How is San Diego's water supply connected to other locations throughout our region? This blog, written by PhD Candidate Alida Cantor, looks at a particular connection: birds at the Salton Sea.
A quick background
The Colorado River supplies over half of San Diego's water. The Colorado also supplies water for many other users-- 25 million people and 3.5 million acres of farmland throughout the entire Colorado River basin. The river is known as one of the most controlled and over-allocated waterways in the world.
In 2003, an agreement (the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA) was negotiated with the goal of limiting California's over-reliance on Colorado River supplies. The agreement transfers water from farms in Imperial Valley to urban users in San Diego. This means a more secure water supply for urban water users in San Diego, but could have negative impacts for others throughout the broader region -- including birds.
Birds at the Salton Sea
The Salton Sea, the largest lake in California, is a 400-square-mile salty lake in Imperial and Riverside Counties. Its water comes primarily from agricultural runoff—which means that taking water away from farms means less water flowing into the Salton Sea. This is very worrisome for many reasons, one of which is potential impacts on bird habitat. Less water means receding shorelines and increased salinity, which hurt bird habitat.
The Salton Sea hosts a lot of different types of birds-- around 400 different species. This includes several endangered and sensitive species, such as the Yuma Clapper Rail. The Salton Sea supports about 40 percent of the entire endangered Yuma Clapper Rail population so this bird is considered very vulnerable to habitat decline at the Salton Sea.
Other birds at the Salton Sea include eared grebes, cormorants, yellow-footed gulls, and white and brown pelicans. Brown pelicans were once endangered, but their populations have rebounded since the banning of the DDT pesticide. White pelicans are not endangered but a large percentage of them- 30 percent- nest at the Salton Sea. More birds of concern at the Salton Sea include mountain plovers, burrowing owls, and black skimmers, to name a few.
As wetlands throughout the broader region have diminished due to development (about 90 percent of wetlands in California have been lost over the last hundred years), the importance of the Salton Sea as habitat for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway has grown. Although the Salton Sea experienced large-scale bird die-offs during the 1990s due to avian botulism and other diseases spread by having so many birds in one place, it remains a very important habitat, and every year millions of migrating birds rely upon the Salton Sea as a stopover to rest and fuel up along their journey.
Thinking about what San Diego's water system means for birds at the Salton Sea shows how we are connected via our water supply to other locations and species throughout the region. The story of our water doesn't start or end when we turn on the tap.
Do you ever wonder where your water in San Diego comes from? Do you know what type of impact that has on our environment or how much energy it uses? Watch San Diego Coastkeeper's video on the water supply in San Diego to learn more. Then visit us at http://www.sdcoastkeeper.org.
When I look at this photo, I see a wave I would normally kill to ride- with the exception of the surrounding wall of trash. I instantly visualize an ocean littered with garbage, paddling through oil and debris during my sunset surf. The amazing feeling I normally get just wouldn't be the same if I had to dodge water bottles and was paranoid about swallowing the contaminated water.
Trash surrounds us everywhere we go on land. Between all the street litter, garbage days, overflowing trash cans and street sweeping, isn't the water the one place we can get away from it all?
It is, but at a cost. According to the L.A. Times, San Diego spends close to $14 million annually on coastal cleanup efforts. Can't you think of about 14 million ways this money could be used better? Yes, I want my waters to be clean so I can swim, surf and snorkel, but why do we have to spend so much money cleaning them up when we can simply prevent the problem in the first place?
One of the biggest inhibitors to keeping our waters clean is urban runoff. This is the water that runs through populated, man-made areas and picks up oil, grease, pesticides, metals and other toxic chemicals as it trickles directly into our water bodies. This not only makes our waters gross, but also harms the marine wildlife.
To do its part in cleaning up the community, San Diego Coastkeeper and Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter get together and host regular beach cleanups throughout the county. In 2012, 4,308 volunteers removed almost 8,000 pounds of trash from San Diego beaches. And still residents pay for regular trash control from the city. Houston, we have a serious problem.
As a self-proclaimed water-lover (as I imagine most San Diegans are), I make a point to be aware of how my actions on land effect the waters I treasure and I think others should do the same. To do your part in keeping our ocean, bay and streams pollution-free, please check out some pollution prevention tips. We may live mostly on land, but we need the sea. I can't imagine a life of polluted waters and trash littered barrels, and I will do whatever it takes to keep that photo from becoming a reality in San Diego.
Memorial Day is fast approaching and on Memorial Day weekend, we will have an influx of trash on our beaches. Here is a list of ten things you can do to reduce the amount of trash during Memorial Day weekend:
- Stay away from plastic bags! Instead of using plastic bags to bring your snacks, use reusable bags and containers.
- Bring a trash bag with you to make sure you throw everything away; that way trash won’t be buried in the sand throughout the day or left when you leave.
- If you are walking along the beach and see trash or cans/bottles, safely pick them up and throw them away.
- Make a game with your friends and family on who can gather the most cans. Whoever wins, gets to keep the money when you cash them in!
- Switch over to reusable water bottles, instead of single-use plastic bottles (this can make a huge difference each day).
- Instead of making this weekend focused around eating and drinking, make it about socializing and physical activity. Play some Frisbee!
- If you are allowed to have bonfires at the beach, refrain from burning your trash, especially plastics. Also, make sure the fire is fully out before you leave.
- If you have pets, pick up after them, so nobody will experience stepping in something other than sand.
- Don’t smoke! Cigarette butts are the leading pollutant on our beaches and there are many negative effects that come from the cigarettes in our water. If you have the urge to smoke, be sure to dispose of the entire cigarette butt appropriately.
- Encourage others you know to use these tips and to do their part in keeping our beaches clean this Memorial Day weekend.
The Clean Water Act is the primary tool we use to protect and restore fishable, swimmable, and drinkable waters. At its heart, the Clean Water Act focuses on the quality of our waters, and it allows states to issue permits allowing people to add pollution into our waters, but only in certain circumstances. The Clean Water Act’s bottom line is this—we can’t issue a permit if it would allow pollution that would make that water so dirty that it interferes with the water's “beneficial uses” like swimming, fishing, or habitat for fish and other aquatic life. Even if the individual pollution permit would not alone cause the water quality problem, if it contributes to a water quality problem, that’s not allowed.
In order to make sure we are issuing water pollution permits that ultimately protect our waters, we have to look at the health of the waters. And water pollution permits contain a provision that basically says, “when you add pollution to the waters, you cannot cause or contribute to a water quality problem in the water body you are adding pollution to.” Sounds reasonable, right?
Apparently for San Diego County and our local municipalities, prohibiting them from contributing to existing pollution problems or creating new ones is asking too much. The county and our local cities have asked our Regional Water Quality Control board for a "safe harbor" excusing them from being accountable for local water quality, even though our storm sewer systems are the primary cause of most of our local pollution problems.
Why would they ask for this? According to San Diego County Counsel James O'Day, the county needs protection from environmental groups who would "hold the county hostage" by bringing lawsuits against them. Even the City of San Diego's estmeed Mayor Filner asked the Regional Board to provide "protection" for the City against environmental protection law suits. Ironic, since last weekend San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez thanked the environmental groups that sued the City of San Diego on sewage issues because it helped move the city forward toward creating a local, secure, reliable, safe water supply.
In response to pleas by lawyers and politicians, the Regional Board added a "safe harbor" or "alternative compliance option" to the stormwater permit. This "alternative compliance" provision protects cities or the county from being held accountable for pollution that causes or contributes to water quality problems, as long as they have done some modeling that shows that they might not cause or contribute to water quality problems if they do certain things, and then they plan to do those things. They get this "protection" from the moment their plan is approved, and it continues indefinitely--even if the pollution actually causes or contributes to a water quality problem--as long as they keep trying to do better.
This flies in the face of the very heart of the Clean Water Act--focusing on the health of our waters and not allowing pollution that would cause or contribute to water quality problems. At the Regional Board hearing on April 10 and 11, I compared this new safe harbor provision to mud on a cake. The heart of our stormwater permit--the cake--is still good, and we've all worked very hard to make it together. But this safe harbor is mud that basically ruins the permit for us. Take this safe harbor away, and we like the new stormwater permit.
On May 8, the Regional Board will decide whether or not to leave the safe harbor provision in the permit. Check back soon to see if they left mud on the cake!
A few years ago, the city spent millions on building the City of San Diego Coastal Low Flow Diversion Program. However, the system only works if the City properly maintains it.
During the dry season, low flow street runoff is supposed to be diverted into the sewer system, rather than the storm drains. This keeps what could be polluted water off of our beaches and out of our oceans.
When these drains are clogged, the runoff instead goes straight into the stormwater drains, rather than the sewer. And guess where it ends up.
Yep, the ocean.
A concerned La Jolla citizen emailed us to let us know about a problem with some of these drains. They were almost completely clogged with sand, mud and even some plants. He told us that he saw runoff running onto the beach nearly every morning, and sent pictures showing how bad the problem was.
What’s the point of spending millions of dollars on a system that doesn't work as planned due to lack of maintenence?
We informed the San Diego Transportation and Stormwater Department, and they quickly sent a crew out to clean up the mess. They were appreciative that the issue was brought to their attention. It’s nice to see a swift response from a government agency.
Issues like this can only be cleared up with cooperation from San Diegans and appropriate government agencies. It’s Coastkeeper’s job to make sure we connect problems with problem solvers, and in this case you can see the result. Pictures show both the before clogged drains, and the after cleared drains.
If this La Jolla resident had never informed us of this issue, runoff could’ve been flowing onto our beaches and entering our oceans for a very long time. Instead, he sent us a quick email, and, at least in this spot, the beaches will remain runoff free.
If you ever see any sort of issue you believe needs addressing, please contact Coastkeeper through our Report Pollution Hotline.
Below, you can see the clogged drains before Coastkeeper was alerted to the problem:
And here, you can see the drains are completely clear of crud after we were told about the issue:
Yesterday, a student attorney and I had the opportunity to go out on the water with a game warden from the Department of Fish and Game. The day's goal was to investigate effective methods to patrol our local marine protected areas, or MPAs. For those unfamiliar with the designation, MPAs restrict fishing and harvesting of marine life to allow the ecosystem to rejuvenate. The new MPA designations in Southern California came into effect January 1, 2012, and the legislative goals for the MPAs include protection, conservation, and rehabilitation of our marine resources. Great public policy, and great for the ocean.
Enforcing the MPAs will be critical for their long-term success. Coastkeeper intends to work with the Department of Fish and Game and local law enforcement and prosecution agencies to ensure success. For example, marine debris and lobster poaching have been identified as a couple important issues, and we look forward to being involved in crafting creative, effective solutions to these challenges. Collaboration with other environmental and governmental agencies will also likely drive our work going forward. And ultimately, we hope to build relationships with anglers, who are the most persistent eyes and ears on the water. It is an exciting time, ripe with opportunities to set a game plan for the future.
Our friend with the Department of Fish and Game reminded us, however, that poaching problems are not just limited to the MPAs. No different from years in the past, a few "bad apple" lobster fishermen will probably set baited lobster traps before the season begins. This issue goes beyond MPAs, and early traps might be found anywhere lobster fishing happens. This is not only unfair to good, honest fishermen, but also illegal. So, we would like to take this opportunity to encourage anyone, and especially divers, who see lobster traps set with bait to let the Department of Fish and Game know -- they have asked for your help! Early baiting can only happen until Tuesday (commercial lobster season opens Wednesday, October 3 ), so keep an eye out on your weekend dive. Enjoy the ocean this weekend, and do your part to take care of it!
Follow this link to see a photo of real lobsters in a trap: www.oceanlight.com/spotlight.php?img=10138
To report a baited trap: 1-888-CalTIP
For information about lobster season: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/calendar.asp
For DFG's mobile site with maps and contact info: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/mobile/
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--
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.
For years, shipyards dumped pollutants into the sediments of San Diego's waters.
Since the approval of the cleanup plan, they’ve been good about listening to our feedback on how to cleanup the problem, but they haven’t been good about listening to yours.
The Remedial Action Plan, adopted back in March, set forth a strong cleanup order to get metal discharges and other pollutant wastes out of the sediment. The plan outlined how the shipyards were to dredge without harming water quality, and to make sure no more pollutants end up in our water. It has specific goals for these shipyards to reach. And the shipyards have done a good job at incorporating our feedback on how to reach those goals.
But why aren’t they incorporating your feedback?
The Shipyard Sediment Site Group needs a new communication plan. The current one isn’t cutting it. Right now, their plan is to essentially to direct people over to the Water Board’s site, which is full of lengthy PDFs that do nothing but confuse the average citizen.
In their current Community Relations Plan, the group acknowledges, “the community needs to have access to information and have the opportunity to understand how the remedial action may affect them.” Acknowledging that is great, but making sure it happens is the only thing that matters.
The Shipyard Sediment Site Group needs its own website, one that’s constantly updated with information on everything the group is doing. Simply sending out newsletters doesn’t get the job done. The “Potential Community Relations Tools and Materials” in the current Community Relations Plan lists advertisements, information displays, blogs, comment databases, presentations, briefing packets, and a website to name a few. Where are they?
The Shipyard Sediment Site Group is starting to make progress, and Coastkeeper is appreciative that they’ve been responsive to our feedback. But without a strong community relations plan, the public, who are the real stakeholders, has no way of giving their input in this case. The public needs to be able to see the changes that are happening, and comment on them. This is a two-way street.
What do you think the Shipyard Sediment Site Group can do to better increase community input?
Teaching science for over 5 years, I found we have ingrained conservation into the minds of our students. From third grade to college, they can rattle off a laundry list of ways they can make a positive impact on our environment. Things like turning off the tap when brushing your teeth, taking shorter showers, biking to work, taking reusable bags shopping, turning off the lights when you leave a room--it’s music to an environmental educator’s ears. After a few months of hearing this list repeated over and over again, my questions changed from "what can we do?" to "how does it help us?"
We need to conserve our water. Phrases such as "it’s bad to waste electricity, we can’t use up all of our oil, we want clean beaches" are not bad but not exactly convincing either. For my third graders, I’ll let it slide. But I’m going to press the rest to think harder. We know these actions are good for the environment. But what about us? Where is the immediate return on our sacrifices and investments?
It turns out that environmental responsibility is economic responsibility.
I recently moved from Miami where I had two roommates. I diligently unplugged electronics not being used, took short showers, washed my clothes in cold water and turned off the lights when someone left them on. It was a running joke that I was the only one of the roommates who did this. I took it in stride as our electric bill for three of us was under $70 per month. I moved away in June, but the last electric bill was sent to me by mistake. With only two living in the same apartment and no one turning everything off, the bill was almost $25 more.
If $25 really isn’t a big deal to you then multiply by 12. If you still can’t think of anything you’d rather spend $300 on, get in touch with me. I’ve got some great suggestions.
At San Diego Coastkeeper, we are focused on protecting our water resources in San Diego County. In exchange for your short showers, running full loads of laundry and watering the lawn at night, you get a nice discount on your next water bill. Heating the water adds to your electric bill, so consider that next time you find yourself lingering in the scalding hot shower to ponder the meaning of life.
Just how much are you going to save with environmental responsibility? It costs about 15 cents for a 10 minute shower in San Diego. One shower a day makes it $50 a year. If San Diego water rates increase by the projected 50% in the next 5 years, one person could be looking at nearly $75 a year. That’s just for showers and not counting the cost to heat the water.
Taking a 5 minute shower (enough time to belt out two of your favorite songs in their entirety) would reduce the cost to below $40 for the year. Even with the project price increase.
So why should we care about doing the right thing? Aside from being an environmentally responsible action, it is more often than not better for your wallet. Each time we cut our reliance on a resource, from oil to water, we minimize demand and the reward falls to you. And it’s not just water and electricity. It extends to our fuel consumption, urban planning and development, and single-use plastics. Changing our behavior to do what’s best environmentally isn’t easy, but it just might benefit you quicker than you think.
Not to mention, it feels pretty good to do the right thing.