Part one of four in our "I Love My ASBS" blog series highlighting why we love San Diego's Areas of Biological Significance.

I recently took up scuba diving. The classes were held at La Jolla Shores and this weekend, I went exploring at La Jolla Cove. So far, I've scuba dived a total of 3 days: all in the La Jolla ASBS.

Mostly, I was concerned with completing all of the tests according to my instructor's directions, and trying to prevent any of my organs from exploding. But I was able to look around a little bit while I was underwater and discover what an amazing place the Cove and the Shores are. One may even call it an area that had special biological signifigance.

California has 34 Areas of Special Biological Significance (ASBS). You can view a statewide map here. San Diego’s La Jolla Cove and Shores are home to one of them. The San Diego Basin Plan (our region’s Water Quality Control Plan) describes the process as:

The Regional Boards were required to select areas in coastal waters which contain "biological communities of such extraordinary, even though unquantifiable, value that no acceptable risk of change in their environments as a result of man's activities can be entertained."

These areas are now known as "Areas of Special Biological Significance" and La Jolla is home to my favorite ASBS. This area is so rich in biodiversity that more stringent protections need to be in place to safeguard this special place: safeguards that prevent urban runoff from polluting this area.

Back to the underwater world- I had a very short time to look around. Again, I was trying to keep my organs from exploding (granted, a mostly irrational fear). But, in that short time I was able to see:

While snorkeling afterwards, I saw a bunch of Shovelnose Guitarfish and a ton of Leopard Sharks. The two things I still want to see are Octopus (the best sea creature, hands down) and Mantis Shrimp (click this link to see how awesome these little guys are).

I got to see all of this marine life in a very short time out there and I'm already looking forward to doing even more explorations in our ASBS. After all, it is right here, no need to travel far.

I love my ASBS.

Published in Marine Conservation

The autosampler is slowly, but surely, progressing. After securing the necessary money, and finding and purchasing parts, I have taken the first few steps towards completing the autosampler. To remind everyone, this Noah_Pumpautosampler will allow us to use the autosampler to monitor urban runoff during rains, as it happens (without having our volunteers stand in the rain for hours).

Currently, I am working on refining my home-built peristaltic pump. Peristaltic pumps use compression to push water. Skateboard wheels will compress a plastic tube to push water from the creek and into the sample bottles.

The pump frame has been built, and the skateboard wheels have been installed. The wheels, along with some tubing, will be doing the heavy lifting of the water. Once the pump is finished, and pumping, the next step will be to set up the valve array, which will distribute the samples into their respective containers.

From here, I expect the pace to accelerate, as the pump will probably be the part that I need to fiddle with the most. After the valve array, the final step will involve powering and connecting all of the parts into a computer controlled system. I am planning on using two Arduino microprocessers working in conjunction as the brains of the system.

While working on the autosampler, I have learned a great deal about prototyping and design. In its current state, the autosampler is not much more than a prototype. I was surprised about all the fiddling and adjusting needs to happen in order to make this run perfectly. This project has been an enlightening experience: there are hundreds of things that will go wrong. But I will fix all of them.

Working on the autosampler in general, and the pump specifically, has given me the chance to explore new horizons. I have a project where I have creative freedom, will have an impact, and combines an appealing career path, robotics, and my work here at Coastkeeper. It’s a nice balance to my school work. I appreciate the hands on experience that I have gotten with engineering and design, something I probably would not have without Coastkeeper’s help.

The currently anticipated deployment date is in late August, early September. Ish. That said, when I was first talking about this project, I thought I could have it out by March. We’ll have to wait and see.

Published in Urban Runoff

A few weeks ago I was invited to attend a workshop hosted by the EPA called Technology to Empower Citizen Scientists. About 60 people from NGOs and state and federal agencies got together to discuss how we can work better together and how new technologies can help, especially in the area of bioassessment.

First, let me describe what bioassessment is. Our current water quality monitoring program looks at several very specific chemical concentrations in the stream. Among other things, we look at dissolved oxygen, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, and dissolved metals.  Our rivers and streams are not to exceed very specific limits of these chemicals, and we directed our program's efforts to identifying if San Diego County’s rivers and streams are exceeding pollutant regulatory thresholds. Measuring these chemicals can give us a rough picture of stream health, but it isn't complete without bioassessment.

Bioassessment measures the health of the stream by measuring algae and aquatic insect communities.  This gives us a more holistic view of the health of our waters. First, if the river is full of pollutant tolerant insects, but no pollutant sensitive species, pollution is most likely affecting stream health. Second, if algae are growing out of control, nutrients are affecting stream health. Chemical monitoring measures pollutants, then bioassessment measures the effects that those pollutants have on the aquatic ecosystem. We need more of these bioassessments in order to get a better picture of the health of our waterways. San Diego Coastkeeper will be starting our own volunteer-powered program next Spring '14.

What struck me at this meeting, which was attended by folks from all over the country, was how comparatively open California is in utilizing volunteer-generated data.  We in California have a statewide database that anyone can upload into. We can also include our quality assurance data to show that the data generated is of good, useful quality. The Regional Water Quality Control Board as well as various municipalities around the county actively solicits us to send data to them so they can include it in their analysis and reports.  The new draft of San Diego's stormwater permit has a section encouraging stormwater departments to partner with programs like ours to conduct special studies on water pollution. In short, our data is recognized for what it is: high quality and useful.

Unfortunately, most other states have put up roadblocks to utilizing volunteer generated data. For example, Ohio has this ridiculous law they call the “Ohio Credible Data Law.” Instead of letting the data speak for itself, volunteer data must pass various certification tests before it is considered. This is an expensive roadblock to utilizing good data.  A certificate may "certify" one's data but it does not guarantee that the data is good. This is why it is imperative to look beyond a certification and directly at the quality assurance data to make a sound judgment about how useful one's data is.

Anyway, sorry for the mini rant. Most of the nation is not yet at a point where we can talk about cool, new technologies, volunteer-generated data is still sometimes relegated to the margins of the regulatory community. We in San Diego have it a bit easier- our data is actually used. So the morals of this blog are:

  1. Good job, California- by being open with volunteer data, we really set the bar for the rest of the country.
  2. Other states need to get their act together and stop putting up ridiculous roadblocks to volunteer-generated data.
  3. Keep your eye out for our new bioassessment program coming next Spring '14. We’ll be stomping around creeks and collecting bugs. It should be super fun.
Published in Urban Runoff

My first San Diego Coastkeeper water quality testing adventure came in March 2013. Although I had collected and tested water samples for a summer internship a few years back, not one of my days as an intern was as eventful as this volunteer work turned out to be.

Travis Speaks to VolunteersWe started the day with a group of 20 first-timers, including myself sitting around the Coastkeeper Conference room with Travis, learning about pollution’s nasty role in San Diego’s water cycle. You see, back in the day it was customary to try and get every drop of rain fall in urban areas of San Diego into the ocean as fast as possible, eliminating the slower, natural filtration process that waterways and wetlands provide. This practice inadvertently sends pollution to the ocean along with the water through our creeks, rivers and flood channels.

Pollution is what we’re tasked with catching a glimpse of – before it heads into the ocean. Two sibling “newbies” like myself, their friend with many years of volunteer experience with Coastkeeper, plus a fifth seasoned veteran rounded out the crew. Today we were headed to test the San Dieguito River for pollution.

Our first stop was a breeze. A hop over a guardrail and under an overpass bridge to our testing location, we encountered a slow section of the river to set up our outdoor lab. I’d never used any of the high-tech testing equipment we were provided— gadgets that measured air and water temperature, water pH, dissolved oxygen and conductivity.San Dieguito River

After our first set up, we moved on to our next testing location, further into the depths of Rancho Santa Fe and approached a gated community. The gate code wasn’t working, and our Toyota Camry, which was “cozy” for five, started smoking out of the engine compartment. It needed a break, so we left the car at the cul-de-sac to continue on foot to the testing site, jumping the gate to get there.

As we approached the spot, our team leader mentioned the dead coyote carcass he saw the last time he was out. It was still there.

Wile E. Coyote


I thought of Wile E. Coyote from Looney Tunes, who often would develop these absurdly complex contraptions to try and catch the roadrunner. As far as I know, he never got the roadrunner. Coastkeeper volunteers are out at least once a month, testing all of San Diego’s freshwater creeks and rivers with these very complex contraptions, all to catch pollution.


We left Wile E. Coyote and the gated community to get to our final water testing destination – the Camry running smoothly after adding a little clean fresh water to the radiator. After the last testing spot, we took our samples into the Coastkeeper lab for more analysis with other highly complex contraptions.

Our crew plus other teams totaling 30+ volunteers and many water testing kits were out on that Saturday in March, attempting to catch pollution before it got out of control. Will we ever catch all the pollution with our volunteers and complex contraptions? It’s happened before, and overall, we’re making a huge impact in water quality in San Diego’s rivers, streams and beaches.

Stopping all pollution starts at the source – usually humans and our own complex contraptions. Beyond that, we can go back to simple infrastructure using natural ways to catch and stop the pollution we create before it enters our creeks and streams. It doesn’t have to be rocket science that saves our waterways. Especially those ACME rockets that always failed unlucky Wile E.


Hiking to Canyon

George Testing Water Quality

Water Quality Volunteers


Published in Marine Conservation

2013 Water Conservation Film Contest for High School Students

Who: The contest is open to all high school students and all college students in the cities of San Diego, Coronado and Imperial Beach.

What: Create a 30-second Public Service Announcement

When: Entries due April 10, 2013

: All contest entrants will be recognized, and the finalists' films will be shown at a special “Red Carpet Premiere” at the IMAX Theater at the Rueben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park

The film contest creates an opportunity to engage students directly about the importance of using water wisely, allowing the creativity of the students to inspire the rest of our community to use water more efficiently.

la-jolla-tide-pools-sTheme: Storylines must use one of the following “how-to” messages:
How to “waste no water” by planting native or California-Friendly® plants.
How to “waste no water” by using a rain barrel.
How to show that “wasting no water” is important to San Diego’s economy.
How to create a sustainable world by “wasting no water.

Water Conservation Poster Contest for Students in Grades 1-6
Deadline: March 27.

Calling all students in grades 1-6! The City of San Diego Public Utilities Department is looking for the next Picasso. This year's theme: tell us how you, your family, your school, or your team “wastes no water.” Fill in the blank: _____ wastes no water and draw a picture of how they use water wisely.

Water is one of our most precious resources and using it wisely is part of keeping San Diego sustainable. A certificate of participation will be given to every student who creates a poster. Prizes for the winners will be presented at a San Diego City Council presentation.
Recognition: Prizes will be awarded at a San Diego City Council presentation in May 2013. Winning posters will be featured in the 2014 Water Conservation Poster Calendar. Winning posters will also be on display throughout San Diego, including:
City Administration Building – Lobby: May 2013
San Diego Watercolor Society Gallery: June 2013
San Diego County Fair – Kids’ Best Art Exhibit: June 2013

Prizes: Gift cards will be given for each grade level for first place, second place, & third place. An overall winner for the Recycled Water Category will also win a gift card.


This is part 3 of a 5 part series of results from our water monitoring lab. If you haven’t read our watershed report, head over here and check it out. In this third part, we are going to take a look at the Pueblo watershed.

The Pueblo Watershed is San Diego County’s smallest, and most urbanized, watershed. This roughly 60 square mile watershed drains into San Diego Bay. The Pueblo Watershed runs through the heart of the City of San Diego and it’s boundaries overlap with portions of the Lemon Grove, La Mesa, and National City. The main creek running through the watershed is Chollas Creek, which has two main forks that run through the most densely populated part of the City. As a result, we have altered and lost much of it’s native habitat. Chollas Creek is straightened, channelized, or driven underground in various places.

Prior to development, the watershed supported a coastal scub habitat that was home to plant and animal species that were tolerant to the long dry seasons we have in San Diego. Much of this habitat has been developed away, transforming to heavy and light industry, parking lots ans strip malls, and houses with irrigated landscapes. Chollas creek itself was straightened, channelized, or driven underground in various places through pipes and culverts.

The extensive hydromodification of the creek has resulted in the loss of almost all of the natural habitat associated with the creek. In fact, the creek is so altered that nearby residents often don’t know there is a river flowing through their neighborhood. Now, only the tributary canyons offer some habitat for animals like the threatened Cactus Wren.Pueblo_Trash_Credit__NASSCO

In general, our monitoring program found the creek has high levels of ammonia, phosphorus, fecal bacteria and trash. These pollutants are signatures of dense urban development. During the rainy season, these pollutants are carried from inland sources into the creek and out to the bay. The nutrients contribute to an excess of of algae growing in the creek and the trash contributes to our marine debris problem. For an good visual of how nutrients can affect water quality, check out this youtube video I made last year. Look at what a difference of a few drops of fertilizer can do water quality.

Fortunately there are a number of organizations trying to reverse this declining trend. Groundwork San Diego, Chollas Creek; The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation; and San Diego Canyonlands are working to restore the watershed’s natural hydrology and habitat. See what they are working on here . The Environmental Health Coalition is working hard on environmental justice issues in the area which will help abate some of the problems the area’s residents face by living so close to industrial and transportation centers.

Local municipalities are a part of the solution, as well.The city of San Diego has developed the Chollas Creek Enhancement Plan to guide it's and other organizations efforts for repairing the creek. The local cities have also developed an urban runoff management plan for watersheds draining into San Diego Bay that sets up the programs for reducing the urban pollution.

There is a lot of work to be done in this watershed. It's going to take many years of effort, but I have a vision of a vibrant creek supporting native habitat with parks and trails right in the middle of our city.

This is part 2 of a 5 part series of results from our water monitoring lab. If you haven’t read our watershed report, head over here and check it out. In this second part, we are going to take a look at the Los Peñasuitos lagoon.

Water Quality Data Supports Restoration of Los Peñasquitos

Los_Pen_historicThe Los Peñasquitos watershed comprise two separate and distinct drainages: the Los Peñasquitos Creek watershed, which drains into the Los Peñasquitos lagoon and the Mission Bay watershed, which drains into Mission Bay. The combined watershed lies almost entirely west of Interstate 15, and comprises a rough triangle between parts of Del Mar, Mission Bay and Poway.

For the 2009 - 2010 dataset, Los Peñasquitos watershed received a score of “Good” on our water quality index. This does not mean, however, that the watershed is healthy. Our scoring system is not comprehensive, it only looks at what we measure in the water monitoring program. Factors other than chemistry play a part in watershed health. Let’s take a look at the problem’s Los Peñasquitos faces.

The story of Los Peñasquitos’s water quality problems is a story of rapid development. Take a look at these two aerial satellite shots. The top is from 1994, and the bottom is from 2010:

From 1973 to 2000, runoff into the creek increased by 200% , or about four percent per year. This water picks up pollutants such as nutrients from fertilizer and metals from road surfaces as it flows across the developed areas. In this watershed, dry weather urban runoff (overwatering, for example) increases the total nitrogen, total phosphorus and fecal indicator bacteria problems in the creeks.

Excessive sediments in the creek are a major problem for the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon. The deposition and build up of sediments into the lagoon alters the natural exchange of freshwater and seawater. This has led to the destruction of sensitive saltmarsh habitat. As a result of this habitat degradation, invasive plants and animals are replacing the sensitive native flora and fauna of the lagoon.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board has just finished up the cleanup plan for this sedimentation. Pre-1970’s levels of sedimentation will increase the amount of saltwater marsh habitat. It won’t be a quick process, however. the sediment reduction is scheduled to happen in the next 10 years.

This watershed highlights the need to consider water quality issues on a watershed basis. The increasingly rapid sedimentation of the lagoon is driven in a large part by land use decisions. The vast majority of our urban runoff pollution comes from upland areas. Water quality improvements will happen if we take a holistic, watershed view of water protection. Read more about how Jill and our brilliant student attorneys are starting this process with the new stormwater permits.

This is part 1 of a 5 part series of results from our water monitoring lab. If you haven’t read our watershed report, head over here and check it out. In this first part, we are going to examine the high quality nature of the data generated by the water monitoring program.
Last month we trained our 700th water monitoring volunteer. I am proud of the work that our many water monitoring volunteers do. Their dedication and skill is admirable to us in the lab and to the rest of the organization.

I am most proud of the high quality data our volunteers are able to produce. The data they generate can stand up on it’s own with any other laboratory.  Ensuring high quality data is important to monitoring programs because high quality data tells a better story than questionable data. If you cannot be sure about the accuracy of a dataset, you cannot use it to identify and fix problems.

How do water monitoring volunteers collect good data?

The first step in ensuring high quality data is to have sampling methods that reduce the chance for errors. Any of the field samplers will tell you that the methods we use are a little bit over the top. We use a method developed by the EPA called Clean Hands/Dirty Hands. This method was developed for measuring very, very small amounts of metals in the water. Since the concentrations are so small, even a little bit of contamination can really mess things up. Even though it can be a bit of a pain, it seriously reduces the amount of sample contamination

We also have a pretty stringent Quality Assurance Project Plan , that describes all the field and laboratory process we go through to make sure only good data is kept, and poor quality data is discarded. This plan has been read over and approved by California Department of Water Resources, San Diego County Water Authority, and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. Among other things, randomly assigned sites have duplicate samples taken, randomly assigned samples are run in the lab twice, and clean distilled water is tested. If these duplicate or blank results show some funny business, we will look hard at the data and throw out possibly questionable data.

Our volunteers generate professional quality research data and should feel proud of the work they do. I know I am.




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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . 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 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

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
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