Is My Tap Water Safe To Drink?

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Is my tap water safe to drink is probably the most frequent question I hear when I tell people I do water quality monitoring. Here at Coastkeeper, we monitor inland water quality in our rivers and streams, but I just got my copy of the Annual Drinking Water Quality Report from the City of San Diego.  There is a ton of acronyms and jargon terms, so I thought I’d help you look through it.

Acronyms and Jargon

This box below shows the different jargon terms and acronyms the labs use in their reporting. Here are the important ones:


  • Action Level: For certain contaminates, such as lead, the EPA sets maximum concentrations that are safe levels for human consumption. If the treatment plant tests the water at or above these concentration levels, the facility must take action to fix the problem and lower the concentration levels.
  • CA SMCL – California Secondary Maximum Contaminate Level: These are non-mandatory guidelines set by the State of California. These guidelines are not enforced; there is no penalty for going over them.  They are generally measuring aesthetic qualities like taste, odor and color.  They help the treatment facility operators have something to shoot for.
  • MCL – Maximum Contaminate Level: Much like the Action Level, this sets the maximum level a contaminant can reach in the water.
  • MCLG – Maximum Contaminate Level Goal: This is the real goal of the treatment plant. This is the level at which the contaminate has no health risks associated with it. The difference between the MCL or the Action Level and the MCLG is a bit confusing. Let’s look at lead to see how it works. The action level is 1.3 mg/L but the goal is 0.3 mg/L. The treatment facility wants to get the lead concentrations down to 0.3, but it may be impossible to bring the levels down to that level. The 1.3 is the enforceable standard; the 0.3 is what we would like it to be.

Most everything else you can ignore for now.

Also, since I live in the city of San Diego, I’m looking at its water quality report, but every city in our county will also have one. Use Google to search for your city’s Drinking Water Quality Report or look through your recent mail.

How did the City of San Diego’s drinking water rate?

The drinking water at my house is pretty good! Here are the numbers I’m looking at:

Total Coliform Bacteria:


This is the same bacteria Coastkeeper’s water monitoring program tests. This indicates that there is something in the water that could make you sick, like sewage cross contamination. As you can see, the Maximum Contaminate Level was less than 5% of samples containing these bacteria. On average 0.1% did. That’s pretty significantly below the standards.



The Action Level for lead is 15 ppb (parts per billion) and the goal is 0.2 ppb. Let’s get a visualization of how small a part per billion is. One ppb is about equal to a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool.  It’s a super small number. Because lead is so toxic, they don’t just report the average concentration. They report the concentration that is above 90% of all the samples (90th percentile concentration). In this case, their tests did not detect any lead at all in 90% of the samples and only 3 total samples had concentrations of above the Action Limit. This test was done at residence’s tap, not at the plant. So this takes into account lead added from old lead pipes. If your house is relatively new, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Odor and Color:


Odor and color were both either very low, or below the test’s detection limits.  These are not dangerous, but I’m glad our water doesn’t have much flavor or smell.

I personally am not too concerned about many of the other tests, but as you go through the report yourself, you can see everything is generally pretty low and well below the standards set by the EPA or the state.

Would you drink the tap water?

I hear this question all the time, and my answer is an emphatic yes! I drink tap water every day. San Diego’s tap water is safe, clean and inexpensive. The bottled water companies do not have to publish these reports, so I have no idea how safe it really is. Tap water is more environmentally friendly; it doesn’t have to be packaged up in single-use plastic bottles. Bottled water is also more expensive the gasoline whereas a glass of tap water is practically free.

Don’t Be Trashy This Fourth of July

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Do you remember the “marshamallow mess” last year? As much as it was amusing at the time, millions of fluffy balls swarmed Ocean Beach leaving its wildlife with the mess it could not to deal with. But thanks to our 88 volunteers, we gave the beach a breath of fresh air. This year, aside from avoiding marshamallows, there are more things we could do to ensure our Fourth of July is fun, and the “morning after” is not hard on our environment.

  • Free yourself from chemicals. Parabens, “benzo-somethings” and such are not only bad for us but are also harsh on our precious waters. If you plan to hit the beach this holiday, check out sunscreens from Aubrey or Alba (or other) to avoid spreading the invisible mess. Household cleaning products are no better. Save money and the environment by making your own green cleaners. And check out Pinterest; there you can find easy and awesome DIY ideas when it comes to making your own lotions. Or just buy a natural one.
  • Get out of the car. It’s time to feel the breeze! Get on the bike ride with your family and friends. Going to the store? Beach? Just cruising? Whatever you do, let your four-wheeler rest and get some exercise. San Diego County has more than 312 miles of bike lanes and 114 miles of bike routes. There is no excuse to not enjoy the sun. Not to mention, it’s a free ride.
  • Re____ it. Whether you are going to the beach this Fourth of July or spending it in your backyard, don’t forget to reduce, reuse and recycle. Just do it.
  • Don’t mess up. Promote protection of the swimmable, fishable and drinkable waters in San Diego. If you are off to the beach, organize your stuff. Don’t let it get away from you and harass the beach later. Stay classy and join Surfrider, San Diego Chapter for the Morning After Mess beach cleanup on July 5 from 9 a.m. – 11 a.m. at the multiple sites around San Diego.
  • Know where you go. Coastkeeper has you covered. Download our Swim Guide app and enjoy your Fourth of July with no fear on your favorite beach. We provide fresh water quality data every day.

What are you declaring independence from this holiday?

Ditching the Plastic Foam in San Diego

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Imagine you have just finished an excellent meal at your favorite local restaurant. When you feel like you can’t fit any more into your stomach, the wait staff comes by to bring you a box for your leftovers. Of course, no one wants to waste food, however, you receive a box made from plastic foam, or more commonly referred to as Styrofoam  or polystyrene!

This conundrum still plagues many San Diego residents who want to be environmentally friendly, but their favorite restaurants are still using plastic foam to-go materials that are harmful to the environment.

Not to worry, San Diego Coastkeeper has been working to tackle this issue! Last week at our quarterly Signs of the Tide Event we took a closer look at the problem, and learned of some new ways to address this topic.

We had the City of San Diego recycling specialist, Donna Chralowicz, speak about why plastic foam is so bad, and what the city is doing to change it habits. Because of it’s lightweight properties, plastic foam transports easily if not disposed of properly, is non-degradable and breaks apart quickly, and is also not easily recyclable. The City has now decided to reduce its use of plastic foam at the operations level and at all city-sanctioned events. As of January 2012, plastic foam cannot be purchased by the city. Sounds like a great step in the right direction!

Local restaurant/business owner of Raglan Public House and Bareback Grill, Michael Zouroudis, spoke towards colleagues in the his industry about making the switch to zero styro. He strives to reach customers who appreciate the extra effort of making this switch. Obviously, the hardest part for restaurants to make that switch is investing more money into the to-go part of their business, which can be up to twice as expensive. Even though doing the “right thing” will mean more financial sacrifice, customers will appreciate it.

After San Diego Coastkeeper started logging trash picked up during beach clean-ups in 2007, it quickly became apparent that Styrofoam was all too common. Alicia Glassco with the San Diego Coastkeeper Marine Debris Program lobbied for a more proactive approach to eliminating polystyrene from our beaches. Local residents have to urge restaurants to make the switch away from polystyrene. Residents also need to rally for change for the entire jurisdiction. It’s easier for restaurants to make the switch if they are all forced to do so at the same time.

So, what can we do next time we are handed a box made from plastic foam after our dining experience? Check out these options:

  1. Re-usable is the best alternative to polystyrene (or any to-go materials). Bring your own box when you eat out!
  2. Talk/write/lobby to your local elected officials about a change
  3. Encourage your favorite restaurant to switch to an alternative to polystyrene. Check out for a list of good alternatives, facts about Styrofoam, and for educational cards to help promote change in local restaurants.
Published in Marine Debris

Plastic Bags: The Environment’s Deadly Predator

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Evan Lewis, an 11-year-old environmental activitist, is a member of Kids Eco Club of the National Youth Green Council.

Plastic bags. Oh, they are such a helpful resource in our society. But are they really worth it?

Are they really worth killing animals, overflowing our landfills and polluting our environment?

Every man, woman and child on our planet uses more than 100 bags a year. That may not seem like a lot, but we use over 3 trillion plastic bags every year worldwide: 3,000,000,000,000! That is 12 zeros. And only 1% are recycled.

Have you ever thought how much they can damage our environment? More than you may realize. Many people go through their daily lives not knowing or noticing their impact on the environment.

There are many reasons why plastic bags shouldn’t be used:

  • They kill over 100,000 marine animals each year, mainly the sea turtles. But they don’t kill only marine animals. They kill land animals, too, such as the thousands of birds that swallow them and die.
  • They take over 400 years to biodegrade! That  means your children’s children’s children will still have the burden of the same plastic bag you used today.
  • Did you know that the plastic bag was first used in 1957? If you do the math, not one plastic bag has ever completely biodegraded. Have you heard of all of the chemicals in plastic bags? As the bags start to break down, the chemicals enter the soil and our drinking water, which can be very harmful to all animals including humans.
  • Over 267 marine species are killed just from plastic debris in the ocean!
  • Have you heard of the North Pacific Gyre that is floating across the Pacific Ocean? This Patch is larger than the size of Texas. The funny thing is that this patch was not even there until plastic was invented. The patch is mainly made of plastic debris and trash that has washed out into the ocean. This plastic can be very harmful if a marine animal or a bird becomes entangled in it and drowns or swallows it. The plastic breaks down and releases toxins into the water.

All of these very startling facts have motivated me to take action and try to help change our damaging use of plastics. Now, how can one person make a difference? How did I take action on this important and harmful issue? My first step was to start small by having my family stop using plastic water bottles and plastic bags. Next, I started to make kids at my school aware of this issue with presentations in our classrooms and what they can do to help. Also, to help them with the cause, I gave them reusable recyclable bags to bring lunch in or to use at the store. I saw many different people at my school using them for lunch carriers or just to hold things.

Next,  I wrote an article called “The Problem With Plastic Bags”  for our school newspaper. Soon after, it got published in a magazine called San Diego Earth Times. Although I don’t know how many people read this, hopefully it is a lot. Think about it, San Diego has 1.37 million people. Since the average American uses 500 plastic bags, this area alone uses about 6.85 billion plastic bags every year! This has to stop so I started a petition to ban plastic bags in San Diego. Solana Beach and L.A have recently done it, so why can’t we join together and do the same?

Please help us in the act against this damaging threat to our environment by signing this petition and banning their use!

Published in Marine Debris

Happy World Oceans Day

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Happy World Oceans Day.

After a decade of unofficial worldwide celebration, in 2008 the United Nations General Assembly designated June 8 as World Oceans Day to raise awareness of our ocean and our connection to the sea. That’s today.

As Coastkeeper, we think World Oceans Day should be a countywide holiday because our ocean drives our economy, provides us with copious amounts of recreation, reduces carbon dioxide in the air and also creates much of the ocean we breath.

In honor of World Oceans Day, we offer you these ways to celebrate the Pacific Ocean this weekend (and every weekend, for that matter):

  1. Join our beach cleanup on Saturday to remove trash from the shores in La Jolla so that you can keep our ocean beautiful and prevent sea animals from eating it.
  2. Head over to our friends at Hike Bike Kayak to rent a kayak or snorkel in La  Jolla Cove. Ask for Dylan, he’s our favorite, and ask him to tell you about the leopard sharks, garabaldi and the ASBS.
  3. Ride your bike along Pacific Coast Highway to take in the views of our ocean.
  4. Head to Cabrillo National Monument to tidepool. Low tide should occur around 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
  5. Make one change in your daily routine to prevent pollution from impacting our coastal waters.

Have another idea? What are you doing to celebrate World Oceans Day?


Published in Marine Conservation

The Swim Guide

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Hopefully you all have seen our new and improved beach status webpage and smartphone app. If not, check it out at our Beach Status webpage. It has never been easier to check for beach closures and advisories.

So, how does it work?


The San Diego County Department of Environmental health is in charge of issuing beach closures and advisories. Every morning, the county sends a team of samplers to take water samples from our beaches. Each beach is tested once a week. They are looking for the quantity of fecal indicator bacteria (Nerd Alert – They are specifically looking at E. coli and enterococci species). These species of bacteria do not necessarily pose a direct human health risk. They are, however, strongly correlated with human health risk. So while enterococcus may not get you sick, high level

s of enterococcus usually means there are elevated levels of pathogens like viruses and the type of bacteria that give you, um, “intestinal distress”. So why not measure viruses and other microbes that actually make you sick? Well, the indicator bacteria are easier, faster and much less expensive to measure. With the same dollars, the county is able to cover more area and have results quickly posted. (Fun Fact! – the county uses the same exact tests to measure beach water as our volunteers use to measure inland water as part of our water monitoring program).

How does this information make it to our website?

Every morning, the county looks at all the beach water quality data and decides whether or not the beach meets EPA guidelines for safe swimming. They also take into account other factors that would make ocean water unsafe for swimming.

This is a good time to talk about the levels of beach warnings the county issues. The county has three different levels of warnings. We all know what open means, the beach is safe for swimming. They can also issue a contact advisory, meaning water contact should be avoided. They use this level of warning when the bacteria sampling comes up high or a rain event has washed down urban runoff pollutants into the water. They usually don’t put up a sign for contact advisories, so without checking our swim guide, a swimmer usually doesn’t know about these ones. They also issue straight closures. These are issues after a known sewage spill or when the Tijuana River is running into Imperial Beach. In this case they will close the beach off, hang signs saying it’s dangerous to swim, and have lifeguards kick people out of the water.  In order to open the beach back up, the county has to have several days worth of testing that shows indicator bacteria within safe health standards. For example, if it rains more than 0.2 inches, they know that all our beaches are going to be impacted by urban runoff and probably unsafe for swimming so they will issue a contact advisory.

How does the Swim Guide fit in?


The county does all of the testing and issuing of closures, but they don’t really have the resources to get the word out.There is a number you can call and listen to a recording, but honestly maps are way cooler. So several years ago, we at San Diego Coastkeeper partnered with the County Department of Environmental Health to help them spread the word. Every morning they send me an email with which beaches are open and which are closed.  I translate that to a handy, easy to read, map so that information is more accessible to you, the beach user.  San Diego Coastkeeper does not decide which beaches are open or closed. We just pass along information from the county.

The Swim Guide was developed by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and we thought it was super cool. All of the different coastal waterkeepers in California got together and brought it to our beaches. SO if you get the phone app, it will work for beaches all over the state. Each county has slightly different procedures, but the meaning is the same. Wherever you are in California (or Lake Ontario) the Swim Guide App will be able to make sure you are swimming in safe beaches.

Go to our Beach Status webpage to see current beach conditions and download links for smart phone apps. Pretty soon we’ll have a way of embedding the map in your webpage. So if you are a community group, surf shop, or beachside coffee shop, you can help ensure folks have the most up to the date safe swimming information.

May Water Monitoring Results

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper


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

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

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

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

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

Published in Urban Runoff

On Patrol with Gale Filter in San Diego Bay

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

jj_salingOn May 18, at a local luncheon, I met a San Diegan JJ Fetter. JJ is a Yale graduate, and I was introduced to JJ by another Yale graduate, Stewart Halpern, who several months earlier toured San Diego Bay with Coastkeeper on a “Clean Sweep” boat patrol. The Yale chain doesn’t end there. Meagan Baehrens, our development director and a Yale graduate, introduced me to Stewart. San Diego Coastkeeper board member Jo Brooks is also a Yale grad.

I had no idea who JJ was, but she did say that her children loved to sail and that she was grateful to Coastkeeper for the work we do protecting San Diego bay. Later that day I discovered JJ has won three world championships and is the only American female to have won two Olympic medals in sailing (Bronze in ’92 and Silver in ’00). JJ has been named Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year four times, and last year she was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the San Diego Hall of Champions. I also came across a piece written several years back where she stated, “Thanks to all the sailboat racing, I’ve done around the world, I have had a chance to sail in gorgeous places like Portofino, St. Tropez, Buzios, Sydney, Auckland—I’m never disappointed by my hometown when I get back.” Not only does San Diego Coastkeeper work to make our waters fishable, swimmable and drinkable, but also sailable for people like JJ and her daughters. A clean Bay makes for happy faces.


Part of my responsibilities as the San Diego Coastkeeper is to patrol and protect our local waters. San Diego Coastkeeper, like 200 Waterkeeper organizations throughout the world, subscribes to a simple tenet unique to our movement: “all members of a community are the owners of its resources and injury to those resources is an act of theft against each member.” It is my job to redress that theft, be it with law-breaking polluters or unresponsive government agencies that allow the pollution to occur. Captain Chris Gunst and I patrol San Diego Bay once a week.

Never, not once, have Chris and I been on patrol and not found water pollution violations. For the past three months our focus has been on violations in which polluters sand and paint their boats in the water without any containment.


California Fish and Game code section 5650, the oldest water pollution statue in the state (1870), makes it unlawful to deposit into, permit to pass into, or place where it can into the waters of the state certain specified pollutants, (e.g., petroleum products, sawdust, cocculus indicus—a natural plant toxin that stuns fish) as well as a broad proscription against the deposit of “any substance or material deleterious to fish, plant, mammal or bird life.” A section 5650 violation is a strict liability offense; there is no need to prove any willful or negligent conduct in order to sustain a violation or conviction. Punishment for a 5650 violation can include up to six months in jail and $1,000 fine.


A single violation of 5650 might not seem to amount to much. Some might wonder what harm is there in a little sawdust or paint going into the water. But as David Gibson, executive office of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, points out, “Any one boat owner may say it’s not a big deal, but when you have 3,000 owners thinking the same thing, you have a much larger issue.” See a story about this overlooked pollution problem from Voice of San Diego. Think of a single violation as a broken window. If the window isn’t fixed, we will begin to find new broken windows. One violation leads to another violation and those violations lead to even more violations. It’s a death by a thousand cuts.

It is important that polluters know that there is a green line of environmental enforcement in San Diego and that Coastkeeper is a major player on the enforcement landscape. Compliance is the goal. Polluters also need to know that they will be caught and that enforcement has a bite. San Diego Coastkeeper is the voice for our waters. JJ and other sailors are happy about that. If you would like to get an idea about what our Clean Sweep patrols are like, see NBC San Diego’s story on the Bay’s copper pollution.

Top 5 Reasons To Bike To Work

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

May is Bike to Work Month! The Coastkeeper team has joined SANDAG’s Bike to Work Corporate Challenge. As part of the challenge, we’re biking to work and are eligible to win prizes as we enjoy the benefits of bike commuting. How about joining us by biking to work or better yet, getting your whole company to sign up?

  • You save money. I calculated that between gas and wear-and-tear on my car, I save about $5 every time I commute by bike. Your savings will depend on how far you commute and what kind of gas mileage you get in your car. I encourage you to do the research and see how much you can save.
  • It will help you get in shape. Depending on how much you weigh and how fast you ride, an hour round-trip bike commute can burn around 600 calories. That means you could lose almost a pound a week just from the calories you burn on your commute. And have you seen the great leg muscles on cyclists?
  • You’ll reduce your carbon footprint. Last year, Coastkeeper staff avoided huge amounts of air pollution by biking to work. In May alone, we saved 315 pounds of carbon dioxide and 8,670 pounds of carbon monoxide. That’s a breath of fresh air!
  • It’s a great excuse to buy new gear. While you bike safely in the daytime with little gear, if you like to shop, commuting is a great excuse to buy new cycling clothing and gadgets. For women, Terry Bicycles has some great options. There are tons of great local bike shops in San Diego, including my friends at Moment Cycle Sport in Liberty Station.
  • You’ll be more aware of cyclists next time you’re in a car. Too many cyclists have died in San Diego over the last few years. Sadly, these deaths could have been avoided if both the cyclists and the drivers are aware and respectful of the other’s rights to the road.

One Man’s Waste Tires, Another Man’s Home

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

On April 12, San Diego Coastkeeper went on a Tijuana border tour led by WiLDCOAST’s Serge Dedina and Paloma Aguirre. The story of the day was the 2 million gallon sewage spill that flowed from the Tijuana River to Imperial Beach. Government failed to promptly notify the public and as result, surfers and swimmers were using the water for almost a week before they became aware that the waters were tainted by sewage.

“It’s bad enough to have polluted water,” Serge said, “it’s worse when federal and international agencies don’t do their job.”


The Hormiguita Community Center made from 450 waste tires

As Rob Davis noted in a Voice of San Diego piece, “The incident is just one symptom of a major pollution problem that has plagued San Diego’s coast for decades, one that was supposed to have been fixed 15 years ago but that’s been dragged down by missed deadlines, bureaucratic bungling and local infighting.”

Everywhere we went in Tijuana we saw waste tires. Waste tires are not only a huge problem for those living in Tijuana, but waste tires also have significant health, environment and economic impacts on this side of the border. When it rains trash, sewage and tires from Tijuana flow from Mexico across the border into the United States. Waste tire cleanups are a constant on both sides of the border. For example, in a recent cleanup at the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park volunteers collected more than 600 tires in a four hour period. Wildcoast’s Ben McCue noted, “A lot of those tires actually originated in California. (The tires) went over to Mexico, were not disposed of correctly and many came back here.” This is not the kind of recycling story any of us want to hear.

In Tijuana’s Laureles Canyon we had the opportunity to see the impact an organization like Wildcoast can have on a community. Through the efforts of Paloma Aguirre and Wildcoast locals are not only working to rid the community of trash and tires, but community members are actually policing the area and serving notice to would be dumpsters that such conduct will not be tolerated. But best of all is found up on top of one of the Laureles Canyon hills where Four Walls International, Wildcoast, Tijuana Calidad De Vida and Tijuana Estuary partnered on building a green community center made of 450 waste tires and other trash. The plan is to use the same construction to build homes in Laureles Canyon. This collaboration also trains residents on how to manage trash and human waste.

Bravo! It’s really simple: find an environmental harm and fix the problem. Perfect solution? No, but it is a step in the right direction. That’s what the hokey pokey is all about!



San Diego Coastkeeper Jo Brooks (board), Jill Witkowski and Gale Filter and Steve Wright of 4 Walls.



Horse, Tires and Trash across from the Hormiguita Community Center.


Published in Sick of Sewage