Testing the waters

Some of the city's most outspoken critics take a first-hand look at the city's ocean water monitoring program ... and come away impressed.

by Lori Saldaña
he fog was just burning off over the Pacific Ocean as representatives from the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Audubon Society and San Diego Council of Divers arrived at the city of San Diego's Environmental Monitoring office near Shelter Island. Our group represented the San Diego Clean Water Alliance, an association created earlier this year to support Clean Water Act protection for San Diego via lobbying, petitioning, public meetings and community activism.
Members of the Alliance had been invited to take a short trip on the Monitor III, the largest of the city's three water quality monitoring boats. The city wanted to reassure us that, despite Congressional efforts to exempt Pt. Loma from the Clean Water Act, their monitoring program was keeping a close eye on ocean water quality.

The Monitor III, largest of the city's three ocean water monitoring boats. Starting this year, the boats are out almost every day.

Get with the program

Funded by the city, the ocean water quality monitoring program is intended to measure the general biological health of the area from the U.S./Mexico border to Del Mar. The program has been described by some as the largest in the world, with an estimated 250,000 samples gathered and analyzed each year. In 1985, there were only 60 to 80 days of sampling per year. But starting this year, the boats and crews are expected to be out nearly every day.
The city's three boats carry technicians, chemists and biologists out to 38 testing stations, covering an 85 square mile area. Tim Rothans, a marine biologist and Ocean Operations Supervisor for the city's boats, explained that on a typical day the boats are out sampling for eight hours (today's trip would only last two to three hours). The stations in the kelp beds closest to shore are sampled every eight days.
Alan Langworthy, Deputy Director of the Metropolitan Wastewater Department's Environmental Monitoring and Technical Services Division, showed us charts of the monitored areas. He stressed the recent addition of the border area near Tijuana to the monitor sites. With construction of the ocean outfall for the International Wastewater Treatment Plant scheduled to begin in April 1996, these new samples provide baseline measurements of pre-construction conditions. After operation of the outfall begins, deviation from the earlier measurements can be attributed to the plant operation.
According to Langworthy, "This is a traditional compliance-based sampling method, focused on the Pt. Loma discharge." But he was quick to point out that factors other than the outfall, including frequent land-based sewage spills and storm drain run-off, complicate analysis. Rothans reminded the group that this team is responsible for monitoring only from the shore out. Resources for tracking and repairing land-based problems have not been given the same priority as the ocean monitoring program.

Left: Marine biologist Mike Kelly holds a Van Dorn sampler, used to bring up water samples for chemical analysis. Right: Mike prepares to launch a CTD, an electronic device that records a profile of water conductivity, temperature and depth. The data will later be loaded directly into a shipboard computer.

Out to sea

Once briefed on the logistics of the sampling, our group finally got underway. Even before leaving San Diego Bay we could see and hear wildlife all around us. Harbor seals lounged on the navigational buoys in the harbor, hardly noticing as our two noisy diesel engines approached. Gulls, cormorants and terns flew and dove nearby, perhaps hoping we were a sportfishing boat with a few spare anchovies on board. It was a beautiful day to be on the water.
Our group crammed into the small lower cabin of the Monitor III to learn more about the lab and testing equipment on-board the 42-foot craft. At first, we all listened to a description of the various collection tools, bottles and techniques used during the chemistry analysis. But once past Pt. Loma, large swells rolling in from the north - pitching the boat from side to side - drove us above decks to the fresh air.
On the bridge, Jack Russell, captain of the Monitor III, demonstrated the latest technology used to navigate the city's largest monitoring boat. A global positioning system (GPS) with 120 pre-programmed stations can pinpoint the boat's location to within a few feet. A brightly colored sonar display is used for identifying underwater structures. As we approached the outfall, only 100 feet below the surface, Russell pointed to the underwater sonar image on one screen, and the corresponding "blip" on the GPS screen, confirming the boat's surface location directly over the outfall.

Left: Staff members filter bottom sediments to separate the tiny worms, crabs and other bottom dwellers. A thriving population is taken as a sign of a healthy environment. Right: Marine microbiologist Mary Ellen Kruse analyzes water samples in this shipboard laboratory. Tests look for healy metals, pesticides and other potential toxins.

Testing, testing ...

We had arrived at one of the pre-determined research stations, and Tim Rothans and marine biologist Mike Kelly got to work. "Work" consisted of dropping sampling devices like the "CTD" (records water Conductivity, Temperature and Depth), the Van Veen sampler (grabs bottom sediment) and the Van Dorn bottle (takes water samples) over the side.
Once the devices reached thir required depth, they were hauled up and given to Mary Ellen Kruse, a marine microbiology supervisor from the Alvarado Water Filtration Biology Lab, for analysis. The CTD contains a recorder that transfers its measurements directly to a shipboard computer. Water samples from the Van Dorn are subjected to chemical analysis that measures toxins like pesticides and heavy metals, and biological oxygen demand, an indication of microbial action.
Bottom sediment from the Van Veen sampler was hauled on board complete with a collection of tiny worms, crabs and other benthic invertebrates that were almost too small to see. These make up the so-called "indigenous population" around the outfall, tiny creatures that make their home by burrowing into the top layers of sediment and feeding on ocean detritus. Biologists take repeated samples of these creatures from around the outfall, and assume that their survival and health indicates the effluent from the outfall is not harming the ocean environment.
The data gathered is presented in a monthly report to the Regional Water Control Board; in addition, the group produces an annual report of ocean water quality. This information is available to citizens from the Clean Water Libary in downtown San Diego.
It was late morning by then, and the wind and swells were picking up. As the Monitor III headed back to Shelter Island, Alliance members spoke with the biologists and chemists, impressed by their commitment to keep a close watch on the ocean's health, even if that meant going to sea 364 days a year.
I think that it safe to say that our group was probably the most sceptical that the city has ever hosted on such a tour. Yet afterwards, we all felt reassured that San Diego's ocean water testing program is in capable hands. Unfortunately, when it comes to the policy makers in city hall and Washington DC ... well, that's a whole other story.

Lori Saldaña, a regular contributor to the Earth Times, is a writer, public speaker and photographer who specializes in conservation and environmental issues, and an environmental activist.