How San Diego Coastkeeper took water education to the next level in 2015-2016
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. Through Project SWELL, San Diego Coastkeeper provides all San Diego Unified School District teachers with free science kits and trainings. The curriculum explores the impacts of humans on our waters through a hands-on course of study focusing on water quality and pollution prevention.
This past school year, Project SWELL got a major boost. Thanks to a generous donor, we hired Julie Earnest as our dedicated education specialist for Project SWELL and the results have been stellar.
The 2015-2016 school year was filled with lots of hands-on experiments, watershed models, marine debris activities and storm drain field trips for 4,460 K-6th grade students and 300 teachers. Our tireless and overly enthusiastic education specialist, Julie, offered 83 SWELL presentations in 67 schools in San Diego Unified School District.
To evaluate the effectiveness of Project SWELL, we surveyed students before and after the classroom presentations. The results of the K-6th grade student surveys showed us that more students now understand the importance of keeping our waters clean and have the desire to prevent pollution. But don’t take our word for it — see the results yourself.
Check out how the younger students showed us what they learned with these inspirational art pieces:
Imagine the next generation of students making responsible environmental decisions because they know we should take care of the environment every day. This could mean a new generation of leaders that will be caring for our planet and teach others to do the same — the ultimate goal of environmental education.
After the classroom presentations, 96 percent of teachers said:
- The presentation was engaging to their students
- They would recommend the presentation to a colleague
- They were more confident incorporating the Project SWELL curriculum into their classroom
Teachers in San Diego County can request a free professional development workshop at their schools whenever they want or join us in our scheduled workshops at the Advanced Water Purification Plant or at the District’s Instructional Media Center.
Since we started visiting schools in 2014, we have brought Project SWELL to a total of 96 schools and 7,362 K-6th grade students. Not bad for a team of two educators, some awesome interns and the support of our local donors and partners.
2nd Grade Student Surveys
2nd grade students showed an increase in learning, with the best improvements in their responses to these questions:
- Q1: When water goes down the storm drains in San Diego, what happens to that water?
- Q2: After it rains, why is the ocean in San Diego unsafe for swimming?
3rd – 4th Grade Student Surveys
3rd-4th grade students showed an increase in learning, with the best improvements in their responses to these questions:
- Q2: After it rains, why is the ocean in San Diego unsafe for swimming?
- Q3: What happens when “invisible” pollutants such as gasoline and fertilizer go into the ocean?
5th Grade Student Surveys
5th grade students showed an increase in learning, with the best improvements in their responses to these questions:
- Q1: Most of the water in San Diego used for drinking, cooking, and cleaning comes from where?
- Q2: When water goes down the storm drains in San Diego, what happens to that water?
- Q4: When water inside homes, schools, and businesses goes down the drain and enters the sewer system, what happens to that water?
6th Grade Student Surveys
6th grade students showed an increase in learning, with the best improvements in their responses to these questions:
- Q2: What features determine the boundary of a watershed?
- Q4: When rainwater and urban runoff flow into storm drains in San Diego, what happens to that water?
- Q5: When water from inside our homes flow into the sewer system in San Diego, what happens to that water?
There was an average increase learning of 20-56 percent for all groups of 2nd, 3rd/4th, 5th, and 6th graders. Students showed an increase in knowledge about the difference between storm drains and sewers, where San Diego water comes from and how runoff pollution affects the ocean. This could help change behaviors in our students as well as their families and communities as they become advocates of our water resources.
San Diego Coastkeeper Education Programs
If you are not part of San Diego Unified School District, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. Thanks to the support of the Port of San Diego, we’ve developed and piloted a new curriculum called Water Education for All. This is available online and has already reached nearly 3,224 children and adults in Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, Coronado, San Diego and National City.
San Diego County has at least 360 known pollutant impairments in 166 bodies of water. How do we know? One of the methods that San Diego Coastkeeper uses to identify polluted water is to take a survey of the insects that live there.
Some insects are more sensitive to pollution than others. By collecting information about the types and numbers of insects living in a waterway, we are able to determine whether the water is healthy enough to support the species that call it home.
We conduct these studies, called bioassessments, with teams of volunteers along rivers and streams in San Diego County. In addition to collecting and identifying aquatic insects, the volunteers work together to measure physical characteristics of the streams such as sedimentation and the state of the stream bed. We usually conduct these assessments once a year, during the springtime when our rivers are flowing most consistently.
San Diego Coastkeeper’s bioassessments go hand in hand with Water Quality Monitoring, our program to analyze water samples for basic chemistry, nutrients, bacteria and toxicity. Because they go beyond measuring chemical components, bioassessments help us to make connections between the quality of our water and the health of our animals that call it home. This gives us a deeper, more holistic understanding of water quality in San Diego County – and that’s the first step to making our water healthy for everyone to enjoy.
We’re so used to planting green lawns in our yards that it may seem like “going brown” is the only way to turn off the garden hose and save water. But you don’t need to put up with a prickly dead lawn in order to be California-friendly. San Diego has tons of green, flowering, vibrant plants that have evolved to survive and thrive in our region. And they don’t need a ton of water or maintenance to stay healthy.
San Diego Coastkeeper fully supports lawns in areas where they are actually being used, like sporting fields or public parks. But we can’t support using water-intensive grass as a default landscape in non-functional areas. Turfgrass lawns generally take between 52-78 inches of water a year to stay alive, but San Diego only gets 5-10 inches of rain annually. When we make up the difference by running the sprinklers, we are wasting our precious water resources. It’s time to rethink what our default landscape looks like.
San Diego Coastkeeper has long been working to promote water conservation by supporting mandatory restrictions, advocating for water conservation in the media, and hosting workshops and events designed to connect San Diego residents with the tools and resources needed to make more effective, efficient use of our limited resources. We also worked with California Coastkeeper Alliance to design and implement “Back to our Roots,” a campaign promoting water savings by helping to instill pride in our beautiful native California landscape.
Water conservation is the smartest, most accessible way to ensure that we have enough water for the future and that we use it efficiently, but our region must work to improve conservation efforts. In our region, over half of residential water use is irrigation of outdoor, ornamental landscaping. You can help us return San Diego to its natural beauty and save water in the process. Not sure where to start? You can read the top ten ways to landscape responsibly, or you can support San Diego Coastkeeper today with a generous donation.
San Diego Coastkeeper would like to commend the San Diego City Council for its vote on the City of San Diego Single-Use Carryout Bag Reduction Ordinance, a city-wide ban on disposable, single-use plastic bags. We have supported and fought for this measure for the past 7 years, and want to acknowledge and celebrate the hard work of local organizations such as Surfrider San Diego for their unwavering commitment to seeing this issue addressed. Coastkeeper laid the groundwork for this action by lobbying the city to put funds and time towards preparing an Environmental Impact Report, which was required before the ordinance could be considered by the City Council.
The citizen data from our beach cleanups has been used to help communicate about the issue to elected officials and their staff. Throughout our twenty-one years of beach cleanups, debris studies, boat trips, and visits to remote riverine locations with our Water Quality Monitoring program, Coastkeeper staff, members, and volunteers have seen first hand the environmental blight that improperly disposed-of plastic bags have caused. Lightweight and effortlessly mobile, they blow across our streets and sidewalks, find their way into our storm drains, and ride the waterslide of urban runoff to the sea. We find them tangled in creekside vegetation, twisted in kelp forests, and, most tragically, in the bellies and around the necks of some of our most precious wildlife.
The passing of this ordinance will take roughly 500 million bags out of circulation, per year, in the city of San Diego alone. This is a fantastic local victory, and an important first step in reducing plastic pollution statewide. We look forward to seeing a statewide referendum on the ballot this November, and hope the momentum from our victory here in San Diego will encourage voters statewide to support Senate Bill 270 with their yes vote.
When we need it most, the San Diego County Water Authority has slashed our mandatory conservation targets from 25 percent to zero. Why? The Water Authority is the public agency that sells us our water; its member agencies bring in more money when we waste water and less money when we conserve water.
We called them out in the Voice of San Diego, detailing why mandatory conservation measures are imperative for our future, and why the Water Authority is working against the region’s best interest. You can read the full piece here, “San Diego Water Authority Is Pretending The Drought Is Over; It’s Not.”
The San Diego County Water Authority published a response.
First, the Water Authority claims that, thanks to its work pushing voluntary conservation, not mandatory, San Diego County has lowered our water use significantly, “nearly 40 percent between 1990 and 2015.” While these are great strides we’ve made as a region, it’s more useful to look at our water savings in times of greatest need.
Does Voluntary Conservation Work? Not nearly enough.
What about the time when it really matters? Did voluntary conservation measures in our last drought lower water use?
As the Equinox Center points out in its February 2015 H20verview, “between fiscal years 2010 and 2014 (the study period), San Diego County Water Authority’s (SDCWA) member agencies experienced a four percent (4%) increase in annual average residential water consumption on a per resident basis. … A SDCWA-wide decrease in overall water consumption per resident only surfaced one year during the study period: FY 2011. This was also the same year within the study period with the highest annual precipitation, as measured at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field.”
Water agencies love to highlight that water use since 1990 has gone down, but water use increased during the drought. It wasn’t until the Governor forced mandatory restrictions did we see significant water savings.
Now the Water Authority, with its move back to a zero percent conservation target, has put us back in the voluntary conservation measures that lasted from June 2014 to June 2015. These voluntary restrictions did not achieve significant savings. It’s the reason why the state of California forced us into mandatory conservation. See the graph below for the difference between voluntary and mandatory Gallons Per Capita per day for the water authority member agencies. Mandatory water conservation began in June of 2015.
Also, let’s not forget how in 2014 and early 2015, before the mandatory restrictions, we had to beg the cities to do real enforcement of existing rules. Remember the “water vigilante” stories? We made international headlines when the City’s complete lack of enforcement drove us to travel the streets recording evidence of water waste ourselves.
The Water Authority also touts the “diversification” and drought-resilience of San Diego County Water Authority’s supply portfolio as reason for letting go of mandatory conservation, specifically Poseidon’s desalination plant and the “conservation-and-transfer” agreements with Imperial County. But desalination is by far the most expensive, energy-inefficient water supply option available. Why have we spent $1 billion on a last-resort option when conservation offers so much more for so much less. The water transfers the Water Authority celebrates as “landmark” haven’t increased the diversity of our water supply, it’s the same water from our dwindling Colorado River supply, but from a different middle-man. You can’t stick two straws in the same glass and call it diverse.
This is what happens when a public agency, who survives off the sale of water, is tasked with setting water conservation mandates.
In Washington Post’s, “Why California’s local governments can’t manage their water — and why Jerry Brown’s proposal could help” Megan Mullin sums up the Water Authority’s response perfectly.
“… pursuing conservation is at odds with the traditional outlook of water resource management agencies. According to a study of agencies in California, the Pacific Northwest, and Washington, D.C., water managers measure success by their ability to deliver safe, affordable drinking water in as much quantity as people demand. Absent a mandate from above, these managers may perceive conservation efforts as a failure to perform their job.”
The ocean is the most beautiful, diverse and abundant ecosystem on the planet and covers over 71 percent of the world’s surface. It is so large that it has been divided into five oceanic divisions, all of which are connected.
San Diego is located just off the coast of the Pacific Ocean, which is the largest ocean on earth. It is roughly the same size as all the land on earth, put together.
However, there are many factors, which are putting our oceans at the brink of disaster and the biggest issue of all is, pollution. Pollution is the biggest killer of marine animals and plants, and it is not only caused by natural occurrences, it is also caused by man. Did you know that over eight billion tons of plastic is being dumped into the ocean, every year? Plastic has one of the most devastating effects on this ecosystem and is also affecting life on land.
Just off the coast of California, sits one of the largest ‘garbage islands’ on the planet. Known as the ‘North Pacific Gyre’ or the ‘Pacific Trash Vortex’, it is a made up of plastic, chemical sludge and other debris. This dangerous man-made island has been created by pollution that gets caught up in the strong currents, forming a floating island of trash. This trash can be mistaken as food by marine animals, which can then lead to a chain reaction, resulting in these fish or smaller animals being consumed by larger fish, inevitably ending up on our plates.
Pollution is damaging to the ocean and its inhabitants, it is also extremely dangerous for humans and if you would like to learn more about ocean pollution and how it can affect humans, then take a look at the fascinating infographic below, which will show you that one simple mistake such as not recycling your plastic properly, can lead to unimaginable damage to life on earth. The infographic has been produced by a team from divein.com.
How ocean pollution affects humans – Graphic by the team at DIVE.in
By Andrew Dilevics
Our executive director, Tracie Barham, wrote this op-ed for Voice of San Diego. Tracie calls out the Water Authority for cutting mandatory conservation measures when we need them most.
Without mandatory conservation, San Diego is positioning itself to fall back into the same short-sighted planning that built the state’s drought inadequacies in the first place.
For decades, the San Diego region inched closer and closer to a drought crisis, pumping more water for more lawns from the ever-dwindling supplies in the Colorado River Basin and the Bay Delta. We were addicted, concerned with getting more water today, not the drought tomorrow.
Then we hit rock bottom. In 2015, after we failed to respond to voluntary conservation calls to action, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Finally, the state had a moment of truth: It was time to wean off the formerly sacrosanct approach of piping in more water and adopt the common-sense approach of using less. The state and region brought out an arsenal of incentives to encourage conservation, and in under a year we realized life was just as good when we used an average of 50 fewer gallons per person, per day. We lowered energy use, transformed our neighborhoods to reflect the region’s natural beauty and upgraded our technology. Since June 2015, San Diego had lowered its water use by a whopping 21 percent.
Meanwhile, the San Diego County Water Authority was fighting hard to get us hooked again. Why? It is the public agency that sells us our water; its member agencies bring in more money when we waste water and less money when we conserve water. It led the charge of water dealers across the state to successfully lobby the California State Water Board to weaken conservation regulations. Now, water agencies can set their own conservation targets and, unsurprisingly, the Water Authority is seeking to set ours quite low. At zero. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. From a 25 percent conservation goal to no need to conserve water anymore.
The message: “The drought is over. Use as much as you want.” But the drought, and the consequences of our dependence on imported water, are as severe as ever. Eighty-four percent of the state remains in drought condition. The Sierra snowpack, the state’s largest water storage, is currently at 8 percent. Lake Mead is about 50 feet away from provoking a federal level 1 water shortage declaration, which could cut off water to Arizona and Nevada.
The Salton Sea, the biggest lake in California, is on track to go completely dry because of water transfers that San Diego takes from the farmers. When it does, lakebed toxins like arsenic and selenium could be blown into the air, creating a poisonous, apocalyptic dust storm. Would this be our state’s newest environmental injustice, poisoning Imperial Valley farmworkers and increasing childhood asthma as the toxic plume creeps as far as Los Angeles, just so we can keep lawns green?
Despite the successes of conservation, the Water Authority would rather go back to business as usual, leave the hose running and cash in. This is what happens when regulatory powers roll over from lobbying pressure and legal threats of water agencies. The focus of water supply shifts from the ever-receding water line to the financial bottom line.
Supposedly, the Water Authority is a big proponent of encouraging conservation. But lots of organizations encouraged conservation over the last 50 years. The change that finally pulled us out of our water binge wasn’t an encouraging pat on the head and a reminder to do the right thing. It was cash. Fines for wasting and rewards for conserving. We were poised to show the world what is possible when you embrace a smarter future instead of burying your head in a lush, green lawn.
Now without mandatory conservation, San Diego positioned itself to fall back into the same short-sighted planning that built the state’s drought inadequacies in the first place.
But there is another way. We must completely adapt to the new landscape of water scarcity and continuing drought. We’ll need more than empty words; we’ll need more conservation incentives like turf rebates for water-wise landscaping and more conservation education for the public. We’ll need major investments for more wastewater recycling and stormwater capture and to continue water conservation programs that were already working.
We can stay on track toward a better future, despite the fact that the Water Authority is calling for zero percent conservation measures. But to continue on a path toward finally breaking our crippling, lifelong addiction to wasteful use of imported water, the Water Authority must stop saying, “I encourage you to conserve,” while it hands us a brand new, shiny garden hose.
Every year, Heal the Bay puts out a beach report card, providing essential water quality information to the millions of people who swim, surf or dive in the coastal waters of the West Coast. The report card assigns A-to-F letter grades to 456 California beaches for three reporting periods in 2015-2016, based on levels of weekly bacterial pollution.
This year, San Diego led Heal the Bay’s honor roll with an A+ grade and many are attributing the drought for these “stellar” results. But while the test results for the coastal waters are looking better than usual, not all waters are making the grade.
San Diego Coastkeeper also tracks water quality in San Diego, but instead of the coastal waters — where all the water eventually flows to — we track the quality of our inland water throughout nine of our eleven watersheds.
Inland Water Quality Vs. Coastal Water Quality
It’s all the same right? Actually, the water quality of our inland waters is worsening, partially due to very low water levels.
Our 2015 data reveal that more than three quarters of our water samples contained unsafe levels of fecal indicator bacteria. This means that our rivers and streams are carrying pollutants to the ocean that cause health problems like staph infections, ear aches, stomach issues, rashes, eye infections and cysts — just to name a few.
The fact that there has not been any rain to move the poor quality water may be the cause behind San Diego’s A+ grade. But, if the much-needed rain came and washed all the pollutants and bacteria into the ocean, it would stand to reason that San Diego would not be on the honor role.
Truly Improving Water Quality
The only real way to improve our water quality is to stop pollution and runoff at the source. Coastkeeper also works to stop industrial pollution, urban runoff, sewage spills and more.
We have successfully reduced beach advisories by 77 percent since 2000 and continue to work on making our inland and coastal waters swimmable and fishable. While the coastal waters are better today, our inland waters are a sure sign that overall there is more work to do.
Each month, the trained volunteer scientists on our Water Quality Monitoring team collect water samples from nine of San Diego County’s 11 coastal watersheds. We measure and test the samples in our lab and analyze the data to build an ongoing picture of our county’s water quality, uncover sources of pollution and inform better decision making to protect and restore San Diego County’s fishable, swimmable, drinkable water.
Here are the results of the data collected throughout 2015 in our 2015 Water Quality Report.
Our Fourth Consecutive Year of Drought Continues To Worsen Water Quality
In 2015, all nine of the watersheds tested as Fair, Marginal or Poor on San Diego Coastkeeper’s Water Quality Index scoring system, all earning the same abnormally low scores as 2014.
Poor water quality puts significant stress on the vital rivers and streams that we rely upon for everything from flood control and natural filtration of toxins to wildlife preservation. Since our watersheds drain to the Pacific Ocean, these inland water quality issues also make our precious, economy-powering coastline less safe to swim and fish.
Very low water levels as a result of our fourth consecutive year of drought are partially to blame for the continued poor water quality scores. In 2015, we had more sites with water levels so low they were too dry to collect samples than any other year in our recent history.
Our 2015 data reveal low dissolved oxygen concentrations in 38 percent of samples and unhealthy levels of fecal indicator bacteria in 59 percent of samples, both common results of drought conditions. Urban runoff, sewage and industrial pollution are also likely significant contributors to the poor water quality.
Fecal Indicator Bacteria: Our Biggest Concern
Our water scientists use E. Coli and Enterococcus bacteria as indicators of water contamination by fecal material (animal poop or human sewage). These indicator bacteria are often present in some amount in our inland water, but high levels of them often indicate the presence of dangerous viruses and pathogens that can make you sick.
Over three quarters of our water samples in 2015 contained unsafe levels of fecal indicator bacteria. This means that our rivers and streams are carrying pollutants to the ocean that cause health problems like staph infections, ear aches, stomach issues, rashes, eye infections, and cysts — just to name a few.
When we collected samples 48 hours after a rainstorm in May 2015, every watershed but one exceeded unhealthy levels of Enterococcus. This is why the County’s Department of Environmental Health closes the beaches countywide after it rains — water quality is so poor that it becomes unsafe to swim.
This data also raises a question that we need more research to answer: “Is the drought reducing water levels so much that shallow, slow-moving and warm streams allow Enterococcus and E. coli to stick around much longer?” As in 2014, many of our testing sites in 2015 were so dry that we could not gather samples. We’re curious to explore this question with further research.
Low Dissolved Oxygen Levels Make It Hard For Aquatic Wildlife To Breathe
Our 2015 data revealed low dissolved oxygen concentrations in 38 percent of samples. This means our underwater wildlife is in significant distress. We can partially blame drought conditions for this problem, but urban runoff pollution is also a likely contributor.
When rain washes nutrient pollutants, like agricultural and lawn fertilizers, down storm drains and into our watersheds, it supercharges plant growth in our rivers and streams just like it does to grass in our yards. But this growth triggers a nasty chain reaction called eutrophication. Nutrient pollution can fuel massive, unnatural blooms of algae on the water’s surface that grow so big they block the sun from reaching plants below the water. When these plants die from lack of sunlight all at once, they begin to rot all at once too, producing an unnatural amount of bacteria that use up the dissolved oxygen that other wildlife depend on to breath. This puts stress on or kills our underwater wildlife.
Our 194 volunteer Water Quality Monitors gave a collective 1,808 hours to collect this important data. In 2015, we trained 74 new Water Quality Monitors and plan to triple our volunteer force by 2018.
Our Water Quality Monitoring program is the largest of its kind in the state and is one of San Diego Coastkeeper’s most powerful tools in protecting and restoring our water. The work of our passionate volunteers generates the vital, scientifically sound data our government agencies can’t collect, allowing us to keep a vigilant watch over San Diego County’s water quality.
In 2011, our Water Quality Monitoring team discovered a 1.9-million sewage spill upstream of the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon. The program provided authorities with the only available baseline water quality data and tracked the lagoon’s recovery. Water Quality Monitor testimony then contributed to a $12 million investment in basic sewage infrastructure, ending San Diego’s “sewage-spill-a-day” reputation.
Click below to check your watershed’s report card.
Read the specific water quality scores for each of the nine tested watersheds below.
Water Quality Index Score: 66, Fair
To no surprise, our 2015 data showed that:
- Nitrate continues to be consistently high in upper Escondido Creek. Every single sample collected from our three upper Escondido Creek sites was above the basin plan standard.
- Fecal indicator bacteria counts were also high.
In fact, the ten samples with the highest nitrate concentrations collected anywhere in San Diego County in 2015 came from Escondido Creek. Because of this, our volunteers report seeing a lot of algae growth in the water.
We’re not surprised because nitrate always measures high in Escondido Creek, but we’re interested in learning why this consistently happens. Recently, we inquired with the City of Escondido, and representatives say it comes from groundwater and the legacy pollution from the agriculture industry. Thankfully, our longtime volunteer and board member, Taya Lazootin, is running a research project to examine nitrate in Escondido Creek to figure out what’s happening. We’ve also implemented stormwater monitoring in the upper Escondido Creek sites to investigate the pollution issues here.
Fun fact: Our volunteers in Carlsbad are some of our longest serving volunteers. Many of them have been water quality monitors for over 5 years.