Serving as role models and warriors for protecting the environment, including waters and marine life, San Diego Coastkeeper functions as a steward for clean water and healthy ecosystems. While addressing the issues that affect inland and coastal waters, these water curators acknowledge the connection between “humans and nature,” and offer solutions derived from “the best available scientific, legal and public policy rationale.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The San Diego Coastkeeper also works in tandem with Coastkeeper Alliance and the International Waterkeeper Alliance. Headed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., The International Water Alliance is described as “one of the world’s fastest growing environmental movements.”
Matt O’Malley is San Diego Coastkeeper’s executive director and managing attorney in addition to serving as legal committee chair and board member of the California Coastkeeper Alliance. The maverick leads a team of scientists, activists, educators and lawyers to work with community members and politicians “to protect and restore fishable, swimmable and drinkable water in San Diego County.” Through community outreach and education, O’Malley’s water defense team advocates clean water and healthy ecosystems in addition to “fixing pollution hazards.”
“We advocate holistic solutions,” said O’Malley. “Our work protects the natural spaces where people live, work and play, and the water resources that fuel our economy.”
Safeguarding against water contamination is not new. American Waterkeepers originated from its Riverkeepers, men who guarded private streams against poachers. In the early 1980s, fishermen along New York’s Hudson River took stock in fighting the water’s most lethal poacher – pollution. Imprinted as America’s first Waterkeeper organization, San Diego followed suit in 1995 as the San Diego Baykeeper.
The original, two-person team tackled chronic pollution and toxic waste then being dumped into the San Diego Bay. Today, renamed the San Diego Coastkeeper, the organization serves as the region’s “watchdog” for clean water and healthy ecosystems.
Working with its community allies, Coastkeepers cleaned up the San Diego Bay by winning a regulatory ruling that closed the “ecosystem damaging” South Bay Power Plant. But they didn’t stop there. Litigation against Southwest Marine Inc., spearheaded by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, forced polluters to conduct “a massive cleanup of their toxic pollution” in the San Diego Bay.
“We also negotiated a $15-million restoration plan with the Port of San Diego to turn the Campbell Shipyard (located on the northeastern shore of the San Diego Bay) into a thriving ecosystem and fish nursery,” added O’Malley.
The San Diego Coastkeeper lauds an impressive list of accomplishments. Among them, a collaboration with the Surfrider Foundation to commence a lawsuit against the City of San Diego for its sewage spills. As a result, San Diego, once nicknamed the sewage capital of America, invested $1 billion in infrastructure upgrades to yield its present, 90 percent reduction in sewage spills.
Notably, in 2011, Coastkeeper volunteers identified a 1.9-million-gallon sewage spill in the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon. The finding resulted in a “$12 million infrastructure investment by the City of San Diego to prevent future spills.”
The organization’s vocation continued with cleaning beaches, noting that San Diego Coastkeeper and partner organizations have removed millions of pounds of debris from area beaches and waterways including the hazards of plastic.
“We played an instrumental role in restricting the use of single plastic water bottles and plastic foam products,” said O’Malley. “And we initiated the first nation’s first statewide plastic bag ban that we continue to defend against the lobbyists trying to overturn it.”
Coastkeepers also partnered with the City of San Diego and the San Diego Unified School District to showcase Project SWELL – Stewardship Water Education for Lifelong Leadership. The program provides environmental science lessons and materials to teachers in San Diego’s elementary and middle schools. To date, the program’s added a countywide reach with STEM water kits.
Coastkeeper presently runs the state’s largest volunteer water quality monitoring program, training volunteers from Oceanside to the Tijuana River. Water testing goes even further.
“Coastkeeper introduced a new water-testing technology that resulted in San Diego County and state Sen. Marty Block successfully passing a statewide bill that approved faster beach water quality testing,” said O’Malley. “Water quality warnings will now be issued within four, rather than 24 hours.”
The importance of the work of San Diego Coastkeepers cannot be understated. Ninety percent of San Diego’s waterways are “impaired” from urban runoff and contaminants inclusive of metal, copper, plastic, nutrients from fertilizers, oil residue and human bacteria. O’Malley stated that the “fairly polluted” Mission Bay receives consistent, non-swimmable advisory notifications from the County Health Department, even without rain-infused bacteria.
“We don’t have a choice not to improve Mission Bay,” he continued. “Mission Bay is a community asset that defines recreation in San Diego.”
According to O’Malley, the San Diego estuary – the mouth of the San Diego River that meets the ocean – stands truly vulnerable to the dangers of pollution. Located “farthest” downstream, polluted mountain runoff runs through every community in San Diego. O’Malley admits that it will take a concerted effort to change the infrastructure to address the source of pollutants and improve that area. But its importance is undeniable.
“Our estuaries serve vital functions like pollutant uptake,” he said. “Estuaries cleanse the water before it reaches our beaches. All of this can and will be fixed. We will continue to work with San Diego’s City, County and other jurisdictions. We will gather water quality samples, educate the community and organize cleanups. We’ve already achieved major successes and will continue to do so.”
In pursuit of a sustainable water supply – 85 percent of San Diego’s water is imported – Coaskeepers also reduced ocean discharge. Leading the Water Reliability Coalition – which it helped to build – the San Diego City Council voted unanimously to reduce ocean discharge from Point Loma’s Wastewater Treatment Plant while implementing a large-scale water recycling system. O’Malley describes the victory as Coastkeeper’s “hallmark.”
“We’re finalizing negotiations with the City of San Diego for the Pure Water Cooperative Agreement,” he explained. “For years the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant discharged treated waste water at less than appropriate standards. Now, 100 million gallons of water a day will be offloaded from the plant to make recycled water. This will supply up to one-third of the city’s drinking water and will reduce environmentally costly imports from the San Joaquin River Delta and Colorado River.”
O’Malley loves his “vital” role as “the voice of the water.”
“To speak on behalf of the environment and its wildlife and water is both fulfilling and challenging,” he said. “My job as water keeper isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle. I became to lawyer to effect change in the world; to make it a better place. And that’s what we do. San Diego Coastkeeper provides a community benefit with community support.”
O’Malley’s encourages San Diegans to ensure that “whatever happens on one’s property stays on the property,” and to participate in grassroot initiatives as a way to maintain the good and change the bad.
“Reduce, reuse and recycle,” he said. “Implement greenstreet initiatives such as placing rain barrels on your property. Avoid urban runoff from overwatering lawns. Participate in beach cleanups. Attend environmental community meetings. Maintain close relationships with decision makers from the City, County, and San Diego municipalities. On behalf of the environment, support Coastkeepers. Water is important.”
O’Malley also suggested neighborhood beautification, the creation of neighborhood parks, low impact development of green infrastructure, to engage with the facilities responsible for the flow of pollution and to promote the restoration of the wetlands. Admitting that “fixing the systemic problems may take decades,” O’Malley plans to work himself “out of a job.”
“I spend many waking – and sleeping – hours working,” he concluded. “But I dream of the day when anyone can recreate in the San Diego River or splash around in Mission Bay or any other coastal area – be it rain or shine – without the fear or reality of getting sick. Humans have the fundamental right to clean water, our most natural and essential element.”
San Diego Coastkeeper’s Seaside Soiree
On Sept. 12, San Diego Coastkeeper hold its annual Seaside Soiree to celebrate clean water, a vibrant environment, and the community that makes it all possible. The event will mark the organization’s 23rd year of defending clean water for the communities and natural resources that depend on it, and will raise critical funds to support Coastkeeper’s important programs and projects.
Taking place at the Bali Hai on Shelter Island, guests of the Seaside Soiree will raise a glass to clean water while enjoying a front row, sunset view of San Diego Bay and the city skyline. A VIP reception will run from 4:30 to 6 p.m., with the general admission portion following from 6 to 8 p.m. The event will have a roaming buffet, cash bar, educational displays, some friendly competition in the form of a silent auction, and of course, the Bali Hai’s world famous mai tais.
Tickets may be purchased at sdcoastkeeper.org. General admission tickets are $100. To reserve a table or sponsor the event, contact Stephanie Ritter at [email protected] or 619-758-7743 ext 111.
San Diego Coastkeeper
Where: 2825 Dewey Road, suite 207.
Info: sdcoastkeeper.org, 619-758-7743.