The Clean Water Act is the primary tool we use to protect and restore fishable, swimmable, and drinkable waters. At its heart, the Clean Water Act focuses on the quality of our waters, and it allows states to issue permits allowing people to add pollution into our waters, but only in certain circumstances. The Clean Water Act’s bottom line is this—we can’t issue a permit if it would allow pollution that would make that water so dirty that it interferes with the water's “beneficial uses” like swimming, fishing, or habitat for fish and other aquatic life. Even if the individual pollution permit would not alone cause the water quality problem, if it contributes to a water quality problem, that’s not allowed.
In order to make sure we are issuing water pollution permits that ultimately protect our waters, we have to look at the health of the waters. And water pollution permits contain a provision that basically says, “when you add pollution to the waters, you cannot cause or contribute to a water quality problem in the water body you are adding pollution to.” Sounds reasonable, right?
Apparently for San Diego County and our local municipalities, prohibiting them from contributing to existing pollution problems or creating new ones is asking too much. The county and our local cities have asked our Regional Water Quality Control board for a "safe harbor" excusing them from being accountable for local water quality, even though our storm sewer systems are the primary cause of most of our local pollution problems.
Why would they ask for this? According to San Diego County Counsel James O'Day, the county needs protection from environmental groups who would "hold the county hostage" by bringing lawsuits against them. Even the City of San Diego's estmeed Mayor Filner asked the Regional Board to provide "protection" for the City against environmental protection law suits. Ironic, since last weekend San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez thanked the environmental groups that sued the City of San Diego on sewage issues because it helped move the city forward toward creating a local, secure, reliable, safe water supply.
In response to pleas by lawyers and politicians, the Regional Board added a "safe harbor" or "alternative compliance option" to the stormwater permit. This "alternative compliance" provision protects cities or the county from being held accountable for pollution that causes or contributes to water quality problems, as long as they have done some modeling that shows that they might not cause or contribute to water quality problems if they do certain things, and then they plan to do those things. They get this "protection" from the moment their plan is approved, and it continues indefinitely--even if the pollution actually causes or contributes to a water quality problem--as long as they keep trying to do better.
This flies in the face of the very heart of the Clean Water Act--focusing on the health of our waters and not allowing pollution that would cause or contribute to water quality problems. At the Regional Board hearing on April 10 and 11, I compared this new safe harbor provision to mud on a cake. The heart of our stormwater permit--the cake--is still good, and we've all worked very hard to make it together. But this safe harbor is mud that basically ruins the permit for us. Take this safe harbor away, and we like the new stormwater permit.
On May 8, the Regional Board will decide whether or not to leave the safe harbor provision in the permit. Check back soon to see if they left mud on the cake!
A few weeks ago I was invited to attend a workshop hosted by the EPA called Technology to Empower Citizen Scientists. About 60 people from NGOs and state and federal agencies got together to discuss how we can work better together and how new technologies can help, especially in the area of bioassessment.
First, let me describe what bioassessment is. Our current water quality monitoring program looks at several very specific chemical concentrations in the stream. Among other things, we look at dissolved oxygen, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, and dissolved metals. Our rivers and streams are not to exceed very specific limits of these chemicals, and we directed our program's efforts to identifying if San Diego County’s rivers and streams are exceeding pollutant regulatory thresholds. Measuring these chemicals can give us a rough picture of stream health, but it isn't complete without bioassessment.
Bioassessment measures the health of the stream by measuring algae and aquatic insect communities. This gives us a more holistic view of the health of our waters. First, if the river is full of pollutant tolerant insects, but no pollutant sensitive species, pollution is most likely affecting stream health. Second, if algae are growing out of control, nutrients are affecting stream health. Chemical monitoring measures pollutants, then bioassessment measures the effects that those pollutants have on the aquatic ecosystem. We need more of these bioassessments in order to get a better picture of the health of our waterways. San Diego Coastkeeper will be starting our own volunteer-powered program next Spring '14.
What struck me at this meeting, which was attended by folks from all over the country, was how comparatively open California is in utilizing volunteer-generated data. We in California have a statewide database that anyone can upload into. We can also include our quality assurance data to show that the data generated is of good, useful quality. The Regional Water Quality Control Board as well as various municipalities around the county actively solicits us to send data to them so they can include it in their analysis and reports. The new draft of San Diego's stormwater permit has a section encouraging stormwater departments to partner with programs like ours to conduct special studies on water pollution. In short, our data is recognized for what it is: high quality and useful.
Unfortunately, most other states have put up roadblocks to utilizing volunteer generated data. For example, Ohio has this ridiculous law they call the “Ohio Credible Data Law.” Instead of letting the data speak for itself, volunteer data must pass various certification tests before it is considered. This is an expensive roadblock to utilizing good data. A certificate may "certify" one's data but it does not guarantee that the data is good. This is why it is imperative to look beyond a certification and directly at the quality assurance data to make a sound judgment about how useful one's data is.
Anyway, sorry for the mini rant. Most of the nation is not yet at a point where we can talk about cool, new technologies, volunteer-generated data is still sometimes relegated to the margins of the regulatory community. We in San Diego have it a bit easier- our data is actually used. So the morals of this blog are:
- Good job, California- by being open with volunteer data, we really set the bar for the rest of the country.
- Other states need to get their act together and stop putting up ridiculous roadblocks to volunteer-generated data.
- Keep your eye out for our new bioassessment program coming next Spring '14. We’ll be stomping around creeks and collecting bugs. It should be super fun.
This is part 4 of a 5 part series of results from our water monitoring lab. This post was written by the folks over at Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Chapter. If you haven’t read our watershed report, head over here and check it out. In this fourth part, we are going to take a look at the Tijuana River Valley.
The Tijuana River Valley has a decades-long history of water quality issues. Significant improvements in the arena of wastewater treatment in recent years have improved water quality on both sides of the border. However, storm water continues to bring substantial amounts of sediment and trash and other contaminants into the Valley from sources in both the United States and Mexico. The sediment and trash pollutants cause water quality impairments, threaten life and property from flooding, degrade valuable riparian and estuarine habitats and impact recreational opportunities for residents and visitors.
In 2008, the Surfrider Foundation, San Diego chapter started the No Border sewage Campaign. Through No Border Sewage, we have raised awareness, outreach and education of this incredibly overwhelming problem. Additionally, a network has formed of like-minded organizations. Through this network, consensus and collaboration has been built to address the conservation and restoration of the entire Tijuana River Watershed.
The Tijuna Watershed is 1,739 square-miles, with one quarter in the US and three quarters in Mexico. The city of Tijuana is on average about 300 feet higher than Imperial Beach. During the wet winter season, rain picks up pollutants as it washes across dirt roads, streets and urban canyons in the outskirts of Tijuana. In these canyons, tens of thousands live in ramshackle villages called Colonia’s. Population in Tijuana grows every day. In 1980, there were 500,000 people, and in 2013, it is projected there will be more than 2,500,000, much of whom are not hooked up to sewer lines. Population explosion is fueled by jobs at the maquiladora plants, which thrived after the US ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement. This explosive growth causes signifigant pollution. For example, rain from a December 17, 2008 storm caused the river to spew an estimated 3 billion gallons of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean in one 24-hour period.
Surfrider has been involved with the border sewage issue for over a decade, fighting to avoid the negative environmental impacts and public health risks of discharging any raw sewage and debris directly into the ocean. One of the main goals of Surfrider’s No Border Sewage Campaign is to eliminate border sewage, pollution, solid waste, chemicals and sediment that flows across the Tijuana River during rain events. These pollutants are emptied into the ocean during dry events and close the beaches in Imperial Beach for half the year.
Imperial Beach has a rich and thriving surf culture and has contributed greatly to the history and roots of surfing in San Diego. The Tijuana Sloughs (pronounced slew) is a world class big wave break that was a gold standard for heavy-water surfing in Southern California beginning in the late 1930s. The pioneer wave riders of the Sloughs include local IB Lifeguard legend, Alan “Dempsey” Holder, Peter Cole, Kimble Daun and Ron “Canoe” Drummond. Today the massive and imposing waves still break on a serious Northwest swell but go largely un-ridden because the Sloughs act as the unloading dock for the Tijuana River, receiving some of the most repulsive water this earth has wrought. The solution can be achieved if the U.S. works with Mexico rather than pointing blame at Mexico.
As part of our commitment to improve coastal water quality in the border region, Surfrider is committed to working with other environmental organizations to operate as a strong united front whenever possible. Volunteers from Surfrider Foundation Blue Water Task Force have been heavily involved in volunteer activities in the Tijuana River Valley. Through a key partnership with San Diego Coastkeeper, No Border Sewage volunteers have tracked source point pollution during dry and wet weather events. On a monthly basis, volunteers hike out to three different locations within the Tijuana River Valley and Estuary and take water samples that are backed by state-approved quality control standards. During the winter season, we collect samples from Dairy Mart Road Bridge, which is the first natural filter for the trash, sediment and sewage that flows across the border. Volunteers literally walk through piles of plastic, Styrofoam, tires and trash sometimes as high as 10 feet to get to the shore line and take the samples. The mud is largely comprised of sediment which also poses as a danger when walking through it. It is almost as if you are sinking in quicksand. Other sampling site sites include the Hollister Street Bridge and Saturn Road, which are next to Suzy’s Farm. These locations are heavily flooded during rain events due to the hydrology of the River Valley and lifeguard rescues are a common occurrence.
During the summer season, volunteers hike out to three locations within the Tijuana Estuary that are further west than the winter season locations. The first stop is the Visitor Center Bridge. On any given day, you see a variety of birds, and if you are lucky a glimpse of an endangered clapper rail foraging in the pickle weed. Peregrine falcons, Snowy Egrets and Blue Herons also frequent overhead as you collect your water samples. From there, we hike out to the Grove Avenue Bridge and the Oneonta Slough River mouth. The river mouth is about a four mile hike and is breathtaking. The smell of saltwater, breathtaking views of the iconic Bullring and Lighthouse to the south in Mexico and the beautiful downtown San Diego skyline to the north make this trip a memorable one each and every time. The trail that leads to the Slough River mouth is named after Dr. Mike McCoy, who spearheaded the 10-year effort to save the estuary from a proposed marina created by dredging the Tijuana Estuary. He recognized the importance of preserving it and its wildlife as one of the last intact salt marsh ecosystems in Southern California.
A few years ago, the city spent millions on building the City of San Diego Coastal Low Flow Diversion Program. However, the system only works if the City properly maintains it.
During the dry season, low flow street runoff is supposed to be diverted into the sewer system, rather than the storm drains. This keeps what could be polluted water off of our beaches and out of our oceans.
When these drains are clogged, the runoff instead goes straight into the stormwater drains, rather than the sewer. And guess where it ends up.
Yep, the ocean.
A concerned La Jolla citizen emailed us to let us know about a problem with some of these drains. They were almost completely clogged with sand, mud and even some plants. He told us that he saw runoff running onto the beach nearly every morning, and sent pictures showing how bad the problem was.
What’s the point of spending millions of dollars on a system that doesn't work as planned due to lack of maintenence?
We informed the San Diego Transportation and Stormwater Department, and they quickly sent a crew out to clean up the mess. They were appreciative that the issue was brought to their attention. It’s nice to see a swift response from a government agency.
Issues like this can only be cleared up with cooperation from San Diegans and appropriate government agencies. It’s Coastkeeper’s job to make sure we connect problems with problem solvers, and in this case you can see the result. Pictures show both the before clogged drains, and the after cleared drains.
If this La Jolla resident had never informed us of this issue, runoff could’ve been flowing onto our beaches and entering our oceans for a very long time. Instead, he sent us a quick email, and, at least in this spot, the beaches will remain runoff free.
If you ever see any sort of issue you believe needs addressing, please contact Coastkeeper through our Report Pollution Hotline.
Below, you can see the clogged drains before Coastkeeper was alerted to the problem:
And here, you can see the drains are completely clear of crud after we were told about the issue:
When you report a pollution issue to Coastkeeper, you’ll know that you were the catalyst to solving the problem.
A week later, Nia received another call from the concerned citizen because the problem was ongoing. I also received an e-mail from the citizen, making the same complaint again. I decided it was time to follow-up with the city to make sure the problem was addressed.
I called the City of San Diego's Think Blue Hotline (619-235-1000) and asked the woman manning to hotline to help me get information I needed. The woman was clearly busy and was reluctant to help because of all the other complaints she was fielding that day. After some convincing, she finally gave me the information I needed.
It turns out that the city's inspector had immediately responded to the complaint but had difficulty connecting with the residents causing the problem. The day I followed up, the city inspector had been able to inform the resident that dumping paint down the storm drain is illegal and directed the residents to clean up the paint. The person who originally reported the issue to us told us that the efforts made a difference: “When I arrived home tonight the offending party was hard at work with a flashlight and a scrub brush cleaning up their mess.”
This story is a celebration of so many people doing good things--the concerned neighbor calling us and following up, Nia getting me the information and following up with me, the city inspector diligently working to connect with the offending resident, the city hotline intake person taking time out to help me get the information I needed, and ultimately even the resident finally cleaning up the mess they caused.
But it also shows where we can improve. First, the City of San Diego needs to do a better job of giving follow-up information to people who provide complaints. I realize that sometimes complaints may merely be feuding neighbors tattling on one another, but many complaints are serious, legitimate complaints. If those complaints are not actually problems for some reason, isn't it better for everyone if the city explains why it isn't really a problem? And if the complaint was a legitimate problem that was resolved, shouldn't the complaining person know that the problem was resolved and that they've made a difference? I would love if the City of San Diego made their hot line complaints and resolution status public (keeping the identity of reporting individuals anonymous). This way we can track where the problems are and notice when they are resolved. I'm guessing the City of San Diego resolves more pollution problems than we know, and I would like to give the city credit for doing so. I'd also like to help follow up where problems aren't resolved, or do targeted outreach in neighborhoods that see the same issues over and over again.
This story also shows us that Coastkeeper and the municipal stormwater teams can't be everywhere at once, spotting all the problems around the county. We need informed citizens to be our vigilant eyes and ears in the community, spotting problems and help us get them resolved. Coastkeeper is working on developing neighborhood-based education programs to ensure that people can be effective at identifying problems and getting them solved.
We need your help! It takes just a couple minutes to report a problem. You can report it to Coastkeeper online at http://www.sdcoastkeeper.org/act/report-a-pollution-incident.html or call our office at 619-758-7743 and leave a detailed message with your phone number. Or you can call City of San Diego Think Blue at 619-235-1000 or the county hotline at (888) 846-080. Together, we can achieve fishable, swimmable, drinkable San Diego waters.
The Water Quality Monitoring Lab here at San Diego Coastkeeper is proud to announce our 2009-2010 Watershed report. It’s taken us a while, but we have crunched down the data that our volunteers and partners have collected. You can read the full report here.
Here are some highlights--
Coastkeeper data consistently points to ammonia, phosphorus and Enterococcus as the most widespread pollutants in San Diego County. Below I have attached a table (that is not in the watershed report) that shows percent of samples that exceed Basin Plan standards during the 2009-2010 period covered in the report. The color coding highlights the problem areas. As you can see, every watershed in San Diego struggled with ammonia, Enterococcus and phosphorus concentrations.
The very beginning of the watershed report highlights the impacts of urbanization and the water quality degradation due to watersheds becoming impervious. Every chapter in the report tells a similar story:
- Los Penasquitos: Rapid development since the 1970s has led to high levels of total dissolved solids and fecal indicator bacteria during both the wet and dry seasons. The fragile Los Penasquitos Lagoon is filling up with sediment transported by the flows that have increased over 200% in the past 30 years. A TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) has just been written to try to limit the amount of sediments flowing into the lagoon.
- Pueblo: "The dominance of hard surfaces drives many of the urban runoff problems in the creek, which in turn contributes to the degradation of water quality in San Diego Bay." Nutrients, bacteria and trash are major problems in this watershed. These three constituents are very strongly correlated with development. This watershed is our most developed and is mixed residential, commercial and industrial development. Pretty much all of Chollas Creek is channelized or driven underground. The natural hydrology has been greatly disrupted. The water flows are quickly pushed into the creek and into the bay with almost no chance of remediation.
- San Luis Rey: Our least developed watershed, yet it still has problems. While half of the watershed is open space, agricultural (cattle grazing, nurseries, citrus and avocado groves) and residential each account for about 15 percent of the watershed. This high amount of agriculture is probably responsible for the high nutrient concentrations we see. This river is home to historic steelhead trout runs, but habitat degradation threatens the dwindling number of these salmonids.
- Tijuana: Not surprisingly the worst watershed in the county, in terms of water quality. Poor infrastructure across the border accounts for the vast majority of water quality problems in this watershed.
Other reports have established a strong relationship between percent developed and stream health.
We encourage the municipalities in San Diego to work closer with Coastkeeper, our members and our volunteers to continue to identify priority pollutants. Our input is a valuable component to protecting and restoring clean water in San Diego County.
These priority pollutants can be tied to development of the watershed and traditional storm water practices. Old school stormwater management was more concerned with flood control than water quality. The goal was to move stormwater away as quickly as possible. This is why you see many channelized rivers in San Diego. These allow us to push water quickly to the ocean. Unfortunately, this also limits the landscapes ability to rid itself of pollutants. Nutrients are not able to be taken up by plants as sediments with pollutants bound to them are not able to settle out.
Research shows that LID (low impact development) can remediate many of the problems that development has introduced. See "Widespread application of LID across basins will result in much needed pollutant concentrations." LID irestores natural hydrologic processes to our disrupted system. LID works, and it looks nice also. Not only would it help with our water quality problems, we would reconnect our neighborhoods with their waters.
Collecting all this data is not easy, and our volunteers and groups like Surfrider San Diego and Golden State Flycasters have dedicated many many hours to it. We would like to thank the dedication and the tireless work our volunteers and project partners have put in over the years.
Urban runoff is San Diego's #1 pollution problem. Because San Diego gets rain so infrequently, pollutants build up on the land over time. When it rains, those pollutants are carried into our storm drains and out to our creeks, rivers, bays and ocean. This pollution harms water quality, making it unsafe to swim and impacting the health of the wildlife that live in our waters.
Urban runoff is a frustrating pollution problem to tackle because it comes from so many different sources. But just because it's a difficult problem to solve doesn't mean we shouldn't try.
In fact, that's exactly what San Diego Coastkeeper and dozens of other stakeholders from San Diego, Orange and Riverside Counties have been doing for the past month. Led by the staff at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, stakeholders from all three counties have gathered at three all-day meetings to address urban runoff.
The Regional Board is in the process of re-issuing the municipal stormwater permit required under the Clean Water Act that is the primary mechanism for cities to address stormwater issues. As part of the permitting process, the Regional Board convened a series of roundtable discussions to discuss how we can best use limited resources to see the biggest water quality improvements. A limited number of seats were allocated to representatives from cities in each county, environmental stakeholders, business stakeholders, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The meetings are open to the public, and each of the meetings has been attended by approximately 50 people. (Click here for the meeting schedule for the remaining meetings.)
These professionally moderated meetings provide an opportunity for the stakeholders to give feedback to the Regional Board staff about how the permit can allow, and in some cases compel, cities to improve their programs to tackle urban runoff issues. They also give stakeholders an opportunity to dialogue with eachother to search for common ground and common solutions.
The stakeholder meetings have fostered creative alternative approaches and encouraged stakeholder collaboration outside the formal meetings. San Diego Coastkeeper has met with representatives from the San Diego regional monitoring workgroup to discuss collaboration and ways to ensure that the data collected by our volunteer water quality monitoring program is used and useful.
We have also begun discussions with the City of Del Mar about how we can adapt our volunteer Pollution Patrol program to collect information that will help curb urban runoff in Del Mar.
As we continue through the process of developing the new stormwater permit, one thing becomes clear: everyone has a role to play in helping reducing pollution and keeping our waters clean. Over the next few months, as we refine and develop our Pollution Patrollers program, we will be calling for volunteers to step up and be the "eyes and the ears" out around the county looking for pollution problems. For those who can't commit to formal patrols, we ask that everyone get informed about what urban runoff looks like and learn how to report problems when you see them in your everyday life. Our only hope of tackling this pollution problem is if all of us work together.
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.
This tip is part of San Diego Coastkeeper's Earth Day blog series running through April 22, 2012.
Do your mental and physical health a favor and make less pollution. Walk there.
When you need a sandwich for lunch, to pick up some milk or to get cash from the ATM, walk there. You might find that you walked an extra five miles in a week and got a little stronger. You might run into a neighbor you haven't seen in a while and have a chat. You might gain 30 minutes of peaceful time to yourself. And you'll definitely leave a little less copper on the road from your car brakes, burn a little less fossil fuel and contribute a little less CO2.
(Yes, my biking friends, go ahead and ride there.)
Want to get interactive? These Android apps could be fun.
However you do it, make your life easier. Walk there.
Low impact development, or "re-development" as New School of Architecture and Design speaker Leslie Ryan emphasized on Tuesday night, is the key to reducing the amount of pollution that runs into our beautiful San Diego Bay and surrounding ocean areas. To ensure beautiful beaches and clean water, San Diego residents need to start redeveloping our streets and sidewalks to reduce urban runoff.
That's what we learned at Signs of the Tide at the Electric Ladyland Art and Music Center in Ocean Beach. The venue created an exciting atmosphere for our moderator, Robert Santos, to set the tone of importance for low impact development in Ocean Beach.
We also heard from Edward Belden, the Principal of SCALEgreen LLC, who spoke about the issues surrounding urban runoff pollutants and where they originate. Runoff pollution consists of wet weather flows, when San Diego receives heavy rain, and dry (summer) weather flows from over irrigation of manicured lawns and carwashing in the driveway. He successfully proposed and implemented a project in Los Angeles that altered a neighborhood with a lot of runoff, to a neighborhood that is more conscious of the water that ultimately reaches the ocean. The project installed bioswales to catch water upstream, filter it into the ground and into the plants, and release less water downstream. And the project redesigned yards to have xeriscape lawns instead of water-intensive grass.
Mr. Stormwater, A.K.A Bill Harris from Think Blue San Diego, gave an expert opinion on how to reuse your stormwater runoff, by implementing the use of rain barrels; individual homes can place them under their gutter systems to catch water. In the near future, you may also be able to use a rain barrel and receive a rebate! How about that? Collect water, and get cash for it!
Leslie Ryan, landscape architecture department chair at the New School of Architecture and Design, along with her students, developed a project plan to reduce stormwater flow along Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach. The roads would be redesigned to replace black-top and concrete with permeable pavement where water can soak in, instead of flowing downhill, new parking surfaces with permeable pavement, and planter systems to absorb water in the medians and on the corners of the street. Each intervention could be as small as incorporating a planter in front of a business.
So, what can WE do to reduce the amount of urban runoff NOW? Well, according to our speakers, the
most important takeaways from our LID discussion are these:
- Change small personal behaviors (pick up after your dog, don’t overwater your lawn, etc.)
- Make all possible surfaces permeable
- Change your Landscaping (Implement a xeriscape lawn, or climate friendly plants)
- Buy a rain barrel and collect your own stormwater runoff