Tuesday, July 29, 2008

County Reserve on Mend

(as posted on MAR 31, 2007 6:00 AM BY EDWARD CARPENTER, THE EXAMINER)

Increased water monitoring and quick action to track down and end bacterial discharges into one of the county’s pristine wildlife sanctuaries has resulted in a dramatic improvement in water quality at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.The popular reserve, near the coastal community of Moss Beach, has seen a 60 percent drop in the number of beach warnings posted compared to 2001, according to Dean Peterson, director of environmental health for San Mateo County.

“We have seen a vast improvement in the water quality,” Peterson said.

The reserve is home to a variety of seaweed, crabs, sponges, sea stars, mollusks and fish, many of which can be viewed by walking through the easily accessible intertidal pools. An estimated 130,000 local residents and travelers visit the beach each year, according to officials. The greatest danger to visitors in recent years has been coliform and E. coli bacterial contamination — which comes from animal and human feces — found all too often in the waters of the reserve and south to Pillar Point Harbor, Peterson said. Exposure to the bacteria has been known to result in the contraction of hepatitis or influenza, Peterson said.

Aside from the thousands of schoolchildren and tourists who visit the reserve, residents who buy fish directly off the docks and surfers could also be at risk, said Carolann Towe, of the nonprofit environmental group Surfrider Foundation. Towe monitors the water quality in the area on a weekly basis. From a high that exceeded the state standard for contaminants by 60 times back in 2001, she has seen the numbers plunge to within what the state allows, Towe said.

Working with horse ranchers, clearing out homeless camps along San Vicente Creek — which runs into the reserve — and sealing off two illicit residential sewer overflow pipes that drained into the creek have made a tremendous difference, Peterson said.

Rich Allen, a coast side rancher, was one of those who worked with the county and Towe, to move fences and horse paddocks to prevent manure from running off in San Vincente Creek, which ultimately empties into the reserve.

“We realized that we had to make sure that the water that leaves our ranch is just as clean as the water the runs into it,” Allen told The Examiner on Friday.

In 2005, the reserve was designated one of 36 “critical coastal areas” in the Bay Area, leading to a handful of organizations turning their focus toward tracking down and measuring runoff contaminants, Al Wanger of the California Coastal Commission said. In Fitzgerald Marine Reserve’s case, development in nearby Montara also plays a role, Wanger said. “One of the largest threats to coast and ocean is runoff, and that’s what this program is trying to get at.”

A major goal of the critical coastal areas program is to develop a comprehensive plan to tackle water runoff, preventing it or using natural filters such as plants and culverts to clean the water before it makes its way to the coast, said Kelly Nelson, executive director of the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District. But such a plan may still be a year or two away, as local governments, environmentalists and local residents work to identify pollution sources and find the best ways to put a voluntary stop to them, Wanger said.


BWTF: Translating Science into Action

(as published in Making Waves Vol. 23/No. 4/ July 07, full report available online.

The Blue Water Task Force is a volunteer water-quality monitoring, education and advocacy program. Designed to take advantage of the daily presence of surfers and beachgoers in coastal waters, it is the Surfrider Foundation's most visible and successful program to date. A recent survey of the BWTF revealed that there are 24 chapters actively monitoring the water quality of their local ocean beaches.

While most chapters use the Surfrider Foundation’s website to store their water quality data, many other forms of media are used to share this valuable coastal information. Water quality data are posted on chapter and partnering organization websites. Data are distributed to chapter email lists and sent to local government officials and health departments. Some chapters also post their data at surfshops, beaches and in their local newspapers.

The BWTF program serves many purposes beyond providing a record of beach water quality. The chapters use the program to educate students about water-quality issues and to promote a coastal stewardship ethic. The BWTF also provides an excellent volunteer activity that could require as little as 1-2 hours/month for a water sample collector or as much as 5 or more hours/week for a program coordinator.

Some chapter programs focus on popular beaches or those with known pollution problems, while others chose their sampling sites to fill in the gaps left by local health agencies. More and more chapters are also beginning to participate directly in agency beach monitoring programs by collecting samples from beaches that are not normally tested or during off-season months.

In addition to an almost universal appeal for more volunteers expressed during the recent program survey, many chapters would also like to see their BWTF programs expanded beyond reporting water quality information to working proactively to identify pollution problems and initiate change in their communities. The last article in this series discussed several examples of chapters that are collaborating with their local governments to track the sources of beach pollution. Ultimately the goal is to take action to clean up our coastal watersheds and improve the water quality at our beaches.

The San Mateo County Chapter has been successful in doing just that in the San Vicente Creek watershed. The San Vicente Creek drains to the ocean at the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in California. The Chapter’s interest in this watershed began when they noticed that the beach was almost constantly posted with a swimming advisory due to high bacterial counts. Despite the advisory, the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a very popular beach for school field trips, and children were observed washing their hands in the creek on numerous occasions.

The Chapter decided to contact local authorities at their County Environmental Health Department to investigate the source of the bacterial pollution. Together with the County and landowners they began testing the water quality upstream to identify hot spots of pollution in San Vicente Creek. This collaborative study identified numerous sources including old septic and sewer systems, animal pens, illegal agricultural residences, equestrian facilities and illegal discharges.

All landowners were very keen to take action to reduce their impact on the San Vicente Creek Watershed. The chapter and county worked with the equestrian facilities to install Best Management Practices (BMPs) such as moving fences away from the creek, moving manure piles, composting manure, changing how horses are pastured and altering the farms’ drainage. The chapter now conducts monthly water quality monitoring at the equestrian facilities and brings middle school students to Moss Beach Ranch to demonstrate the BMPs.

This watershed tour is part of the chapter’s Watershed Discovery Workshop aimed at teaching students how to protect a watershed. Beginning at the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, the kids receive an introduction to the watershed from the county park rangers and collect water samples. At the Surfrider Foundation laboratory they receive hands on science experience analyzing the water samples. Watershed models are also built to explore how watersheds work and the impacts of pollution. This program reaches both the kids and their parental chaperones.

The water quality at the beach in the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve has improved. The beach isn’t posted as often as it once was. Even when the water quality does not meet the bathing standard, the bacteria levels aren’t as high as they once were. These improvements in water quality have caught the attention of the community and the local press.

Pleased with their initial results, the San Mateo County Chapter is continuing their investigative work. The chapter and county are conducting bi-weekly sampling in the lower, suburban part of the San Vincente Watershed. They suspect illegal dumping and old sewer infrastructure may be causing elevated bacterial counts in this downstream area.