Despite the stormy Friday morning weather, my water quality partner and I were excited to get to the bottom of a still unsolved mystery—the sources of urban runoff. Because rain is actually helpful in solving this mystery (due to the fact that you can often follow runoff back to the source), we welcomed the unusually intense weather.
When we arrived, the group divided the test area into mini-watersheds and we were assigned to collect water samples along the south bound of Chollas Creek. While the weather was helpful for data, it presented its own challenges. The collection efforts were marked by several strong gusts that pushed and pulled at me, at times nearly causing me to almost lose my balance. At another point I couldn’t see where I was going because my hair was flying in every direction, enveloping my entire face.
With dogged determination, we set out to get all the water samples we needed. Powering through the chaotic weather, climbing fences and walking through a windy swirl of muddy hills, steep pathways and graffiti-ed bridge underpasses, we were going to get this done!
Beside the waterway the evidence of some of the potential perpetrators of the pollution lay taunting us. Spray paint bottles were scattered lifelessly, as were many plastic cups and paper plates. What really captured my attention was a toilet seat cover lodged mid-creek. I still wonder how that ended up there—lots of explanations exist, but, in the end, there is no valid justification. It is amazing what discoveries can be found along the creek.
More challenges to our collection efforts continued to impact our efforts—it was very challenging to keep our paperwork dry! We had other difficulties when the readings on our instrument took longer than expected due to the many particles in the water. An eyeball analysis of the samples we collected made it clear that the water was a far cry from clean and crystal clear.
While the rain and everything its presence brought into Chollas Creek damped (pun intended) our efforts, this Southern Californian was happy to see at least a little of the much-needed rain we have craved for so long.
This whole experience was a wonderful adventure. Despite my thorough soaking and muddy boots, I felt accomplished. Accomplished enough to say that I will certainly do it again!
Are you interested in learning more about what happens to those samples and how they help us learn actionable information? Check out this blog post. Want to have your own happy adventure? Check out our volunteer opportunities.
While most of you were trying to stay dry and cozy during this past storm, several intrepid volunteers offered to brave the elements and help us figure out the source of urban runoff pollutants.
Urban runoff is the biggest threat to water quality in San Diego County, and we know that the problem gets worse when it rains. Rain washes pollutants from our urban environment and into our streams. What is unknown, however, is from where exactly these pollutants come. That sounds like a perfect job for San Diego Coastkeeper and its amazing volunteer base.
We divided up the Pueblo Watershed, the watershed for Chollas Creek, into sub-drainage basins. These are the colored areas displayed on the map. By analyzing the water coming out of these mini watersheds, we can hopefully determine the worst offenders for urban runoff. Once gathered, we will model this data to determine which of these basins has the highest pollutant concentrations, allowing us to better target our outreach and education efforts on the areas that disproportionately contribute to our urban runoff problem.
Sampling these areas was no small task, as we had to sample during the rain to catch the pollutants. We are deeply grateful to our amazing volunteers who ventured into the storm to conduct this sampling. They fought rain, wind, and traffic to help us collect this dataset. Hector Valtierra even sampled twice, spending seven soggy hours collecting data. Thank you, Hector!
It will take us a few weeks to analyze the data, but it looks interesting so far. There was a ton of bacteria in the water and nutrient levels look super high also. Trash was everywhere. We even unfortunately found a floating chihuahua. We’ll keep you updated as we work the data..
We thank the County Board of Supervisors and Union Bank for funding to support this project. In addition our thanks to Supervisor Greg Cox’s office for its involvement in getting this project started.
Interested in a volunteer’s perspective? Check out what Lynna Moy has to say about the day.
I had the honor of joining our water quality lab manager and state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the California League of Conservation Voters and Groundwork San Diego-Chollas Creek for a tour of District 80 and a conversation about how we can change the fate of Chollas Creek--one of our region's most polluted waterways.
As we toured the urban reaches of this 32-mile creek, conversation ranged from monitoring ecosystem health with volunteer testing and our new bioassessment program to invasive plant removal to homelessness. We talked about trail maintenance and the value of residents getting involved with restoration and upkeep of this valuable resource in the community.
Coastkeeper and Groundwork have a project underway to restore a section of the creek and demonstrate water quality improvements. The Assemblywoman and League of Conservation Voters listened intently our optimism for success and our concerns about the difficulty small nonprofits face to effectively work under state grant contracts. We parted ways with enthusiastic pledges to follow-up regularly and plans to continue the important work in District 80.
Bringing together the power of community, activists and legislators like the group we had, Chollas Creek has a lot going for it.
Executive Director. Water Warrior. I answer to both.
The past two months, I've been on the front lines advocating for what will best protect our wetlands, watersheds, ocean and the water quality of San Diego County. There are two events in particular I want to give you the inside scoop on.
The first involved Del Mar Fairgrounds and protecting the wetlands threatened by its expansive parking lots. On October 11, County Supervisor Dave Roberts, former supervisor Pam Slater Price and the San Dieguito Joint Powers Authority joined our team to urge the California Coastal Commission to protect the wetlands that surround overflow parking areas at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. I love the races as much as anyone else, but we just can't sacrifice the surrounding environmental habitats. There has to be a meeting of the minds on long term sustainability.
The Coastal Commission sent the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which manages that property, back to negotiate about what areas would remain protected from parking, paving and other high-impact use and what time each year these productive natural spaces would be subject to that pressure. Meanwhile, our Board President Jo Brooks appeared at the most recent Coastal Commission meeting to urge the Commissioners to require a "hands-off" approach because this is an important natural space that filters pollution and protects our waters better than any man-made construction can.
The results were mixed. The Coastal Commission did not grant our "hands-off" request and permits will be issued to allow the fairgrounds to use the wetlands for parking during additional horse races and activities. However, the Agricultural Association will end all activity, restore acres of wetland and study the feasibility of alternative parking that would allow economic activity to continue on the remaining East Lot area while still protecting the habitat that provides the stunning backdrop to those events. You can read more about our previous work to protect the wetlands at the Del Mar Fairgrounds here. Moving forward, we will continue to watch the health of our San Dieguito lagoon and Torrey Pines State Beach and advocate for protection from any threat we see.
Come November, things were still moving quickly in my water warrior world. I was asked to provide the Wetlands Advisory Board with insight on the new stormwater permit and what it offers to protect wetlands in San Diego.
There is a lot that is new and innovative about this permit, and I wanted the Board to understand how it can work for wetlands. This new way of managing stormwater promotes a watershed-based approach, replacing traditional approaches that would leave cities compliant, but potentially uncoordinated.
At this moment there are so many reasons to get involved; we have the opportunity to use a combination of structural and non-structured measures that target the highest-priority pollutants with the lowest-cost solutions. It combines the efforts of cities, businesses and public information campaigns to change residents' behaviors.
Lastly, we discussed how special studies can provide us more information about wetlands and alternative compliance solutions might protect important areas, especially those under threat. All of this is happening now, and early involvement by Board members and the members of the resident, scientific, environmental and business communities is critical. It's the only way to find effective, cost-conscious decisions.
Plans are in the works to continue the conversation in early 2014. While this life of Executive Director/Water Warrior is constantly in motion, I couldn't do it without your support. Thank you, and please stay tuned.
CLEAN WATER MAKES ME THINK...
Stormwater management. Deferred maintenance. Debt service. Not what you had in mind?
Well, wake up, San Diego. How City Hall deals with these seemingly mundane concerns will make or break our City's success in the next decade. And every one of us plays a role—with our actions and our pocketbooks.
Stormwater is the otherwise innocent flow of water that comes out of gardens, off of cars and from the streets, carrying with it metal dust, bacteria, soaps and other pollutants-- directly into our water. It's the number one water pollution problem in San Diego. Nearly every waterway in the City of San Diego is listed on the federal "303(d)" list for excess amounts of some pollutant and a significant number of creeks, rivers and larger water bodies throughout the county are, as well.
A recent report from the City of San Diego Office of the Independent Budget Analyst underscores the need for careful financial planning to deal with our runoff, and its place among the many challenges (transportation, roads, safety) that we face to keep our motto as America's Finest City.
We have a new stormwater permit that carries with it heavy penalties to the City for polluting our water over the limits and this has to become a call to action. We need to invest and we need to do so now. The report points out that we have delayed critical infrastructure improvements for way too long – and regulations currently in place mean that if we continue to kick the can down the road, fees will be harsh and damaging– as much as $37,500 per day ($10,000 from the new permit and $27,500 from the federal EPA).
So what does that mean to us?
(photo credit girlchasesglobe.com)
Some would have us believe that faced with this investment, the case for pollution prevention is hopeless. Over the course of five years, we must invest $641 million dollars in stormwater management; over 18 years, it's more than $2 billion. This includes routine maintenance, a backlog of maintenance and new construction needs that built up in past years, flood management and improvements to meet compliance requirements.
Ratepayers won't stand for it, say some.
Bologna, say I.
The City is tasked with managing the day-to-day business of running a city of over a million people and thousands of businesses. But "the City" is us. Every time one of us turns on a hose, drives a vehicle, or sweeps dust into a gutter, the City prevents that from polluting the streams, lakes and ocean that lie downstream of the storm drain. And we pay them for that. Guess how much? We pay a whopping 95 cents per month per household. And that only covers about 15 percent of the demand placed on the General Fund. The Independent Budget Analyst's report looked at whether ratepayer fees could keep up with growing demands. And we can.
This is where we need to step up. In five years our household contribution might rise to $11.14/month. On the commercial/industrial side, rates rise from $0.065/hundred cubic feet today to $0.76/hundred cubic feet in 2019. These are not insignificant rate increases. I'm not suggesting that they won't be felt. Nor do I believe that an ever-rising debt burden to our City is something that we should take on casually.
But let's stop and consider what this represents.
We have an innovation economy that thrives on clean water for its processes and a beautiful city with outdoor recreation and healthy communities to attract top-notch employees. The maritime economy supports 46,000 jobs and looks to the City as a partner that must carry its weight to keep San Diego Bay healthy. Visitors from around the world choose our town for professional and social conventions, adventure and luxury vacations, picture-perfect weddings and as their go-to year-after-year escape. What about your Saturday trips to Mission Bay with the kids, morning fishing ritual and sunset walks? Those are in peril if we don't recognize the role that we play and the stand the City must take.
But, what about the roads? That's right! What about the roads? And the libraries, parks, schools, and first responders? This is not just about storm drains. This is about addressing all the needs that our City has.
We're the eighth largest City in the nation and our needs are complex and constant. A mayor, city council and staff that can address these needs in a methodical, responsible way should earn the respect and support of our community.
An important factor to note is that the analysis about stormwater costs assumes zero growth in households. While this may be appropriately conservative, it is nonetheless inconsistent with the 2050 Regional Growth forecast by SANDAG (June 2010), which predicts double-digit population growth in our region over the 18-year period that this analysis takes place, 18% even by 2020. Here's an easy-to-read account by Voice of San Diego. So both the ratepayer base—and the demand on our infrastructure—will grow. We can't kick the can any more; we must deal with this now and the assessment needs to be holistic. In fact, managing the City's water offers a perfect example of that. The question of stormwater, wastewater and drinking water should be examined together, a point of view that is gaining traction with planners and must continue to be the trend. When we look at stormwater, we should see a resource that can be captured and used to reduce other costs and demands. With innovative management like that, we'll free up resources for other City needs.
SO WHAT, THEN?
The Office of the Independent Budget Analyst did a wise thing in its report. It looked to other California cities for best practices. And it found that other cities have higher stormwater fees. They have voter-approved bonds and taxes. And they have voter-approved fees for refuse collection and sewage infrastructure.
The City of San Diego has hard choices to make when considering its budget. Stormwater management is one of many things we have to address. Choices made in the past mean that we haven't kept up with needed repairs. But we can't just throw our hands in the air because it costs money to keep up with our urbanized community and let the infrastructure crumble around us. We are not a community of residents, businesses and cities to sit around and do nothing. We value our lakes, our rivers, our beaches, our ocean. They give us back an exceptional quality of life and a vibrant economy of innovation and maritime industry. That is why we must work—and work hard—to get these decisions right.
So don't let the City decision-makers stall or claim that we can't afford to protect our water from pollution. Can we make changes that reduce the cost? Yes, and we should. Eliminate it, or the need for it? No. So, demand from council members and the mayor that stormwater management stands high on their list of priorities. When you are asked to vote for a bond to fund deferred maintenance, vote yes. It's the "I Love My Life In San Diego" bond, the "My Business Needs This" fee, and the "We're in it Together" charge.
San Diego County will grow. We have a newly renovated downtown airport. We'll soon have an expanded bayfront convention center. And the 22nd District Agricultural Association is working to maintain the world-class Del Mar Fairgrounds. As we renovate and grow to meet the demands of our residents and economy, we must look at how existing natural resources—if we consider them assets and let them perform their natural function—can help us do that sustainably.
I testified at the October 11, 2013 California Coastal Commission hearing about just that matter. The dirt lots and golf driving range surrounding the Del Mar Fairgrounds that house overflow parking for the Fair and the Races are in fact home to acres of wetlands. Despite being graded, compacted and parked on year after year, they survive and offer the invaluable service of a natural filter to cleanse water before it heads into the San Dieguito River, the estuary and Pacific Ocean that all lie in a stone's throw of the property.
Thanks to an historic agreement between the Coastal Commission and the District Agricultural Association (DAA), the DAA will set aside one of those lots (the "South Overflow Lot") and invest funds to restore that area to its natural abundance. The permit application they submitted to the Coastal Commission includes beautiful plans to do that and the DAA should be commended.
The issue at hand at this hearing was their plan to move all the event and parking activity previously undertaken on the South Overflow Lot to the adjacent "East Overflow Lot." Along with the San Dieguito Joint Powers Authority and County Supervisor Dave Roberts, I asked the Coastal Commission to approve the permit with an amendment that would set aside the lower third of the East Overflow Lot and allow it to return to its natural wetland state.
I enjoy cotton candy at the fair and 4 o'clock Fridays at the racetrack as much as the next person. But when we build a massive facility upon and adjacent to sensitive waterways, we have a responsibility. And in this case, we have a tremendous opportunity at hand. Rather than pave over a wetland and then engineer mechanical fixes or set aside properties in other areas to somehow "make up for" destroying these, why not let nature's water filter do its job?
Most of the Coastal Commissioners seem to have been moved to a similar question. They voted (9-2) to continue the matter to their November meeting. Commission Chair Shallenberger urged the parties to work hard to come to an agreement and appear before the Commissioners again soon.
Thanks to leadership from Supervisor Roberts and the San Dieguito Joint Powers Authority--and with a District Agricultural Association that has an opportunity to be a leader in how it uses unique its coastal backdrop--the wetlands, the water they protect and our home where the Turf Meets the Surf, will prosper.
The autosampler is slowly, but surely, progressing. After securing the necessary money, and finding and purchasing parts, I have taken the first few steps towards completing the autosampler. To remind everyone, this autosampler will allow us to use the autosampler to monitor urban runoff during rains, as it happens (without having our volunteers stand in the rain for hours).
Currently, I am working on refining my home-built peristaltic pump. Peristaltic pumps use compression to push water. Skateboard wheels will compress a plastic tube to push water from the creek and into the sample bottles.
The pump frame has been built, and the skateboard wheels have been installed. The wheels, along with some tubing, will be doing the heavy lifting of the water. Once the pump is finished, and pumping, the next step will be to set up the valve array, which will distribute the samples into their respective containers.
From here, I expect the pace to accelerate, as the pump will probably be the part that I need to fiddle with the most. After the valve array, the final step will involve powering and connecting all of the parts into a computer controlled system. I am planning on using two Arduino microprocessers working in conjunction as the brains of the system.
While working on the autosampler, I have learned a great deal about prototyping and design. In its current state, the autosampler is not much more than a prototype. I was surprised about all the fiddling and adjusting needs to happen in order to make this run perfectly. This project has been an enlightening experience: there are hundreds of things that will go wrong. But I will fix all of them.
Working on the autosampler in general, and the pump specifically, has given me the chance to explore new horizons. I have a project where I have creative freedom, will have an impact, and combines an appealing career path, robotics, and my work here at Coastkeeper. It’s a nice balance to my school work. I appreciate the hands on experience that I have gotten with engineering and design, something I probably would not have without Coastkeeper’s help.
The currently anticipated deployment date is in late August, early September. Ish. That said, when I was first talking about this project, I thought I could have it out by March. We’ll have to wait and see.
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.