Water Quality 2016: Otay Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers


Water Quality Index Score: 70, Fair

The Otay watershed is the southernmost watershed we monitored this year.  The portion of the watershed drained by the Otay River includes parts of unincorporated San Diego County, Chula Vista, and San Diego before the river reaches the southern end of San Diego Bay. Both types of indicator bacteria were frequently elevated and were the main contributor to the “Fair” grade in 2016. Nitrate levels were also well above good water quality thresholds, especially towards the end of the year, a trend that has continued into 2017 and we’re keeping an eye on now.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Los Peñasquitos Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Water Quality Index Score: 76, Fair

The Los Peñasquitos watershed originates in the foothills near Iron Mountain, and includes the communities of Poway, Mira Mesa, Sorrento Valley, and parts of Carmel Valley, Scripps Ranch, and Del Mar.  Precipitation and runoff is funneled through Los Peñasquitos Lagoon before reaching the Pacific Ocean. Our water quality results in 2016 were fair, with ammonia and phosphorus the main pollutants of concern. These excess nutrients often enter waterways in runoff from fertilized lawns and waste discharges.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Water Quality 2016: Carlsbad Watershed

Written by Meredith Meyers

Buena Vista Watershed

Overall Water Quality Index Score: 78, Fair

Buena Vista is a small watershed that funnels precipitation from most of the city of Vista and parts of Oceanside and Carlsbad into Buena Vista Lagoon and eventually the Pacific Ocean. Like many of the watersheds we monitor, indicator bacteria were a main concern in 2016.





San Marcos Watershed (Batiquitos)

Overall Water Quality Index Score: 79, Fair

The San Marcos Creek watershed originates just a little east of I-15, north of Escondido, includes portions of San Marcos, Encinitas and Carlsbad, and drains into the Batiquitos Lagoon before reaching the Pacific Ocean.  Water quality scores were fair to good for much of the year, with one large deviation at one of our sites in November when our volunteers reported the water to be milky white in color and the ammonia concentration was extremely elevated.  We suspect a one-time spill may have occurred nearby, but are keeping an eye for evidence of an ongoing problem there.



Escondido Creek Watershed

Overall Water Quality Index Score: 72, Fair

The Escondido Creek watershed reaches from Bear Valley to the Pacific Ocean, and is drained by Escondido Creek into San Elijo Lagoon and ultimately the Pacific Ocean.  The watershed includes parts of Escondido, Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach, and Encinitas.  The water quality story in Escondido Creek in 2016 (and all previous years) is dominated mainly by very high nitrate concentrations.  Some typical sources of excessive nitrates include fertilizer runoff from residential, agricultural or recreational areas like golf courses; or from detergents getting into the storm drains.  Our long time volunteers in this watershed see massive algae blooms each year as a result.


How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Let’s Make Conservation a Way of Life in San Diego

Written by Matt O'Malley

Earlier this month, I attended a meeting of the San Diego Conservation Action Committee on the State of California’s plan to make water conservation a way of life, and was disappointed to hear a familiar refrain from our regional water wholesaler, the San Diego County Water Authority: why is the State asking us to conserve water when we can build our way out of our water supply woes?

It was a position that the Water Authority took at the height of one of the worst droughts California has ever seen. Now, as the State considers legislation to make conservation a way of life in California, the Water Authority has mounted a full-fledged lobbying campaign to overhaul the painstakingly-developed water conservation and efficiency framework.

For months, San Diego Coastkeeper and our partners have worked alongside water suppliers, businesses, state agencies, and other stakeholders to fulfill Governor Brown’s vision for a sustainable water future in Executive Order B-37-16, to maximize efficiency and conservation and minimize water waste. Legislation is required to implement certain elements of that framework, and lawmakers are currently considering alternative approaches to manage California’s limited water supplies for long-term reliability.

The new framework puts a long overdue emphasis on water conservation and drought response planning while allowing flexibility for water agencies to determine how to best serve the needs of local customers. Each supplier would have an achievable target based on efficiency standards for indoor and outdoor water use, and leak repair, taking into account variables like population and climate to address local needs.

It is imperative that we make our region more resilient to drought and future water shortages which are expected to result from a changing climate. Yet the Water Authority has continuously attempted to water down the well-vetted approach to make conservation a way of life. Its efforts have sought to delay adoption of sensible efficiency targets, undermine the development of a uniform methodology for setting targets, exempt recycled water from efficiency standards, and limit accountability and enforcement. This approach may benefit the Water Authority, but it doesn’t benefit San Diegans.

On behalf of our thousands of members throughout our region, San Diego Coastkeeper has been working for over twenty-two years to make San Diego County more resilient to climate change, to protect our waters, and to keep our community progressing and thriving. Unfortunately, the position the Water Authority has taken on conservation measures does not – and should not – represent the interests of San Diegans who care about our waters – and water rates. While San Diegans have made considerable progress in conserving water over the past twenty-five years, our region – and the State – must continue to build upon that success in order to adapt to the expected impacts of climate change and population growth. In the Water Authority’s own words, “water conservation is the cheapest new source of water.”[1]  As such, meaningful conservation targets and measures incorporated within the framework should be prioritized above any and all other water supplies, each of which carries tremendous environmental and economic costs.

Here is our agenda to make water conservation a way of life in San Diego:

  1. Don’t delay or start over.

    The Water Authority wants to start a new stakeholder process to establish urban water use targets, but the State’s framework already reflects substantial public input, including a broadly representative Urban Advisory Group. A new stakeholder process would unnecessarily delay implementation of meaningful standards and targets—potentially by three years or more. We simply cannot afford to wait that long.

  2. Base water conservation targets on efficient use.

    The approach that the Water Authority has championed specifies that the new stakeholder process should build upon the existing requirements that the state achieve a twenty percent reduction in urban water use by 2020. Experience has shown that differing conditions across the state make it hard to come up with a workable baseline from which to calculate a percentage reduction. In order to be consistent with the State’s proposal, adopted legislation should direct the State Water Board to develop a single method to calculate targets based on standards of efficient water use, with input from a stakeholder group, by a date certain. Basing new targets on efficiency means that agencies that have invested in conservation will receive credit for previous conservation. We believe that a uniform method for setting targets is central to the State’s framework. Using the same standards for efficiency statewide means that the approach will be fair. It will also be flexible, allowing each water supplier to meet its water use target by means it determines to be locally appropriate. Furthermore, the water use targets are proposed to be dynamic, which means that if the population grows or temperatures rise, the water use targets would also increase.

  3. Ensure recycled water is used efficiently.

    The Water Authority’s approach would create a massive loophole in future water efficiency by providing a thirty percent credit towards meeting the target for use of recycled water. The State of California already provides numerous incentives for investments in recycled water, including $625 million in funding from Proposition 1. When the Board made low interest loans available for water recycling projects from the State Revolving Fund, applications far outpaced existing funding, demonstrating that there is already substantial interest in developing potable recycled water supplies. Water efficiency and water recycling are complementary – not competing – strategies to achieve a safe, affordable, and locally-reliable water system. Using water efficiently is generally the most cost-effective, environmentally-sound, and fastest way to meet our water needs. It saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and helps to stretch available supplies so that we can defer or even prevent the need to build costly new water infrastructure. With climate change increasing the variability of precipitation and impacting water supplies, it is critical for California to ensure that all water supplies, including recycled water, are used efficiently. Including recycled water in the efficiency standards helps to protect ratepayers and promote affordability, reducing unnecessary investments in costly new infrastructure. In short, water efficiency and savings should come no matter what the source. Our wallets and our environment will both benefit when conservation is applied across the board.

  4. Trust, but verify.

    In order to make sure everyone does their part, we need effective enforcement for water efficiency targets. The Water Authority’s approach would delay enforcement and hamstring the ability of the State Water Board to ensure efficiency targets are met. The Board should have progressive enforcement authority, as well as the ability to update the standards as changing circumstances dictate without returning to the legislature.

California has been reeling between extremes of drought and flood. Climate change models forecast that we will continue to see these extreme conditions. It is imperative that the State finalize and implement a strong and consistent conservation and efficiency framework to help assure a resilient and secure water future.

San Diego Coastkeeper will continue to work with our environmental partners, state agencies, the Governor’s office, and those water agencies who support the new conservation framework to make water conservation a way of life in San Diego and beyond.

[1] San Diego County Water Authority “Blueprint for Water Conservation FY 2007-2012, May 2007 Public Draft”.  Accessed July 2017 at: https://www.sdcwa.org/sites/default/files/blueprint-waterconservaton.pdf

Published in Change Your Habits

Turning Marine Debris into Art

Written by Matt O'Malley

Into the Current by Janis Selby Jones

This sculpture on display in front of The Wave Waterpark in Vista is made from trash removed from beaches around the world. Into the Current, is created by Janis Selby Jones, a teacher, artist and passionate San Diego Coastkeeper volunteer, with help from beach cleanup volunteers from around the world. 

The sculpture depicts the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vortex in the Pacific Ocean where billions of pieces of plastic debris are collected by ocean currents in a giant mass. The public art serves to remind us of the plastic poisoning our ocean and that we can all make a difference. Janis says the three outer sections—or fins— represent the movement of the ocean’s currents. The spiral and circle at the center signify the swirling of marine debris as it moves toward our ocean’s “trash vortex.”

To learn more about this piece and her future art projects, visit Janis’ blog, Shoresweep.

Water Quality 2016: San Luis Rey

Written by Meredith Meyers


Water Quality Index Score: 82, Good

The San Luis Rey watershed, the northernmost watershed on our list, is dominated by the San Luis Rey River whose headwaters begin near Warner Springs and Ranchita. The watershed also includes parts of Valley Center, Bonsall, Fallbrook, and Oceanside. In 2016, San Luis Rey held the distinction of being the only watershed where the fecal indicator bacteria counts in all collected samples fell within the objectives for good water quality. Nutrient scores – particularly ammonia – were occasionally high though. Ammonia doesn’t usually stick around in aquatic systems very long as it is fairly quickly converted into nitrate, and so high level of this indicator can be a sign of industrial or fertilizer waste.

How to read our water quality pie charts:  these handy charts are designed to give you a sense of which of the factors we measured contributed to the overall water quality score (the number in the center) for each watershed. The size/color of the pie slice gets larger/warmer with increased frequency and magnitude of deviations from good water quality standards for each indicator.

Published in Urban Runoff

Dispatches from the field – Intern Jessica reports back

Written by Kristin Kuhn

Coastkeeper is lucky to be home to some seriously wonderful interns. They are busy, active individuals, and are often on the forefront of much of the work we do in the community. Every once in a while, we manage to pin them down long enough for them to share some thoughts from the inside.

San Diego County is lucky in many respects. We are home to a long, rugged coastline, beautiful beaches, and ample sunshine. We use our beaches and parks as gathering places – we bring our kids and dogs and friends out to enjoy all that this region has to offer. We are also lucky here because, in large part, our community is one that cares about the health of our ocean.

As San Diego Coastkeeper beach cleanup intern, it continually amazes me how many San Diegans are willing to come out in droves on a Saturday morning to pick up trash for two hours along the coastline that we love. This act of service is a statement of care. We know we take more from the environment than we give back, and we make the time to do what we can anyway. I am often surprised at how busy I am at my internship. When I started, I was certainly not expecting such a continual stream of community members interested in cleaning beaches on their free time. Part of the reason I love my internship is because it restores my faith in the inherent goodness of the world on the days I wake up low on gratitude.

Last year, Coastkeeper and Surfrider volunteers removed over 9,500 pounds of trash from our beaches. Some of that trash was littered – either intentionally or unintentionally – on the beach itself. But much of it also came from our city’s streets and sidewalks. Debris from our city washes down our storm drains with every rainfall and heads out to sea. Collecting trash along the beach, before it gets into the ocean, is our last line of defense in preventing the ocean from taking on yet more marine debris.

One thing we are keeping our eye on this year is how rain has played a role in the amount of debris moving through our waterways and onto our beaches. The El Nino of two winters ago may have never materialized, but this past winter’s wet weather – coming on the heels of multi-year drought conditions – may yield interesting results for 2017’s end of year cleanup numbers. (Anecdotally, we saw quite a spike in pounds of trash gathered at cleanups early in this year. At one January cleanup at Fiesta Island, volunteers collected over 1,300 pound of trash in just under two hours.) Heavy rains, especially after long periods of dry weather, move a lot of built up debris and pollutants through our city. We are just glad we have incredible volunteers out there catching what they can of it before the ocean does.

It sometimes feels overwhelming and inconvenient to be aware of the problems in the world. It can make us feel small and ill-equipped. It is such a heartening experience to spend time around people doing their best to make a difference in the midst of their lives that already ask so much of them. It feels good to be a constructive part of a community and it makes us happy to care for the earth that can’t always defend itself. I am continually amazed by how many people choose to share their Saturday mornings with us. San Diegans love their city, their beaches, their coastline. The best part of all if it may be the gratitude each cleanup generates. Beachgoers thank volunteers for being out there, volunteers thank us for showing up with the supplies, and at Coastkeeper, we could not be more grateful to know we can count on our community to show up to do something that really, no one should like doing: picking up trash.

Published in Marine Debris

How We Help Teachers Grow Future Leaders

Written by Sandra J. Lebron

Teachers know that in order to make sure our region has responsible leaders and residents in the future, we must raise a generation of science-minded students with an awareness of our regional water issues and a commitment to conserving resources. Sounds like a challenge to accomplish in the classroom, right? We thought so, too. That’s why we created Project SWELL.

Project SWELL (Stewardship: Water Education for Lifelong Leadership) is a completely free, standard-aligned, K-6 science curriculum about the importance of San Diego County’s water. San Diego Coastkeeper, City of San Diego’s Think Blue and San Diego Unified School District partnered to develop this teacher curriculum complete with models, hands-on projects and field experiences to spark students’ inner scientist, environmentalist or future responsible decision maker, all while reinforcing state standards.

Through Project SWELL, San Diego Coastkeeper provides teachers with training and in-class support including free classroom presentations, experiment kits and lesson plans. From showing first graders how trash from the schoolyard can hurt marine animals to helping sixth graders build their own watershed model, Project SWELL allows teachers to explain local environmental problems while ensuring that students meet Common Core State Standards for English language arts and math as well as Next Generation Science Standards.

During 2014 alone, San Diego Coastkeeper’s Project SWELL experts provided classroom presentations to 2,900 students in San Diego Unified School District and provided Project SWELL science education kits to hundreds of teachers for use in teaching hands-on science to students. In addition to working with San Diego Unified School District, we also provide free environmental literacy and stewardship resources to any and all educators interested in bringing water-based science education to their students and communities through Water Education for All. This includes homeschool groups and teachers outside the district, clubs, scouting organizations, camp leaders, artists and many other informal educators. Click here to browse these materials and download lessons for free.

How We Use Trash to Make a Difference

Written by Kristin Kuhn

San Diego Coastkeeper brings together volunteers to keep our beaches clean for everyone to enjoy. But that’s only the beginning.  

Up to 80 percent of trash found in the ocean originated on land. That means it wasn’t dumped into the ocean intentionally, but ended up in the water after being improperly disposed of on land. Sadly, San Diego’s marine life is in danger of ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris. To make a lasting impact on the health of our ocean and marine life, we must work to keep trash on land from becoming marine debris in the first place.

That’s why San Diego Coastkeeper volunteers not only collect trash from beaches, they fill out a debris data card to record each piece of trash they find. We use this data from all our beach cleanups to analyze the state of San Diego beaches every year. Our cleanups are so much more than beach beautification activities – they are a way to prevent marine debris and participate in an ongoing study about the origins, quantities, and types of trash on our beaches.

San Diego Coastkeeper provides three ways to get involved with beach cleanups to combat marine debris in our region. First, we’ve teamed up with Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter to host twice-a-month public beach cleanups across San Diego County. We bring the supplies and anyone is welcome to join us for a two-hour cleanup. Second, our Sponsored Cleanup Program allows companies and organizations to provide a private cleanup event for their employees as both a team building activity and a way of enhancing their corporate stewardship. Finally, we encourage people to borrow our cleanup supplies when we are not using them through our Beach Cleanup in a Box program. We love empowering San Diegans to be good stewards of their coastal environment whenever they can, regardless of our cleanup schedule.

All these beach cleanups combined have led to the removal of over 72,325 pounds of trash from our beaches and waterways since 2007. In 2015, cigarettes and cigarette butts were once again the most prevalent type of debris found at our beach cleanups. Littered butts continue to be a major concern for the health of San Diego County beaches. The problem with cigarette butts is that they are non-biodegradable and leach toxins into the water, poisoning marine life. They also move with ease through the City’s stormwater system, meaning a cigarette butt dropped elsewhere can easily end up at the beach. Click here to read more about what we’ve learned from the latest beach cleanup data.

Published in Marine Debris

Top Five Things We’ve Learned from Water Quality Monitoring

Written by Meredith Meyers

We may not think about it every day, but we all live in a watershed. A watershed is the area of land that catches all the rain and snow, which collects into a marsh, stream, river, lake or groundwater. What we do on the land affects the quality of water for all communities living downstream. So what does this mean? It means our rivers and streams are the report card for a watershed’s health.

San Diego Coastkeeper has been monitoring local waterways since 2000. We assess watershed health on a monthly basis by measuring nutrients, bacteria, and basic water chemistry (temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, etc). We monitor fixed sites in nine of San Diego County’s eleven coastal draining watersheds and use our data to assign water quality scores to each of our sites and annual watershed health reports. Most importantly (perhaps) is that we share these scores with the public by updating water quality information monthly on our website.

San Diego Coastkeeper is the only countywide, routine water quality monitoring program in San Diego, and we’re the largest volunteer-led effort of its kind in the state. We train over 100 volunteers each year to collect water quality data, and by analyzing the data that volunteers collect, we identify polluted waters and reduce sources of pollution.

We’ve learned a thing or two after 16 years of monitoring San Diego County’s water quality. These are our top five lessons learned.

  1.  Urbanization is linked to poor water quality.
    Want an example? See how fertilizers alone hurt our water. 
  2.  Nitrates are especially high in Escondido Creek.
    At high levels, nitrates can be toxic to animals and humans. The best way you can prevent nitrate pollution in our waters is to limit the use of chemical fertilizers in your yard, or better yet rip up your grass and plant native plants that don’t need fertilizers.
  3.  Bacteria levels are really high after a rain event.
    Here are ten tactics to keep bacteria out of our waters by preventing polluted runoff.
  4.  Drought affects water quality, not just quality.
    Ambient measurements help us determine when poor water quality is harming the flora and fauna of our waters. 
  5.  We could not do this without our extraordinary volunteers.
    Each month, 40 – 45 San Diego residents volunteer their Saturday to collect field samples and process them in the lab. During 2014 alone, 194 volunteers gave a total of 1,888 hours.