Every lifelong San Diego surfer has likely been sick more times than they care to remember due to polluted lineups. Exposure to ocean-dwelling bacteria can lead to sinus infections and sick days, or, occasionally, something more severe. Luckily, San Diego surfers have an ace in the hole when it comes to fighting against local polluters, whether they know it or not. “We are the most effective water protection organization that no one has ever heard of,” jokes Matt O’Malley, Executive Director of San Diego Coastkeeper. While Coastkeeper may not be a household name, their education programs, water testing initiatives, and legal battles with polluters affect the lives of each and every San Diego surfer. On the eve of their annual fundraiser on Harbor Island, we rang O’Malley to discuss what Coastkeeper does to help everyday surfers, and what surfers can do to help themselves.
Surfers spend more time in San Diego’s waters than any other group of people. In your mind, what should they be concerned about right now?
Urban runoff, or urban drool as we call it, is definitely the biggest concern, bringing all kinds of pollutants from fertilizers to metals into the water. In surfer health studies, we’re seeing that there is significant human waste bacteria—as in, it’s literally coming from feces—in the ocean, likely from aging sewer infrastructure. It’s present in the water during dry weather and wet weather, but especially during wet weather. Some parts of this infrastructure were made out of clay and were only meant to last 50 years, but we’re well beyond that now and we have a lot of leaks. So we have all this human waste coming into the water and that’s the biggest threat to surfers. Most people don’t want to hear this, and I don’t always heed it either, but you really should wait the 72 hours after a rain before getting back in the water. Without trying to be hyperbolic, sometimes that decision can be the difference between life and death. So many people have gotten sick and been laid up for weeks or months. It’s serious business.
So the infrastructure is aging, but it seems that more people are aware and concerned with pollution these days. Do you think pollution in San Diego waters is getting better or worse?
Compared to, say, the 1950s, which was a low point because people were just literally dumping anything right into the water, water quality has gotten better. But where we need to be is still so much further. Each year, our organization has the largest water monitoring program in the state of California. We send out hundreds of volunteers to each county on a monthly basis just to test our waters, which is where we get our data. And then we also do wet weather testing that target certain outfalls or certain industries, and, of course, we pay attention to the coastal water testing that the county does. We have these shifting baselines, and some things are improving, but some things are getting worse, especially in the last few years. Drought and climate change are impacting us and we are seeing worse water quality in our inland waters, which of course flows out to the coast. If you see any improvement in the coastal waters, it’s potentially because the drought has caused less runoff to happen, and wet weather is when a lot of the flushing of pollutants into the ocean occurs. But there are still plenty of beach closures during dry weather because of the pollution seeping out of outfalls and onto the coast. So it’s a mixed bag, in my assessment.
Are these problems unique to San Diego? Or are you seeing similar issues up and down the coast?
There are similarities, but there are also differences in the way infrastructure is set up. In San Diego, we unfortunately have a separate storm system and a sewer system, and a lot of the country uses combined systems. So instead of our pollutants entering the sewage system to get somewhat treated before getting discharged or reused, storm water pollution literally gets funneled right to the ocean. In fact, the system was designed to get that water to the coast as quickly as possible. So that element is somewhat unique. Another difference is the impact it has on people, since our waters are more heavily used—especially by surfers—than most other areas. The water is the gem. That’s why many people live in San Diego and love it.
How is this stuff impacting surfers’ health?
We’re seeing lots of staph infections, ear infections, sinus infections, and throat issues. When you stand on the shore and look out at the ocean, it looks beautiful, but you don’t see the bacteria and the pollution that causes these problems. When runoff is really bad, you might see dirt or sediment, but the things that are really going to hurt you are more or less invisible. We have thousands of water tests that show there’s nasty stuff going on. So I think people should be aware of that. Once we’re aware, we can start doing something about it.
So what are some of the programs Coastkeeper is working on to mitigate ocean pollution?
We do everything. We have a small staff of about seven or eight people—I’m a lawyer, we have some doctors, scientists, and professional educators. We develop environmental curriculum for San Diego Unified School District, we’re monitoring pollutants in our waterways, and I’m involved in policy and legal advocacy, which includes litigations. I have a suite of lawsuits going at any given time against polluters, and those could be individual industries or government agencies. One example was about 15 years ago, when San Diego used to have constant sewage spills and even got pegged as one of the most polluting cities in the country. We sued the city of San Diego and ended up reducing sewage spills by about 90 percent.
Yeah, that was a big victory. So that’s how we fought major spills, and now we’re putting together a plan addressing these smaller leaking systems. We’re also heavily involved in advocacy in reuse: the recycling of wastewater. We signed an agreement with the city of San Diego for them to do large scale wastewater recycling. That forces them, over the next 20 years, to reduce sewage discharge into the ocean and reuse that water for drinking water, because the technology is there now. These are big projects—we’re talking billions of dollars to implement. The wastewater recycling alone is billed at about $4 billion, and the sewage spill that we litigated resulted in $1 billion in infrastructure upgrades. So with Coastkeeper, our focus is everything from the classroom to the courtroom. It has proven to be effective, so that’s what we’ll keep doing.
What can the average San Diego surfer do to help in the fight?
There are a couple of things. Really paying attention to your own impact is a good start, like fixing your leaky car, because that oil is eventually going to end up in the water. Don’t overwater your lawn or over-fertilize. Pick up trash you find on the beach or in the water. What many people don’t realize is that trash may be bad in itself, but it also carries bacteria which compounds the problem. But just paying attention to the sources of pollution that are everywhere is the first step in helping alleviate the problem. Once people learn more, they usually want to do more, right? Volunteer for environmental organizations, and vote for candidates who actually prioritize water quality protection. Talking to friends and family, or writing to elected officials all make a difference. Obviously, anyone who is concerned with protecting our waters can become a member of Coastkeeper and support us in our work. We are very effective through education and litigation, and we can make our funding go farther than pretty much anybody else, but it does still cost money to make change, especially considering who we are up against. The more you learn about what’s in the water, the more likely you are to fight for what’s right, and to improve it. There’s some nasty stuff out there that we really need to address. Start small and work your way up from there.