Project STAR: Simple Technology Against Runoff

How long will we have to wait for local government to do something about polluted runoff? Well, some citizens are going to show them how its done.

by Robert LaRosa

fter a decade of debate, the state's water quality watchdog agencies have joined with federal authorities to comply with the Clean Water Act. Called the Plan for California's Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program, the long overdue partnership between the state's Water Resource Control Board (and its local boards) the Coastal Commission and the feds is intended to combat the daily flow of chemicals and organic waste that contaminate lowland canyons, creeks and wetlands emptying into waterways.

In San Diego, the quarrel over protecting Mission Bay, known as the world's largest city aquatic park, has endured for nearly a half-century. Even as identified sources of sewage spills add to ubiquitous contaminants from the entire watershed, solutions to combat pollution fouling San Diego's premier recreation park and source of tourist dollars are being rehashed.

Instead of waiting for government largess to pony up big bucks for vague water quality programs, citizens can find ways of reducing the effect of everyday runoff during dry weather. A good place to start is with Rose Creek, a major source of pollution entering Mission Bay. In addition to the creek's visibility as entryway to beach communities, and averaging 300,000 vehicles every day over its three bridges, Rose Canyon has a history of ecological and economic significance.

Fed by tiny seeps and springs from chaparral-covered highlands now part of Scripps Ranch and the City of Poway, Rose Creek's corridor was home to nearly every species of plant and animal inhabiting San Diego's bioregion. City Founding Fathers developed manufacturing facilities in Rose Canyon that depended on the creek for water and provided jobs crucial to the growth of early San Diego.

The 45 sq. mile watershed, which now includes federal, state, county and city lands drained by Rose Creek and its major tributary, San Clemente Creek, has not seen its remarkable fish species - Southern steelhead for nearly seven decades. Timeworn gravel, used as nests for spawning, are scant evidence of the silvery giants whose yearly return were celebrated for millennia by San Diego's original inhabitants, and later, European colonialists and early Californians.

Today, as Mission Bay's mainstream connector, Rose Creek is a conduit for daily runoff that contributes to the brew that fouls Mission Bay and its vast recreation-resort. From Scripps Ranch, La Jolla, University City, Clairemont and Pacific Beach, consumer and industrial product residue finds its way into the creek's 21-mile reach through countless storm drains. The mix of chemicals and organic waste that is flushed into curbside gutters from everywhere, everyday, is known as nonpoint source pollution (NPS).

Using Rose Creek as an educational demonstration site for treating NPS offers many advantages. The heavily traveled and populated area is in the heart of the city's coastal core and is adjacent to nearly 24 schools and colleges. What's more, San Diego's Regional Water Quality Control Board has targeted Rose Creek's toxicity, and along with the state's Resources Agency and Dept. of Transportation, is supporting the Nature School's wetland ecology and watershed education activities as part of the Rose Creek Restoration and Nature Education Preserve, an ongoing volunteer project honored by two California governors for citizen initiative.

One method of treating dry weather runoff consists of creating small pools or basins to collect daily discharge from street culverts. By detaining what drains from community storm gutters, Rose Creek's marsh plants and animals can help filter pollutants before they reach Mission Bay. Constructs of rock, earth and native wetland species in conjunction with naturally occurring microscopic organisms, are known as bioengineering. Such ecologic systems have been working to clean water for countless millennia. It's time to give nature a chance to begin the process of healing our beaches and bays.

Collaboration of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with state agencies represents the right move to protect coastal systems which serve as fish and wildlife nurseries, bird sanctuaries and whose biofil-tration function is crucial to water quality and aquatic recreation. Citizens too, have a responsibility for environmental quality by reducing NPS through careful use of consumer products and proper disposal of hazardous materials.

Besides supporting neighborhood programs that teach people to care about what they allow to enter storm drains, public agencies ought to be held accountable for frequent sewage spills.

Instead of waiting years for big budget fixes like automated sewer interceptor diversions, installing catch basins in canyon wetlands and creeks is an immediate, affordable way to treat ordinary urban runoff. San Diegans should not delay in putting into place doable measures to save aquatic habitats and recreational waters from harmful contaminants. Catch basins are good for water resources and show what public-minded residents can do for community quality of life.

A water treatment demonstration planned by local conservationists, The Nature School, is named STAR, Simple Technology Against Runoff. The project intends to use natural materials in "do-it-yourself" catch basins (bioengineered fascines) installed in Rose Creek as a compass to guide affordable solutions throughout the county.

For a city dependent on coastal water resources for its way of life, reducing contaminants from autos, household toxics and business waste that flow daily into street gutters and into our waterways is crucial. Doing it cheaply and simply is an idea whose time has come.

The Nature School, (619) 224-2003; email:;