The numbers are in. California is conserving less water than it needs to. San Diego is doing even worse.
- California conserved less water this year than last year. In October 2015, California conserved 22.5 percent more than 2013. This year, California only conserved 19.5 percent.
- In October 2016, San Diego County conserved 12 percent more water than in 2013 — is this good? Not really. In October 2015 we conserved 22 percent more water than 2013. We can — and need — to do better.
- All local water agencies in San Diego County used more water this October than they did last October.
- Olivenhain Municipal Water District went from a commendable 25 percent water savings last year to a paltry five percent water savings this year.
Why are we wasting so much water? This is what happens when water agencies stop giving meaningful effort towards conservation. Almost 75 percent of the state is still in drought conditions. 100 percent of Southern California. We need to be doubling down on conservation, not giving up on it.
Drought Rages On, San Diego Uses More Water
Our water authorities rely upon wasteful water use. The more water we waste, the more money they receive. It’s no surprise that, after the state allowed our local water authorities to regulate themselves, they nixed conservation targets and water use steadily increased.
When Governor Brown mandated water conservation, the average goal of local water agencies was a 21 percent reduction in water use. Now that water agencies are allowed to set their own goals, 330 out of California’s 395 water agencies (including all the agencies in San Diego) have nixed conservation goals entirely, dropping the state average to two percent.
Don’t let the recent rains fool you. Drought is our new normal and the future will only be hotter and drier. Using less water is as important as ever to ensure reliable and affordable water for all.
The Journal of Environmental Management studied two Australian regions facing water shortages, Southeast Queensland and Perth.
- Strategy of Using Less: Southeast Queensland invested in conservation and efficiency. They saved big on lower energy costs and achieved a dramatic, permanent drop in water use per capita. Hooray!
- Strategy of Creating More: Perth invested in a desalination plant. Per capita water use dropped only slightly and Perth paid heavily in higher energy costs. Yikes.
Long term reductions in water use is the cheapest and most environmentally sound way to address California’s water management problems.
The Pacific Institute released an in-depth analysis on the costs of the different alternative water supply options available to California. The results:
- Cheapest: Stormwater capture at an average of $530 per acre foot of water.
- Most expensive: Seawater desalination at an average of $2,100 per acre foot. (San Diego County ratepayers pay $2,140 per acre foot from Poseidon’s desalination plant in Carlsbad)
- Middle ground: Water recycling projects, that turn wastewater into drinking water, fall somewhere in between. (City of San Diego’s approved Pure Water project will create 83 million gallons per day of drinking water by 2035)
Jo Ann and Ted, in Talmadge, tend to hear their neighbors gossiping quietly as they walk by their front yard, “Don’t they know we’re in a drought?!” Jo Ann and Ted do, that’s why their yard, packed with fruit trees and a jungle of colorful plants doesn’t use a single drop of extra municipal water.
Read about the simple, low-cost techniques, available to nearly all San Diegans, they use to grow a zero-water landscape without any gravel or cactus. It’s actually pretty easy.
Scientific study says that if carbon emissions continue unabated, the risk of a mega-drought could exceed 99 percent. Cornell Professor of Earth Science Toby Ault tells the Atlantic,
“This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years and would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region. As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this—we are weighting the dice for mega-drought conditions.”
San Francisco Bay and Delta Are Quickly Dying
Thanks to transfers of river water from San Francisco’s Delta and Bay to farmland and urban centers in Southern California, scientists report many species in the San Francisco ecosystem are in their “sixth extinction,” environmental science’s most-dire definition of ecosystem collapse.
For the last two decades, the State Water Resources Control Board has attempted to reach an agreement that would protect the ecosystem by diverting less water, but also not upset anybody who doesn’t want to use less water. This has been impossible. The agreement remains stalled while the San Francisco ecosystems near collapse.
You made it through the headlines. Enjoy a GIF.
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.
4.) 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.
2.) 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.
1.) 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.
Guest Author is Brook Sarson, H2OME
True Water Conservation requires an integrated approach and taking the initiative to be part of the solution. Jo Ann and Ted, in Talmadge, were reluctant to get rid of their front lawn because they did not know what it could turn into, did not want to put something in that required a lot of water and did not like the cactus and gravel look. But, we found a solution that worked.
We arrived at a design including fruit trees, natives and pollinating plants. We installed a 420-gallon rainwater tank that overflows into a basin in the front yard for passive water collection during the rainy season. We put in a simple Laundry-to-Landscape system to provide a consistent supply of water to fruit trees every week. This yard is augmented by good soil and mulch to create better absorption of water and prevent evaporation. In just a year, Jo Ann and Ted have a thriving oasis and more wildlife than ever before (lizards, butterflies, hummingbirds, bees). They have told me that they are amused to overhear their neighbors remark, “Don’t they know we are in a drought?” even as they watch their apples ripen without any municipal water.
Generally, with the right combination of strategies, people are seeing reductions by half in their water use. Here are some tips to help you get started at your own home.
- Start by REDUCING your water use.
Get rid of your thirsty landscape so you don’t need water in the first place. This doesn’t mean artificial turf, gravel and cactus, or hardscaping. It also doesn’t mean investing a ton of money in re-landscaping, tanks, or greywater plumbing. Property value can be preserved with the right plants in the right places and some well directed rainwater. Notice a return of butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees to our neighborhoods!
- PLANT THE WATER FIRST.
If you are preparing your landscape for redevelopment and you want to make the best use of your water resources, before you decided on plants and a design, figure out what greywater and rainwater potential you have. Create a water budget. Design your plantings to use the the easiest water to access and at the volumes that are plant appropriate.
- GET CREATIVE.
Sometimes, if you can imagine changing some personal habits a little or altering your routines, your water distribution will be more effective! Like changing your shower from a 2GPM shower head to a 1.5GPM shower head. With 20 minutes of showering a day you end up saving 10 gallons a day! That’s 3600 gallons for the year! Not to mention getting the water budget right for your landscape. 40 gallons a day might be too much for a drought tolerant landscape. Better yet, create an outdoor shower to avoid expensive retrofits and let the water go directly to the plants that need them, ending your need for irrigation.
- USE SMALL SPACES FOR BIG IMPACT.
This can look like many things, but often looks like a 205-gallon tank instead of a 55-gallon barrel. Did you know that a 1000-square-foot roof will shed 600 gallons in just one inch of rain? With 10 inches of rain on average in San Diego, that adds up to a lot of water. Think big for your water storage needs.
- GET THE COMMUNITY INVOLVED.
Getting your neighbors and friends involved can make short work out of a greywater or rainwater installation. Host a workshop for your friends and neighbors.
- DO MUCH OF THE WORK YOURSELF.
You just have to learn what your resources are, and make sure you get it done right! Connect with a local expert for a consultation, take their recommendations, and use them as your resource along the way. Buy a good book and follow the instructions. Learn about water budgeting. Take a class and make a friend to skill-share with to get the job done. You can find tons of good resources at www.h2o-me.com.
- LOVE THY NEIGHBOR.
Sometimes your neighbors don’t want to do what you are doing, but you’d be surprised how they can contribute if you just ask! Like one family who is borrowing their neighbor’s downspout to help fill their 1320 gallon rainwater tank.
- COOPERATION IS THE KEY TO ABUNDANCE.
In our community we have some amazing resources. You don’t have to do everything yourself, and often times we all benefit from working together. Bring a friend to a workshop so you each can internalize the parts of the information that you are best at. Get consultations from local experts in creating a water plan, developing a landscape plan, creating good soil, growing food, growing natives. Likely, if we all rely on people who are really skilled at what they do, we can create something far more abundant than if we try to do everything ourselves.
- GROW FOOD.
Did you know that your water footprint takes into account the food you eat? If your food is grown outside of San Diego, your water footprint is higher. Growing food in your own backyard with onsite water (rainwater for veggies, and greywater for fruit trees) means that you aren’t wasting oil to bring the food to San Diego and water, usually imported, to grow your food.
- We are ALL part of the solution to creating local water in San Diego.
If all homeowners in San Diego reduced landscape irrigation by 50% using an integrated approach to onsite water management, we would decrease our imported water needs by 20%, more than twice what the Carlsbad desalination provides for our county by much more energy intensive methods! Plus by rerouting our rainwater into our gardens, we offset storm drain pollution and by rerouting our greywater into our soil, we offset costly infrastructure upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities! If you don’t own your home, talk to your landlord, or your friends who own their homes. Turn the conversation up and the water use down! Join the movement.
A new plan is in the works that will decide the future of San Diego’s coastline. Recently, the State Lands Commission and the Port of San Diego decided to pursue a marine spatial planning pilot project off the San Diego coast. The two agencies created a Memorandum of Agreement aimed to engage community members along the way.
Marine spatial planning is a process that aimed at helping a community make informed decisions about how to use a marine area in an ecological sound and sustainable way. If done well, the process can create a framework built around achieving true sustainability and conservation in our offshore areas while integrating the successes we’ve achieved with our Marine Protected Areas. In the past, however, traditional land-use has largely been conducted for the benefit of development and industry and has often times excluded or marginalized the involvement of the environmental community. We are hopeful that this planning agreement will live up to its commitment to “transparent, robust public engagement during all phases of framework development” – including meaningful participation of the environmental community – and we remain committed to working for the protection and restoration of our coastal waters.
Why does this matter to San Diego Coastkeeper?
As the voice for San Diego’s water, Coastkeeper is committed to ensuring the region’s waters remain fishable, swimmable and drinkable. Over the past 20 years, we have:
- Reduced beach advisories by 77 percent in the ten years since 2000 by improving sewage and urban runoff policies
- Secured marine protected areas (MPA) in Southern California including Swami’s, which is San Diego County’s largest MPA with a 12.6-square-mile conservation area
- Removed more than one million pounds of debris from area beaches and waterways
Coastkeeper is concerned that if the environmental community isn’t involved and properly recognized in the planning of this marine spatial project, the results could contribute to streamlined industrialization of our already-stressed marine environment – meaning a major step backwards for the health of our coast.
Why is environmental community involvement important?
The Commission and Port say they view this new marine spatial planning project as an opportunity to expand on collaborative, coordinated management of the San Diego coast. However, past traditional land-use planning projects haven’t generally involved such collaboration.
To ensure that the planning of this project prioritizes the health of our coastline, the environmental community must have every opportunity to be involved, and that voice must not be marginalized in the process.
We will continue to be your water watchdogs by fighting for the health of our inland and coastal waters and ensuring that Coastkeeper remains part of the planning for our marine coastline.
Cathy and Keith are on a mission to make a difference. For more than five years, Cathy Stiefel and Keith Behner have partnered with San Diego Coastkeeper to massively expand the reach of our education program, Project SWELL. Because of their passionate engagement and tremendous generosity, local water issues and a conservation ethic have permeated classrooms across the County. They see inspiring, hands-on water education for our next generation of leaders as a vital part of a more fishable, swimmable, drinkable future for San Diego County.
Last year, Cathy and Keith made it possible to expand our team with our Project SWELL education specialist. The expansion has had an incredible impact on the program, allowing San Diego Coastkeeper to reach more future leaders more effectively with inspiring, formative education experiences.
“In the time that Keith and I have been supporting Project SWELL, the program has grown substantially – serving more grades, training more teachers and reaching more schools and students,” says Cathy, who is also a board member of Coastkeeper.
Cathy and Keith’s engagement is truly an investment in San Diego’s future. You can thank them for the engaged community members and the smart decision making for our water in the next couple of decades. Or, if your kids cite the dwindling water levels in the Colorado River Basin the next time they refuse to take a bath, you can thank Cathy and Keith for that, too.
“We believe that childhood science education is critical to developing an educated and aware citizenry for our region. There is no more important issue in San Diego than water quality and the sustainability of water resources in our unique coastal environment. We have been more than gratified by the growth of the program and the enthusiastic reception from teachers and students alike,” says Cathy.
In our mission to build a generation of future leaders that love and respect water as much as we do, we don’t take a break for summer vacation. In fact, often the best time to reach kids is when they don’t think they’re learning. That’s why we partner with after school programs and summer camps for some sneak-attack water education.
Here are some of the highlights from our summer “break.”
Water connects us all, no matter what side of the border we live on. International cooperation and regionwide thinking is a vital part of protecting and restoring San Diego County’s fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters. That’s why we partnered with the Tijuana orphanage, Niños de la Promesa, to bring water education to 54 future stewards of our water. Did we mention our Water Education For All curriculum is bilingual?
Refugee Children in City Heights
We brought hands-on water science education to 25 refugee children from all over the world.
We joined the Junior Lifeguards for interactive learning at two Environmental Day fairs with City of San Diego departments, including Transportation and Stormwater, Wastewater and Pure Water. With kids sitting alongside the water, the opportunity was perfect to expand their knowledge of local habitats, urban runoff and pollution prevention.
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.
OK, maybe it’s a bit extreme to say that we can’t live without them, but it’s not an overstatement to say that our work would not be possible without the support of our donors and volunteers. From time to time, we will share conversations with people who, like you, make generous investments of their time and resources to ensure fishable, swimmable and drinkable water in San Diego, today and for generations to come.
David Welborn is a past member of San Diego Coastkeeper’s Board of Directors, including one year as Chairman. He and his wife, Ann, have invested in Coastkeeper’s work through targeted grants and general support. David joined me recently for a chat in our Liberty Station office.
Tracie Barham: David, I know you’ve had a long history with San Diego Coastkeeper, can you tell me why you first got involved?
David Welborn: I have almost always lived near the coast, and when I’m near the water I feel like I’m in a sacred place. Our water is such a valuable asset, I felt it was important for me to help protect it. After all, without water there is no life.
Tracie: I couldn’t agree more, David. We are so lucky to live in this paradise. Tell me, what about Coastkeeper’s approach excites you the most?
David: As former teachers, Coastkeeper’s youth education programs have a special appeal to both Ann and I. Also, your water quality monitoring program has multiple impacts on the community. It’s not just the data that informs all of your work, but the valuable experience gained by our future scientists as volunteers. Lastly, we are glad that Coastkeeper holds polluters accountable through litigation, when necessary.
Tracie: I’ll admit, as Coastkeeper’s new Executive Director, the fact that our programs are so interconnected is really inspiring to me. What do you wish more people knew about San Diego Coastkeeper?
David: I think people would be very impressed if they knew how much Coastkeeper is able to achieve with such a small budget. Your small staff (aided by many volunteers) is able to do so much for our community and the environment thanks to their passion and intelligence.
Tracie: Thank you, David. I agree, we are small but mighty! Okay, last question, what outdoor activities do you and Ann like to do when you’re not busy serving your community as Board members and donors?
David: Not surprisingly, many of our favorite things to do are on the water! We like to go outrigger canoeing in the Bay, kayak surfing, and stand-up paddleboarding.
Tracie: Nice, I’ll see you in the water! Thank you for all that you do for the environment and our community.
Polluted runoff is San Diego County’s number one water quality problem. It’s what causes the Department of Environmental Health to issue 72-hour polluted beach advisories when it rains and what causes our local streams and rivers to receive poor health ratings.
To address that issue, the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (“MS4”) permit requires our local governments to create and implement plans to prevent pollution in urban runoff and stormwater from reaching our waters. Naturally, Coastkeeper supports that permit and its goal to protect and restore our waters. Until recently, the permit required strict compliance with the Clean Water Act and with standards aimed at protecting our waters from pollution. It held the cities and other governments accountable if they weren’t achieving clean water.
But on November 18, 2015, the San Diego Regional Water Control Board approved an amendment known as a “Safe Harbor” that gives permit holders a pass from accountability for water-quality protection if they have a plan to eventually, someday reduce pollution into our waters and achieve fishable, swimmable waters. They get this “pass” from the moment their plan is approved and it continues indefinitely as long as they keep trying to do better, even if they continue failing to meet water-quality standards. In December, we filed a petition to the State Water Resource Control Board to overturn these amendments and to restore accountability of our governments under the Clean Water Act.
The Clean Water Act long ago recognized that the job of protecting our waters was bigger than the EPA or Regional Boards alone. In doing so, it created a provision that gives citizens the right, if not responsibility, to enforce the laws meant to protect our waters. Since the Clean Water Act is the best – and many times only – tool we as citizens have to defend and protect our waters, it is crucial that we work to protect and preserve that right with the same devotion and intensity we put into protecting our rivers, streams and ocean.
As San Diego Coastkeeper’s Waterkeeper, Legal & Policy Director, and attorney, it is my job to ensure that those businesses, governments, and individuals who pollute San Diego’s waters are held accountable and that our waters are both protected and restored.
The honest truth is that while many of our pollution laws in San Diego and the U.S. are quite strong, they are seldom enforced. That’s where we come in. Waterkeeper organizations patrol local waters and prosecute polluters. We are the voice for the water and a defender of the right of every person in San Diego County to live with fishable, swimmable, drinkable water.
San Diego County’s rivers, bays and ocean are under a threat of a thousand cuts. Many different sources of pollution pour into our water every day, which combined become a powerful and often toxic mix poisoning our water and our livelihood. Because this threat is so distributed and gradual, it doesn’t create cause for alarm in the same way something like an oil spill does, making it much more dangerous. It’s easy to just accept the fact that, for the safety of swimmers and surfers, our beaches need to close for 72 hours after it rains. But as Waterkeepers, we do not and will not ever stop protecting our waters.
Our model is simple and powerful: find and fix. One by one, we identify sources of pollution and then use every tool at our disposal, most often legal actions and advocacy, to bring polluters into compliance with the law and heal the cuts that are harming our waters.
San Diego used to average a sewage spill-a-day. With strategic legal action, we were able to push the City of San Diego to invest $1 billion in infrastructure upgrades, reducing sewage spills by 90 percent. That’s just a single lawsuit of the many in our twenty-year history of turning pollution into clean water and polluters into responsible protectors of our water. Imagining San Diego County without San Diego Coastkeeper is, frankly, a bit too scary to consider.
This isn’t a new practice. It’s a tradition that’s proven incredibly effective—across the world. We’re part of an international movement of more than 300 independent Waterkeeper organizations all over the world dedicated to protecting and restoring a specific body of fishable, swimmable, drinkable water. We’re proud to be a part of this tradition, and proud to be one of the largest Waterkeeper organizations in the world.
But I can’t do anything without you by my side. We have to do this together. We all share our water. We all benefit from our water and a thriving, abundant ecosystem. So it’s all of our responsibility to protect it.
If you see something polluting our waters, let me know. I’m your Waterkeeper. If you want to join the Waterkeeper movement and support San Diego Coastkeeper, consider making a donation or joining our team of dedicated volunteers.
Finally, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so I can keep you up to date on the latest information you need to know about San Diego County’s water.