Written by Alex Toschi, Ben Rubenson, Deanna Pinkard-Meier, Keala Minna-Choe, Kamron Zarrabi, Jess DellaRossa and L. Minna-Choe

For over three years, BWTF volunteers have collected water samples from 10 sites across the South Bay and Central San Diego. Now, we are expanding our efforts to North County thanks to national Surfrider partner REEF Lifestyle, who will host our new community lab in their Carlsbad office. Below we outline why coastal water quality is important for the health of all San Diegans, and lifestyle habits that will leave our beaches better off.

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San Luis Rey River Outlet in Oceanside, CA

Get Involved!

We all want clean water for ourselves and our world. However, the clean water we rely on in San Diego is threatened by warming temperatures, sea level rise, plastic pollution, and urban runoff. But you can make a difference! Help keep our community informed by joining an amazing team of volunteers that sample and test coastal water quality. By joining the BWTF, you play an active role in protecting your family, friends and community from contaminated water. More testing brings more action and awareness to locate and clean up polluted sites. By joining us, you are the one making a difference for us all! Love your ocean — it’s the only one we have.

We meet every 3rd Monday of the month. Check out our Events page for more information on our next meeting.

What is the Blue Water Task Force up to in North County?

The San Diego Blue Water Task Force is a volunteer-run program dedicated to community science through water quality monitoring, education, activation and policy. We use this program in San Diego County to help identify problems with beach and coastal water pollution, raise public awareness of these incidents and work collaboratively with stakeholders to find and implement solutions. Each week, volunteers collect water samples and test them for Enterococcus, a fecal indicator bacteria which is used by the EPA to determine beach closures. We share our results with the public via Surfrider’s national database, the Weekend Beach Report, in addition to Swim Guide.

Local volunteers will be collecting samples from 3 additional locations and depositing them at our new community lab in Carlsbad. The new water quality sampling locations are the

The community lab is expected to begin operation later this month. Once the lab is established, we will expand to additional sampling sites north of the 56 Freeway.

Coming Together as a Community

What we do everyday impacts the health of our beaches. Small individual actions such as allowing trash to enter storm drains, using single-use products, fertilizer runoff while gardening, or not picking up your dog’s waste, can amplify and have a large negative impact on the water quality in San Diego. And let’s not forget about the more obvious sources of pollution, such as sewage spills, which occur more frequently than you might think! Regardless of where you live in San Diego County, , our ocean is typically the last stop for the pollution we create on land.

As our population grows, so does our ecological footprint – and it becomes increasingly important to perform frequent monitoring for water contamination. In a coastal community as large as San Diego, you can imagine how much of an undertaking that is! Therefore, it’s sometimes necessary to help fill in the gaps of our existing public works programs and government, to ensure our community is notified in a timely manner of the safety of our local bays and beaches; and that’s where Surfrider BWTF comes in!

Volunteers learning to sample at Cardiff State Beach

Why We Are Testing in North County

Over a million people reside in North San Diego County and many of the beaches have large crowds of both tourists and locals frequenting them year-round. Any location that has water running from inland to the ocean is a potential source for contamination. North County has over 11 river or lagoon outlets located on or near popular beaches such as Torrey Pines State Beach, Cardiff State Beach, Del Mar North/Dog Beach, Moonlight State Beach, and more. If the water quality is poor in these areas, it can drastically affect public health. Recently, over 1,800 gallons of sewage were spilled into a storm drain near Torrey Pines State Beach, forcing the beach to close. It is important that we continue to monitor these events and notify the community as soon as they happen to keep beach-goers safe and healthy.

Spotlight on a North County Volunteer’s Motivation for Water Quality Testing

Although I have spent my career studying the ocean and much of my life surfing, ocean water quality is something I didn’t worry about much until a few years ago. It was at that point that my two sons started spending a lot of time in the ocean. I began to think more about the locations of our beach days with respect to storm drains, lagoons, and other sources of freshwater input that may carry contaminants and potential pathogens into the ocean. When my sons were young I was able to make the beach day location choices with no pushback. Now that they are a bit older and want to surf with friends, they have strong opinions on where we go. Their favorite spot for the past year or so has been Cardiff Reef, located just seaward of the mouth of the San Elijo Lagoon.

While I know that stinky water doesn’t necessarily lead to human illness, the water at Cardiff Reef is subjected to many sources of freshwater input including inland creeks and streams, and runoff from nearby homes and agricultural plots that all meander towards the sea and enter via the San Elijo Lagoon. The health of my family, our friends, and the local community began to concern me as I noticed more and more days at Cardiff Reef with the strong stink of decay. Although testing for Enterococcus bacteria (one type of bacteria that can make you sick) does not provide a full picture of water quality, it’s a start, and it is the metric used to determine whether beaches remain open or should be closed to protect human health. Our local community and visitors depend on this natural resource that brings so much joy to so many, and water quality testing is one way to help maintain the beauty and health of Cardiff Reef. This amazing community gem, enjoyed by locals and tourists alike, should be monitored and assessed to ensure the water is safe.

Photo courtesy of Deanna Pinkard-Meier

What Can You Do?

When it comes to protecting local water quality, there are a number of simple steps we can all take to keep harmful contaminants from reaching the ocean. Let’s outline a few!

Disposal of hazardous waste: Given the toxic contents in household cleaners, such as sodium hypochlorite, ammonia and formaldehyde, there can often be severely adverse effects on overall water quality once these contents make their way down the drain. For information on hazardous-waste collection days and facilities, you can search by product on Earth911, or contact your local sanitation, environmental health, or public works department.

Pick up after your fluffy companion: Picking up after your dog is not only an act of courtesy, but it also prevents the harmful pathogens contained within feces from washing down storm drains and making their way to our coastal waters. Dog poop also contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, which can lead to harmful algal blooms in the ocean. Please pick up after your dog.

Take good care of your vehicle: The leakage of often toxic liquids such as coolants, antifreeze, and oil onto our roadways and lots, and eventually via rainwater into our groundwater and local waters, is a consistent source of water quality pollution. Take good care of your vehicle to ensure these sorts of leaks are prevented and do not end up in our oceans due to urban runoff.

Plant an Ocean Friendly Garden, and forget the use of fertilizers and pesticides: Our gardens and the plants we use have a direct impact on our local waters, especially when we have to use non-natural fertilizers and pesticides that eventually wash into our waterways. Instead, opt for drought tolerant and native plant varieties that belong in your local region.

Volunteer with the Blue Water Task Force! With these suggestions and incremental actions along the way from all of us, we achieve progress one individual at a time. With time, individual efforts compound into community efforts that can eventually lead to large scale change for the betterment of our local waters.

A Blue Water Task Force Success Story

Water sampling at Cardiff Beach

For a recent water quality success story, look no further than Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz. There, the Surfrider Santa Cruz chapter, along with local government and other environmental organizations, got to the bottom of the persistent water quality issues at one of their signature surf breaks. A combination of historical water quality data analysis, watershed mapping, intensive sampling (and even DNA analysis) helped the cross-functional team identify key factors (like diverting the flow of contaminated water from a nearby lagoon) that improved the water quality for everyone. As a result of their hard work, Cowell’s beach got its highest ranking in a decade according to Heal the Bay’s 2020 Beach Report Card.

Back in San Diego, Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force and Clean Border Water Now Committees are also working tirelessly on the unique water quality challenges in our county. Each week, the Committees are taking a similar approach – data analysis, sampling, and educating the public on water pollution problems and solutions.

For more information, contact BWTF@surfridersd.org.