Local nonprofit acts regionally while thinking globally
Dave Schwab | Downtown News
San Diego Coastkeeper, the region’s water protector, has a new gatekeeper: Matt O’Malley.
Recently hired as the group’s head waterkeeper, it’s now O’Malley’s task to lead the grassroots environmental nonprofit in advocating for clean water countywide, as well as directing the fulfillment of its mission of safeguarding the region’s bays, beaches, watersheds and ocean for the benefit of people and wildlife.
“I head the legal and policy side of what we do here, advocating and enforcing compliance with environmental laws by any means necessary,” said O’Malley, a land-use attorney with 12 prior years of experience representing various environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.
“If someone’s polluting, we work with stakeholders — the City, County, Regional Water Quality Control Board (CEQUA) — to ensure waterways within our county are protected,” O’Malley said. “I’m the steward, the guardian, of the waterways. My job is to encourage laws meant to protect the waterways. If those laws don’t exist, we work to create them.”
The concept of “waterkeeper” grew out of a 19th-century English tradition where “riverkeepers” physically guarded private streams to ensure waters remained healthy and free of poachers. The modern version of waterkeeper came into being in 1982, when Hudson River fisherman in New York became concerned about the modern poacher — pollution — and started the first Waterkeeper organization in the United States.
Established in 1995, San Diego became the 15th Waterkeeper organization in the country. It focused its initial efforts on local, community-based advocacy, starting out with a two-person team combating chronic pollution and toxic dumping into San Diego Bay.
Now a five person team, San Diego Coastkeeper/Waterkeeper is also part of the California Coastkeepers Alliance (CCKA), which was founded in 1999 with the belief that a healthy ocean and coast and clean water is vital to California’s economy, public health and way of life.
Protecting San Diego’s waterways has proven to be a near Herculean task for San Diego Coastkeeper over the past 19 years. The San Diego Bay Watershed — which the environmental group oversees — encompasses a 415-square-mile area extending more than 50 miles, from the coast east to the Laguna Mountains. A large portion of the watershed land area lies north of the Mexican border and south of Interstate 8. Nearly half of San Diego County’s population lives and works in the San Diego Bay Watershed.
Watersheds, which come in all shapes and sizes and cross county, state and national boundaries, are land areas where all of the water that drains from the surface goes into the same place or common body of water, the Bay in San Diego’s case.
O’Malley and local Coastkeepers are also part of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which works to protect the world’s waterways. He and his colleagues “think globally and act locally” in doing their part to ensure waters along San Diego’s coast, bay and inland are as clean and safe as they can possibly be.
“Our large global network is devoted to preserving water as a resource,” O’Malley said, noting that each of the local chapters nationwide have their own specific issues of concern.
San Diego’s biggest concern is urban runoff.
“Storm water runoff is the worst pollution problem we have in this city and county,” O’Malley said. “It’s also one of the most difficult problems to solve because you can’t just point to one thing.”
With California in the midst of one of the state’s worst droughts ever, O’Malley pointed out that “supply is in the forefront” of the continuing public dialogue about preserving water quality.
“Coastkeeper is a proponent of conserving and recycling water,” O’Malley said. “That’s one of the issues we’re working on that will have the most impact.”
Megan Baehrens, San Diego Coastkeeper’s executive director, agreed with O’Malley that urban runoff, which she called “urban drool,” is public enemy number one where water quality is concerned.
“Our waterways are under siege every day from pollution,” Baehrens said, adding that pollutants in all their myriad forms — everything from runoff from car washes to dishwashers — ends up in storm drains or empties into the closest waterway which ultimately conveys them to San Diego Bay and the ocean beyond.
“Dealing with the scope and scale of urban runoff in San Diego has really been challenging,” she said. Baehrens also noted a primary goal of the Coastkeeper organization is to “educate everybody” that the water they use contributes a small but significant percentage of the overall urban runoff, and that it takes “collective action by all of us” to prevent it.
One of the “tools” Coastkeeper has in its tool kit to combat urban runoff is water-quality monitoring, which is used to gauge the actual amount of runoff and the degree to which it is polluted. Baehrens said water quality is regularly tested, analyzed and published by Coastkeeper.
“Water quality data is now in the public domain,” she said. “With a click of your mouse you can tell what’s happening with water quality in your backyard.”
In addition to educating local residents and providing them useful data, Baehrens said Coastkeeper also has a role in San Diego’s larger environmental community.
“We’re a watchdog in the region for water quality control,” she said. “Our activities can be placed in three buckets: science, education and advocacy. We have our water quality control monitoring program with lab testing. With our data collection we then turn to advocacy, identifying major polluters, what they are doing, then using enforcement or adaptive management to bring those pollutants under control.”
Travis Pritchard, Coastkeeper’s programs director, said the local chapter is part of an international family, lending its small voice to a growing chorus of more than 100 Waterkeeper organizations advocating for clean water worldwide.
“In California we have Waterkeepers in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties and in Baja, California,” Pritchard said. “We’re independent organizations that have some level of coordination in safeguarding water quality. Our mission is to protect water making it swimmable, drinkable and fishable.”
As programs director, Pritchard said he manages a 50-person volunteer base that conducts water sampling at 30 carefully selected sites around the county.
“We try to hit all the rivers in San Diego,” he said. “We monitor nine of the 11 county watersheds, mostly downstream.”
Pritchard recently attended a Waterkeepers conference in Baja where he taught environmentalists there how to perform proper beach-water quality testing, which measures the amount of fecal bacteria from human and animal waste building up in the ocean to determine if it threatens human health.
“We need to do our own testing to see ourselves if our beaches are safe to swim in or not,” Pritichard said.
Preserving water quality and conserving water as a precious resource go hand-in-hand, noted Pritchard.
“Here in San Diego we are involved in just about every aspect of water quality and conservation,” he said. “We meet with City staff and water quality officials to help shape legal and policy guidelines.”
San Diego Coastkeeper has five paid staff members, including an education coordinator who interfaces with the San Diego Unified and Oceanside school districts in public outreach efforts.
“We provide a curriculum for teachers to teach environmental education,” Pritchard said. “We want to help to train the next generation of water-quality professionals and scientists, people interested in the big issues we have, so that in the future they can continue the work we’re doing now.”
O’Malley is optimistic about the future prospects for safeguarding both San Diego’s water quality and its supply.
“Resuse, the recycling of wastewater into potable [drinkable] water will become a reality in the not-too-distant future,” O’Malley said, adding he’s also encouraged by people’s positive attitude toward water and environmental conservation.
“San Diegans respond once they know there’s an issue with water quality or availability,” he said, pointing to successful mandatory water rationing in the past as an example.
“We have great philanthropy in our neighborhoods and our communities. People do care. They want to make a difference. I see that happening.”
For more information on San Diego Coastkeeper and their mission to keep our region’s waters safe, visit sdcoastkeeper.org and sign up to volunteer or help at one of their events.
— Dave Schwab came to San Diego 30 years ago with a journalism degree from Michigan State University. He has worked for numerous dailies and weeklies and now freelances for a variety of regional publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.