How Qualcomm Does It

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Not everyone gets to spend Friday afternoon on the beach and then enjoy a delicious cookout with a bunch of cool people and call it “work.” I love my job! At the end of June, I headed down to Mission Bay for a sponsored beach cleanup with about 60 employees from Qualcomm.

These folks know how to do team activities right!

They showed up together, had team colors and a scavenger hunt, and then all hung out for lunch and some pickup football afterwards. Everyone was really engaged, asking questions about marine debris and plastic in the ocean. Luckily, I had San Diego Coastkeeper’s outreach intern with me to answer the really detailed questions. The most common comment was, “When we got here I thought the place looked so clean! But then when we started picking trash up, I couldn’t believe how dirty it was!”

All told, we collected 156 pounds of trash in about two hours, got a good tan and met some new people. Pretty phenomenal.

Published in Marine Debris

Clearing the air about desalination

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Environmental groups challenging the Carlsbad Desalination Plant scrutinize the project because as proposed it’s the region’s most expensive and energy intensive water supply option. As one of the environmental groups leading the charge in challenging the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, we’re clearing the air about a few misconceptions.

Truth #1 Our cases have merit.

Procedural deficiencies at every reviewing agency have marred the approval process for the plant. While some suggest we are engaging in superfluous lawsuits, this desalination plant will be the largest in the western hemisphere and may set precedent for all other projects. We must ensure it is as protective of our environment as possible. Yet, our regulatory agencies have taken an “approve first, ask questions later” approach that could lead to disastrous consequences.

Our efforts, and those of our partner organizations, have already improved the project dramatically by ensuring carbon offsets and wetlands mitigation to offset some impacts from the proposed project.

Truth # 2 We don’t oppose desalination.

We support a comprehensive water policy – prioritizing how we get and use our water based on cost, environmental and energy impacts, and reliability. First, we need to exhaust conservation and water efficiency efforts. After the City of San Diego instituted mandatory water use restrictions last year, outside water use dropped 13 percent.  In a county where nearly 50 percent of our water goes to residential use (60% of that for landscape irrigation), conservation can provide huge savings.

Second, we need to aggressively pursue water reuse. The City of San Diego is currently exploring Indirect Potable Reuse, which recycles wastewater to drinking water standards above that of our current supplies. Rainwater harvesting, grey water and non-potable water reclamation provide other opportunities to access hundreds of millions of gallons of recycled water daily.

Both conservation and reuse are cheaper, more energy efficient than desalination and can dramatically reduce ocean pollution without killing fish in the process.

Truth # 3 Desalination is the most expensive way to enhance local water supplies.

Conservation saves consumers money by reducing water and energy bills. Augmenting local reservoirs with recycled water uses the same treatment technologies as desalination but at 40 percent of the cost. And while Poseidon continues to claim on its website that its project will be developed at no expense to taxpayers, the truth is the project will receive $350 million over the next 25 years in public Metropolitan Water District subsidies and has a pending $530 million request in tax-free Private Activity Bonds to finance the project.

Truth # 4 Desalination is also the most energy intensive water option for San Diego.

Estimates show that 19 percent of California’s energy usage is for the treatment, movement and delivery of water. Between 3 and 5 percent of the state’s energy is used simply to move water from northern to Southern California, but desalination requires more. It also uses one third more energy than recycling wastewater.

Truth #5 If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

We’ve been asked to stand aside and support public opinion. However few important battles (civil rights, environmental protection, etc.) have been won without taking unpopular positions. The project’s popularity is based on the allure of a seemingly inexhaustible ocean resource and the small fortune Poseidon has paid in public relations and lobbying efforts to promise everything to everybody: for San Diegans, an endless supply of cheap water; for taxpayer/consumer groups, a guarantee of no subsidies; for organized labor, good union jobs; and for environmental groups, full environmental mitigation (the company claims the plant will be a net benefit for wetlands and ocean habitat). Poseidon is San Diego’s real-life Santa Claus!

So, if you are asking yourself, “how does this add up?” you’re ahead of the folks that have approved the project to date. A better question may be, “why did so many appointed officials approve this project (almost always overruling staff recommendations) without asking these tough questions in the face of such obvious contradictions?”

This is the question we are trying to resolve through our challenges.

We all want the same thing for our region—a dependable, affordable and sustainable water supply. Rather than make decisions in a crisis, we’d like to see our region make strategic decisions that protect our citizens and environment from unnecessary costs and harm. That’s why we need to develop a more thoughtful, comprehensive water policy for the region that prioritizes lower-cost, lower-impact alternatives like conservation and efficiency and reclamation. Desalination should be a last resort in our water portfolio.

Ocean Protection Council Sets Statewide Environmental Precedent, Part 2

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

San Diego recently hosted the California Ocean Protection Council (COPC), a committee we haven’t seen in this region since 2005. Governor Schwarzenegger created the COPC to regulate ocean health in California, and the commissioners represent the state’s leading elected and appointed officials. As the executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, the county’s largest water quality non-profit, I was pleased to see the council include panels addressing both the desalination issue as well as the growing threats from marine trash.

The COPC  included a panel discussion that will continue to elevate in importance through 2010 and beyond: marine debris and toxins in our ocean. The COPC set an objective to reduce the tonnage of debris along California’s coast by 50 percent within a 12 year period, ending in 2011. While we know this issue is staggering, scientists across the world are still gathering data to help us understand the complexity and size of the issue. We need more advanced research to comprehend how much plastic is accumulating in the open sea, at what rate and how it truly impacts the marine life.

After two years of collecting marine debris data at our cleanups, we find that plastics continue to dominate the type of debris found littering San Diego County beaches. So far this year, San Diego Coastkeeper engaged more than 12,000 volunteers to remove more than 183,000 pounds of trash at monthly cleanups and other cleanup events such as Coastal Cleanup Day, Creek to Bay and Morning after Mess. During the monthly cleanups in partnership with Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Chapter, more than 93,000 pieces of plastic and items made of plastic or Styrofoam were collected at 20 cleanups countywide.

This is only the trash we collected on the beach and doesn’t account for all the debris that floated into our oceans. Once there, bottles sink and the sun breaks plastics down into micro-sized pieces ingested by marine life and birds. This creates a problem so unseen scientists and researchers strive to measure its true impact.

COPC is just beginning to collect data from its 12-year mission to reduce debris along the state’s coastline, and I look forward to sharing with you their findings as they begin calculating them. This problem will not disappear easily; we’ll need to band together as a community to find solutions.

Published in Marine Debris

Ocean Protection Council Sets Statewide Environmental Precedence, Part 1

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

San Diego recently hosted the California Ocean Protection Council (COPC), a committee we haven’t seen in this region since 2005. Governor Schwarzenegger created the COPC to regulate ocean health in California, and the commissioners represent the state’s leading elected and appointed officials. As the executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, the county’s largest water quality non-profit, I was pleased to see the council include panels addressing both the desalination issue as well as the growing threats from marine trash.

The desalination discussion, which included a distinguished panel of experts, focused on understanding the role of desalination in California’s future water supply. It is no surprise that Coastkeeper takes issue with the Poseidon plant planned for Carlsbad, but I agree with several of the COPC experts who advocated for the desalination dialogue to take place as part of a holistic and cohesive discussion that will define our water supply goals, vision and strategy for a diversified portfolio. The issue is not a yes or no vote for desalination, rather a conversation regarding conservation and water reuse as our first steps and environmentally friendly desalination in appropriate locations as a last option.

It is important for San Diegans to explore these other options first because we can make major impacts by more efficiently using what we already have. For instance, after initial mandatory water use restrictions instituted in the City of San Diego in 2009, outside water use dropped by 13 percent. This helped the city save almost 11,000 acre-feet of water.  The Carlsbad desalination facility is planned to produce 56,000 acre-feet of water per year.  With minor restrictions in outdoor water use, we’ve already matched 1/5 of the plant’s output in conservation, without impacting a single fish or emitting any greenhouse gasses.

Did it impact your quality of life? My guess is that it did not.

The panel also discussed how technological advancements have helped desal improve during the last decade (though it is still among the most expensive, energy intensive and environmentally damaging alternatives). Panel experts expressed concerns that we have come to the end of an era with these improvements, which were simply “low-hanging fruit,” and we shouldn’t expect the desal process to continue improving. As one panelist said, “it just takes a certain amount of energy to push salt through membranes.” In fact, in Southern California, desalination is the only option that requires more energy usage than the current most energy intensive water supply, importing water into the area.

Recycling wastewater into drinking water–why not?

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Indirect potable reuse sounds technical, doesn’t it? Referred to as IPR, it a process that recycles wastewater into water so clean that it can augment our reservoirs and help increase our drinking water supplies.

This means that in non-technical terms, it’s recycling water we’ve already used.

At San Diego Coastkeeper, we believe in the old adage “reduce, reuse, then recycle,” and that’s how IPR fits into the equation of where we get our water. First, the less water we use in San Diego, means the less water we have to import. Given that more than half of the residential water use goes to landscapes, watering your lawn less can make a difference.

Reusing will also help decrease demand for water that currently travels more than 400 miles to get to your tap. Simple steps like installing rain barrels at your home and capturing shower water to give to your plants, reuses water in a second application and decreases the amount of water the region needs to import (currently, we import more than 80 percent of our water).

Then we should recycle water. IPR in San Diego means taking wastewater that would be discharged into the ocean through the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Facility and treating it to drinking water standards before it is used to recharge our local reservoirs. If your first reaction to this concept is “yuck,” you’re not alone. But most people aren’t aware that we safely drink “toilet to tap” presently, as 400 million gallons of treated sewage are discharged into the Colorado River before it becomes our drinking water. And numerous cities already use similar projects, including Orange County, which currently produces 70 millions gallons of IPR water daily, enough for 500,000 residents.

In late 2008, the San Diego City Council approved a water rate increase to fund a pilot project demonstration facility to test whether IPR can successfully augment our water supplies. Already paid for, this pilot project is currently underway, and if successful, will ultimately provide up to 16 million gallons of advanced treated water per day from the city’s existing reclamation facilities that currently provide water for non-drinking uses like irrigation. A second study is also underway exploring opportunities to build new plants that could reclaim 50 or 100 million gallons or more of water daily, which could meet half of the city’s water needs!

In addition to providing much needed water supplies to our region, IRP has many more benefits such as:

  • Protecting the ocean from more than 150 million gallons of treated wastewater that the Point Loma Treatment Facility currently pumps into it.
  • Saving residents money because IPR is less expensive than importing water, which utilizes up to five percent of the state’s energy just to move supplies from Northern California to Southern California, or desalination, which requires a huge amount of energy to remove the salt from the water.
  • Creating cleaner and safer water than what is currently imported into our region due to the treatment process and the stringent review and monitoring by the California Department of Health services and other regulatory agencies.

The two-year pilot project and regional assessment are expected to come to completion in 2011. In the mean time, learn more about recycling wastewater into drinking water and how you can help make it a reality for all of San Diego.

Vote with your fork

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

A lot of people these days want to feel a sense of place in the things they eat. Whether they do it for culinary or environmental reasons, there’s a growing demand in San Diego for locally sourced food. You can easily find local citrus and squash at your neighborhood farmer’s market, but things get a lot murkier when it comes to seafood.  While there some notable ‘farm-to-table’ and ‘slow food’ exceptions to the rule, chances are when you’re biting into a fish taco in Ocean Beach or sushi in a fancy restaurant, the protein on your plate was caught thousands of miles away.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that more than three-fourths of the fish Americans eat comes from other countries.  You’d think San Diego might be the exception, since we’re right on the ocean.  But many of us tuck into Alaskan king crab or Chilean sea bass without a second thought.

Part of the reason it’s tough to find and support restaurants that serve local fish is because there just aren’t as many fish as there used to be. In the 1980s, we had a tuna fishing fleet to rival any in the world. Fishermen and processors would deliver fresh-caught tuna straight to markets and restaurants to be served that day.

Then the tuna fishery started to dwindle. Nowadays, the only thing we have that even comes close is our sardines, which are sustainable and local, but are mostly used as bait for larger fish. Even the restaurants that make a concerted effort to buy local often rely heavily on fish from places like Baja, China and Greece.

A recent New York Times article highlighted a similar challenge in San Francisco.  The decline of California fisheries has made it hard even for people in the Bay Area—where they invented the term locavore—to get local seafood. In 2007, California commercial fisheries landings were down by almost half from 2000, according to the National Ocean Economics Program. And the value had dropped by more than half, from $276.5 million to $120.2 million. We’re seeing the same troubling trend here in San Diego County, where the numbers of fishing boats, trips and processors are all steadily declining, along with commercial revenues.

Thankfully, California is in the midst of implementing the Marine Life Protection Act, a landmark law designed to restore declining sea life populations through a mixture of science and community input. The result will be a network of protected “underwater parks” where fish stocks can recover and grow.  Such networks are already in place between Half Moon Bay and Point Conception, and the wheels are in motion for creating protections for our home waters here in Southern California.

California is poised to set the gold standard for ocean protection, but we’ve got to meet the promise of the law with sound implementation. In August, the Fish and Game Commission voted to create a network of underwater parks from Mendocino to Half Moon Bay, protecting 155 square miles of vital kelp beds, canyons and rocky reefs where fish and shellfish feed and breed.  These protections will help support the recovery of depleted fisheries like rock fish and abalone.

Here in Southern California, Fish and Game is considering four possible marine protected area plans, weighing the importance of our ocean’s long-term health and productivity against short-term costs.  They will move forward with a final decision in the fall of 2010, after a thorough economic and scientific review of the options on the table. I for one hope they vote for strong protections—it’s an investment that will pay big dividends.

If we don’t take steps now to help our troubled ocean resources, we’ll continue to see more and more farmed fish or fish from far off places on our plates. I hope we can look forward to a day when the local yellowtail, halibut and swordfish that used to flourish in our waters come back in great numbers. Until then, I encourage you to vote with your fork and request local, sustainably harvested seafood from our nearby restaurants.

Published in Marine Conservation

The problem of trash in our ocean starts inland

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Marine debris in the Pacific Ocean is increasing at a startling rate! Studies of have shown that millions of birds, fish, marine mammals and other wildlife are impacted every year from ingesting or getting entangled in plastics and other debris.

It is not solely the cities and counties on the coastline that contribute to the accumulation of trash in the ocean, but also inland communities.  This means actions taken by residents in neighborhoods such as Uptown, Escondido and El Cajon and throughout San Diego can impact the quality of our coastal waters. In fact, up to 80 percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources before it is blown, swept or washed out to sea.

As a North Park resident myself, I know not everyone makes the connection between our everyday choices and the health of our ocean. But the growing plague of trash in our ocean beckons us to leave a smaller footprint at our house, at work and when we’re playing.

Have you ever noticed that our neighborhoods seem clean after it rains? While the natural cycle of rainstorms brings life to our gardens, it also washes scattered debris from around the neighborhood directly into nearby creeks and streams. This is what we call urban runoff. Urban runoff from rainwater and landscape watering transports litter and toxins from our yards, driveways and streets down stormdrains and into our bays and ocean without any treatment.  Yes, cigarette butts, Styrofoam containers, plastic bottle caps and other debris from inland neighborhoods end up in San Diego Bay, Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Many residents from across the county and Coastkeeper volunteers are really making a difference. Last year in San Diego, volunteers helped remove more than 680,400 pounds of trash from our local beaches and inland waterways. That’s a lot of debris that could have found its way into the infamous Eastern Pacific Gyre, where trash from many cities is accumulating in one of the most remote places on the planet, the open ocean.

San Diego Coastkeeper’s volunteers also do water quality monitoring on surface water across the county. These local community members volunteer their time to collect monthly water samples that we assess in our lab for a variety of pollutants such as pesticides, bacteria, copper and more. Data from our regular monitoring efforts show that many creeks and streams are highly impacted by urban runoff due to urbanization. Not only is this a problem for natural habitat in our neighborhood ecosystem, but these creeks and streams empty into lagoons, bays and the ocean.

The good news is that we have many options to help improve the situation.

  • Attend a cleanup in your neighborhood or along the coast.
  • Plan your own neighborhood cleanup and get your supplies from us.
  • Advocate for improved local policy about commonly littered items such as plastic bags, bottles and Styrofoam take-out-containers. Coastkeeper works hard to communicate the environmental and health impacts of single-use plastics, and you should too. Your phone calls and letters to your elected officials help encourage the adoption of more sustainable practices.
  • Vote with your pocketbook. Patronize stores and restaurants that have eliminated wasteful single-use plastics, such as Styrofoam containers. There are plenty such places to choose from in Uptown!
  • Make lifestyle changes. If each resident in Uptown used reusable shopping bags at least a couple times each week, this would save thousands of plastic and paper bags from entering our landfill. Or bring your own reusable container to restaurants for leftovers. We don’t all have to be No Impact Man, but we can all make more sustainable choices to improve our future.
  • Use alternative ways of transportation such as biking and walking to take advantage of Uptown’s design as a pedestrian-oriented retail center and residential development. If we each park our car for just one day a week, we’ll collectively lessen the number of cars on the road and release less brake dust, improving the health of our oceans.
  • And of course, the next time you see a piece of trash on the ground, pick it up and help stop debris before it reaches the ocean.

Small changes can make a big difference, especially if we all do this together.

Published in Urban Runoff

Help Ban the Bag in San Diego

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Tired of seeing bags on your streets and beaches? Coastkeeper is working hard to rally support for Assembly Bill 1998, which would help Californians shift to reusable bags and reduce plastic bags making their way into our ocean. The bill passed the state assembly and is now in Senate committees. You can help by calling and also sending an email to your senator. If you are from a business that would be in support of getting rid of bags or have any questions about the bill, please contact Coastkeeper’s marine debris coordinator.

Published in Marine Debris