered:

1) What are the postponement plans if they had scheduled to apply pesticides and rain is forecast in the upcoming three days?

2) How does their pesticide plan coincide with their irrigation plan?

3) How will they decide future landscaping decisions to maximize native plants and minimize need for pesticides and water?

I offered for the GM to run his new plans by me for some additional feedback, which he said he would. While my story doesn’t have an ending yet, it’s a reminder to me that humans—including me—only know what we know. And if we just take a few minutes to talk with one another, big change can happen.

And I’m curious what you think: Is an IPM enough?

Published in Urban Runoff

Real Solutions to San Diego’s Flooding Problem

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

San Diego has a flooding problem.   When it rains, roads flood, property is submerged, some people are forced from their homes and potentially lives are at risk.  

But what can we do about it?  Short of jumping in our Delorean and going back in time to halt all development in Mission Valley and other floodplains, what are our real options?

The City of San Diego would have you believe that we can alleviate San Diego’s flooding woes if only they could run bulldozers and backhoes through all of our “stormwater facilities.”  But those so-called “stormwater facilities” aren’t just concrete channels filled with garbage and debris.  They also include our natural creeks and earthen channels that provide valuable urban habitat corridors and remove pollution from stormwater and runoff.


Stormwater facilities also include natural creeks and earthen channels such as this one that provides valuable urban habitat corridors and remove pollution from stormwater and runoff.

Not only would bulldozing our creeks impact wildlife and harm water quality, but it actually won’t solve the flooding problem in the most serious areas.  When pressed, the City of San Diego will admit that bulldozing flood-prone channels like Alvarado Creek will do little to address the flooding problem; those creeks do not have the design capacity to handle flows larger than a five- to 10-year storm.

So while those in flood-prone areas blame environmentalists for the flooding, bulldozing our creeks is not a real solution to the problem.

San Diego’s flooding problems will only be solved when all of us—the City and its citizens—change our attitude about stormwater.  Instead of rushing to get rain off of our properties and downstream where it is someone else’s problem, our development needs to better mimic natural systems.  We can do this through techniques such as rain barrels, permeable pavement and other low impact development that clean and handle rain water where it falls rather than quickly channeling it to flood downstream.


Stormwater facilities also include natural creeks and earthen channels such as this one that provides valuable urban habitat corridors and remove pollution from stormwater and runoff.

The City can do its part to solve the flooding problem by a combination of (1) increasing capacity in our channels through techniques and (2) reducing the amount of stormwater that makes it to those channels.  To really solve our problem, the City must widen channels where it can and retrofit our streets and other City-owned property using low impact development techniques.

Sure, it may mean a dozen or so fewer parking spots at Qualcomm Stadium, but it could greatly relieve our serious flooding problems.

Published in Urban Runoff

Putting the Brakes on Copper Pollution

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Few of us think of the water quality implications of stopping at a traffic light or inching along in rush hour traffic. But every time you apply your brakes you are contributing to copper pollution in our creeks, bays and beaches. The problem is that most cars have brake pads made with copper. When you stop, copper dust is deposited on the roadway.  With irrigation flows or rain, the copper is carried into our local waterways. Copper in our environment can be toxic to aquatic wildlife especially at the base of the food chain.

In San Diego, cities are under tight deadlines to reduce copper polluting our local waterways. Finding ways to stop copper at its source helps cities facing costly treatment options or fines for lack of progress. As an advocate who lobbied for many of the restoration plans and permits cities now have to implement, I wanted to help where I could. San Diego Coastkeeper teamed up with environmental groups like Sustainable Conservation in the Bay Area, who has been working in this area for years to help craft a plan to address the copper in brake pads. But first we had to find a legislator to help us.

Regulators have been aware of the problem since 1996, but nearly 15 years passed before environmentalists, local governments and brake pad manufacturers could come to agreement. The bill, SB 346, that ultimately passed this year was championed by State Senator Christine Kehoe. Senator Kehoe understood the need to keep vehicle safety in mind while pushing the industry to find copper alternatives. SB 346 requires brake pad manufacturers to reduce the use of copper to no more than 5 percent by 2021 and no more than 0.5 percent by 2025.

When the bill was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in September I was glad to finally start down the road to phasing out copper brake pads. It’s nice to know our everday activities are getting just a little greener.

Published in Urban Runoff

The Conversion Process

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

“Brother, have you seen the light?”

I’m not an evangelist by trade, but I often imagine sharing this question with fellow watermen in the surfing tribe. The question is not religious, but does inquire if a waterman (or waterwoman) has reached the level of consciousness where he sees the connection between the land and sea; where he works and where he plays; where man has conquered his surroundings and where the assault is still underway; where his dwelling is and where his soul longs to be.

Some may never see it, but I am hopeful most will come to understand the ocean playground they enjoy is not immune from the actions of an urban society. And more hopeful that this epiphany will spur a waterman to doing something to protect and preserve the ocean resource that provides so much for him; a resource that is part of his identity.   

I saw the light in the spring of 1993. I was surfing Dog Beach at the San Diego River outlet a couple of days after it rained. It was my first and most memorable lesson in polluted runoff and “dose – response health effects” as they are called in epidemiology. I barely made it back to my apartment after work that night before falling to gastro-intestinal ruin for two days. Unfortunately, this is often the conversion process for many watermen following a session in waves of suspicious microbial quality.

For the brothers (and sisters) who have seen the light, you cannot go back to sleep. For your sake and the ocean’s, it is time to share the good word of pollution prevention. You can start with these eight easy steps to prevent pollution in your own life.

Published in Urban Runoff

Won’t you be my neighbor… who waters less?

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper



Photo credit Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood / PBS

Last Saturday morning, I was heading out for a run, when I noticed my neighbor was watering his lawn. It was 11 a.m., and some of his sprinklers had overshot his lawn and water was flowing directly into the storm drain.  The fact that my neighbor was watering during drought restrictions was bad enough, but with the water running straight into the storm drain, I knew there could be some serious water quality impacts, like increased pesticides, fertilizers or sediment ending up in our waters.

I ran back home to grab my phone to report the drought violation (619) 533-7485) to the water department and report the stormwater violation to the stormwater hotline (619) 235-1000). On my way back to my neighbor’s house to get his house number, I saw my neighbor in his garage, putting away his surfboard. I’m not a fan of confrontation, so I was a little scared to say something to him. But I figured that, as a fellow surfer, he was probably as worried about water quality as I am and would want to know what he could do to help out.

So I called to him and asked him if it was his place. I asked if he had heard about the drought watering restrictions, which prohibit lawn watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. He hadn’t heard about it and said he would talk to his landlord about it. I walked him around the front of the house and pointed out the water heading straight into the storm drain. I explained how the water runs—untreated—into the ocean, carrying with it bacteria, pesticides, copper, nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and other pollutants that harm our waterways.

My neighbor was very receptive to what I was saying, and it felt great to be able to share my knowledge and passion for clean water.  So, as scary as it may seem to talk with your neighbors about things they’re doing that could harm water quality, whether it’s washing their car or watering their lawns at the wrong time, failing to fix vehicle leaks or other harmful practices, the conversation will be worth the effort.

But if you’re still a little shy, how about leaving your neighbor a note?  The City of San Diego put together a great form you can print, fill out and leave with your neighbors.

Published in Urban Runoff

The problem of trash in our ocean starts inland

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Marine debris in the Pacific Ocean is increasing at a startling rate! Studies of have shown that millions of birds, fish, marine mammals and other wildlife are impacted every year from ingesting or getting entangled in plastics and other debris.

It is not solely the cities and counties on the coastline that contribute to the accumulation of trash in the ocean, but also inland communities.  This means actions taken by residents in neighborhoods such as Uptown, Escondido and El Cajon and throughout San Diego can impact the quality of our coastal waters. In fact, up to 80 percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources before it is blown, swept or washed out to sea.

As a North Park resident myself, I know not everyone makes the connection between our everyday choices and the health of our ocean. But the growing plague of trash in our ocean beckons us to leave a smaller footprint at our house, at work and when we’re playing.

Have you ever noticed that our neighborhoods seem clean after it rains? While the natural cycle of rainstorms brings life to our gardens, it also washes scattered debris from around the neighborhood directly into nearby creeks and streams. This is what we call urban runoff. Urban runoff from rainwater and landscape watering transports litter and toxins from our yards, driveways and streets down stormdrains and into our bays and ocean without any treatment.  Yes, cigarette butts, Styrofoam containers, plastic bottle caps and other debris from inland neighborhoods end up in San Diego Bay, Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Many residents from across the county and Coastkeeper volunteers are really making a difference. Last year in San Diego, volunteers helped remove more than 680,400 pounds of trash from our local beaches and inland waterways. That’s a lot of debris that could have found its way into the infamous Eastern Pacific Gyre, where trash from many cities is accumulating in one of the most remote places on the planet, the open ocean.

San Diego Coastkeeper’s volunteers also do water quality monitoring on surface water across the county. These local community members volunteer their time to collect monthly water samples that we assess in our lab for a variety of pollutants such as pesticides, bacteria, copper and more. Data from our regular monitoring efforts show that many creeks and streams are highly impacted by urban runoff due to urbanization. Not only is this a problem for natural habitat in our neighborhood ecosystem, but these creeks and streams empty into lagoons, bays and the ocean.

The good news is that we have many options to help improve the situation.

  • Attend a cleanup in your neighborhood or along the coast.
  • Plan your own neighborhood cleanup and get your supplies from us.
  • Advocate for improved local policy about commonly littered items such as plastic bags, bottles and Styrofoam take-out-containers. Coastkeeper works hard to communicate the environmental and health impacts of single-use plastics, and you should too. Your phone calls and letters to your elected officials help encourage the adoption of more sustainable practices.
  • Vote with your pocketbook. Patronize stores and restaurants that have eliminated wasteful single-use plastics, such as Styrofoam containers. There are plenty such places to choose from in Uptown!
  • Make lifestyle changes. If each resident in Uptown used reusable shopping bags at least a couple times each week, this would save thousands of plastic and paper bags from entering our landfill. Or bring your own reusable container to restaurants for leftovers. We don’t all have to be No Impact Man, but we can all make more sustainable choices to improve our future.
  • Use alternative ways of transportation such as biking and walking to take advantage of Uptown’s design as a pedestrian-oriented retail center and residential development. If we each park our car for just one day a week, we’ll collectively lessen the number of cars on the road and release less brake dust, improving the health of our oceans.
  • And of course, the next time you see a piece of trash on the ground, pick it up and help stop debris before it reaches the ocean.

Small changes can make a big difference, especially if we all do this together.

Published in Urban Runoff