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Water Quality Grades: C+ to F Coastkeeper releases its 2014 San Diego watershed report

Coastkeeper volunteers gather water samples throughout San Diego County.
Coastkeeper volunteers gather water samples throughout San Diego County.
( / Courtesy)

For three days after it rains, the Department of Public Health routinely closes our beaches. That’s because the rainwater washes down through our creeks and streams picking up pollutants and bacteria that is carried out to the ocean at the estuaries and lagoons. Until they dissipate, the pollutants and bacteria, which end up in the surf, can make people sick.

The health department isn’t the only organization that monitors local waters. Coastkeeper, an organization with offices at Liberty Station in Point Loma, enlists an army of more than 200 volunteers who watchdog the creeks and streams of inland watersheds that flow down to merge with coastal waters.

Once a month, Coastkeeper volunteers go inland and collect water samples at three different sites along nine of San Diego’s 11 watersheds, which are large areas that drain runoff and rainwater into the ocean at specific locations. Volunteers devoted 1,888 hours to water sampling in 2014. The two watersheds that Coastkeeper does not sample — Santa Margarita and San Juan — cannot be accessed because they include restricted areas of Camp Pendleton Marine base.

On March 11, Coastkeeper released the results of its testing for 2014, providing an indication of countywide water quality trends. Coastkeeper rated or graded the water quality of each watershed from 0 to 100 and gave each a correlated score of “Poor” to “Excellent.”

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Unfortunately, the results were not very good. The nine watersheds ranged from “Fair” through “Marginal,” with one “Poor.”

Grade-wise, this would be a C+ down to an F grade. The results, which appear to be worsening, indicate an urgent need to pay more attention to local waters and take action to clean them. Besides the poor overall scores, which worsen from North County down to the South Bay, Coastkeeper encountered more specific problems with the water quality.

One big problem involved the amount of dissolved oxygen in the waters. It was determined that 30 percent of the water samples collected contained mean levels of dissolved oxygen below what is considered to be a healthy level.

Dissolved oxygen is important for life in streams and creeks. When it gets too low, wild-life begins to die. Coastkeeper said low

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levels of dissolved oxygen may explain the fish die-offs encountered in the San Luis Rey River last spring.

Coastkeeper also found that in 57 percent of samples, the level of Enterococcus bacteria exceeded healthy standards. Enterococcus is a lactic acid-type bacteria similar to Staph infection. Enterococcus measurement has recently joined with the measurement of E.coli bacteria as the new standard for measurement of unhealthy bacteria in water.

It was also determined that eight of the nine watersheds were “Marginal” or “Poor” in terms of E. Coli levels — the bacteria related to animal, bird and human feces.

The presence of higher than normal levels of Enterococcus and E Coli bacteria mean there is a potential for staph, ear and eye infection, hepatitis, rashes, diarrhea and cysts from exposure to our waters.

Coastkeeper said our worsening water quality scores may be related to the drought we’ve been in for the last three years. Our normal rainfall is 10.34 inches a year.

For the last three years, it’s averaging 7.77. This means pollutants and bacteria have less flushing and more time to build up to higher levels. The lower water levels and higher water temperatures facilitate the bacterial growth process.

California State Parks recently put out a brochure describing how the park system is preparing for expected global warming. Global warming may also worsen water quality locally because it will further warm our waters and through evaporation, further lower water levels.

Coastkeeper also studied each watershed for individual problems.

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•San Luis Rey watershed, which uses the San Luis Rey River and flows out to the ocean near Oceanside Harbor, showed problems with water pH being too acidic and having low oxygen levels.

•Carlsbad watershed, which is fueled by Escondido Creek and drains into San Elijo Lagoon, had high levels of nitrates and a substantial amount of algae bloom.

•San Dieguito watershed flows down the San Dieguito River and out to the sea next to the Del Mar racetrack. It measured high in ammonia and phosphorus, and excess turbidity or sedimentation.

•Los Peñasquitos watershed, using Peñasquitos Creek, flows out into the ocean at Torrey Pines State Beach. This year it dropped from a “Good” rating to “Fair.” There have been problems with breakdowns at the sewer pump station in the upper part of the estuary and with silting over of the mouth of the lagoon, which allows waters in the estuary to stand stagnant for long periods.

•San Diego watershed, which uses the San Diego River, flowing out to the sea near Ocean Beach, dropped two levels from “Good” to “Marginal” this year and showed high levels of phosphorus and ammonia, as well as lowered levels of oxygen.

•Pueblo watershed ends up as Chollas Creek, which drains into San Diego Bay next to 32nd Street Naval Station.

•Chollas Creek is fueled by urban runoff and was found to have a high content of phosphorus and ammonia due to fertilizers and pesticides.

•Sweetwater watershed, fueled by Sweetwater Creek and draining into the bay near Pepper Park, had very low levels of oxygen, which threatens all life in the creek.

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•Otay watershed, which uses the Otay River and flows into the south bay at Imperial Beach, had high bacteria levels.

•Tijuana watershed makes use of the Tijuana River and flows out to the ocean just south of Imperial Beach through the Tijuana Estuary. This watershed had very low scores in all test categories. Consequently, when it rains, the ocean waters become very polluted near Imperial Beach.

Coastkeeper said the responsibility for water quality rests with all of us. Urban runoff or rainwater, which passes over and through manmade areas such as lawns, gardens, roads and buildings, is the chief cause of pollution.

We can help by not using fertilizers and insecticides on lawns and gardens, and making sure our vehicles are not leaking any fluids onto streets or driveways.

On a larger scale, the building industry needs to find more ways to design building complexes that trap rainwater and recycle or reuse it rather than letting it run over properties and out to the sea.

Want to help Coastkeeper?

Coastkeeper is in need of volunteers to collect water from the field for testing in the lab. Training sessions are May 16, July 18, Sept. 26 and Nov. 21 at Liberty Station in Point Loma. Signup online at sdcoastkeeper.org or contact Jamie Hampton at (619) 758-7743 or jamie@sdcoastkeeper.org

Watershed Scores

San Luis Rey: 77 Fair

Carlsbad: 72 Fair

San Dieguito: 76 Fair

Los Peñasquitos: 76 Fair

San Diego: 62 Marginal

Pueblo: 64 Marginal

Sweetwater: 62 Marginal

Otay: 53 Marginal

Tijuana: 12 Poor


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