Citizen scientists

Posted: July 3rd, 2015 | Featured, Features, News | No Comments

San Diego Coastkeeper celebrates 20 years of clean water advocacy

By Jeremy Ogul | Contributing Editor

Few San Diegans realize that one of the most extensive water quality monitoring programs in the region is operated by a large group of passionate volunteers. Every month, these volunteers spend their Saturdays traveling to streams and rivers to collect samples that they bring back to the San Diego Coastkeeper laboratory.

San Diego Coastkeeper, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, uses the data to track the health of 11 of the 13 watersheds in the county. The data is shared with other nonprofit organizations and government agencies in an effort to advocate for policy changes and infrastructure investments.

One of the watersheds Coastkeeper tracks is the San Diego River, which runs through Mission Trails Regional Park and the Grantville area on its way out to the Pacific Ocean. Coastkeeper volunteers collect data from two sites: one near the Old Mission Dam and the other near Fashion Valley Mall.


(l to r) Bryanna Paulson, Dana Tomasevic and Vicki Conlon test the electrical conductivity of the river near Old Mission Dam. (Photo by Jeremy Ogul)

Once the data gets back to the laboratory, another group of volunteers trained in laboratory research procedures processes the samples for later analysis. The samples are measured for nutrients, bacteria, nitrates, phosphorus, phosphates and turbidity.

The San Diego River watershed was one of two that saw a decline in water quality last year, according to Coastkeeper data. Researchers recorded a significant increase in nutrients, particularly phosphorus, which promotes algae growth. While it may seem harmless to humans, algae is problematic because it blocks sunlight, and when it dies, the bacteria that feast on it suck up the available oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other forms of aquatic life.

Nutrient levels in the river are probably elevated because the drought has reduced the flow of water that normally flushes the nutrients out to sea, said Meredith Meyer, Coastkeeper’s lab coordinator.

Though we can’t control the weather, we can control how much lawn fertilizer and detergent (think soap from home car washes) enters the watershed, Meyer said.

In June, the San Diego River watershed team consisted of three volunteers: Bryanna Paulson, an Encinitas resident who recently earned a degree in biology from St. Mary’s College California; Dana Tomasevic, a Hillcrest resident and student at California Western School of Law; and Vicki Conlon, a Mission Bay resident who leads science workshops for kids at Jerabek Elementary School in Scripps Ranch.

After gathering supplies at the Liberty Station headquarters, the trio headed to Mission Trails. The long drive gave the volunteers some time to reflect on why they were doing this.

“My kids grew up surfing at the beach,” Conlon said. “They were in the water constantly. I swim in the bay every day. I want clean water.”

Conlon said she’s old enough to remember when sewer spills were a common occurrence in San Diego.


A volunteer works with water samples at the Coastkeeper lab. (Photo by Jeremy Ogul)

“It’s definitely improved, and I’m sure it’s partly because of Coastkeeper and organizations like them.”

Coastkeeper volunteers discovered one of the largest sewage spills in San Diego history at the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon in 2011. Approximately 1.9 million gallons of sewage spilled into the lagoon before the spill was stopped.

More recently, when the county of San Diego discovered sewage leaking into the San Diego River near Interstate 15, county officials used Coastkeeper’s data as a reference point to determine how much remediation was necessary.

The organization has about 400 active volunteers, of which 250 to 300 are trained to comply with state guidelines on water quality monitoring, said Kristin Kuhn, Coastkeeper’s community engagement coordinator. The volunteers span a diverse range of identities, from high school students to professional marine biologists.

“An abnormally high percentage of our volunteers have some experience in science or research, but we get the occasional poet,” Kuhn said.

The organization trains about 100 new water quality monitoring volunteers each year, and to date it has trained more than 1,000.

For information on how to get involved with Coastkeeper, visit or call 619-758-7743.

—Write to Jeremy Ogul at

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