Residents train their eyes and ears on water pollution
by Kendra Hartmann
Nov 28, 2012 | 2542 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print

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When it comes to water pollution, San Diego Coastkeeper is at the forefront of monitoring the health of San Diego’s waterways. Not surprisingly, however, the nonprofit’s resources are often stretched thin, leaving potential holes in the effort to attain total wellness in our creeks, rivers and oceans.

That’s why the group is lightening its burden by asking San Diegans to step in and keep an eye on things. Enter the pollution reporting hotline.

The pollution reporting hotline is just that — a way for residents to reach out when they witness pollution and bring it to the attention of the appropriate authorities. And because knowing who the appropriate authority is can be tricky when it comes to reporting, say, runoff water flowing onto beaches or a neighbor improperly disposing of waste, Coastkeeper acts as a liaison between vigilant residents and the city department that can address their concerns.

“We’re trying to use our connections to get reports to the right people,” said Jill Witkowski, waterkeeper for Coastkeeper. “Also, some people want to remain anonymous, so there’s more privacy for those who maybe aren’t comfortable providing names to the city. It can also be hard for the city to follow through with anonymous complaints, so we act as the go-between in those cases.”

In some instances, Coastkeeper also provides a more thorough experience than the city has the resources for.

“Some residents want a follow-up to their inquiry, to know what happened, but the city doesn’t have the capacity to do that,” Witkowski said. “We can follow through and keep people informed.”

Recently, La Jolla was the site of two cases of water pollution that, through Coastkeeper’s hotline, were brought to the attention of city officials and quickly resolved. In one case, a resident witnessed a neighbor dumping paint down a storm drain. The resident called the hotline, and the information got passed to Witkowski, who emailed it to the city’s stormwater hotline. When she hadn’t heard back a week later — and when the concerned resident complained that the issue was ongoing — Witkowski decided to call the city’s Think Blue hotline and requested information on the initial complaint. She found out the city’s inspector hadn’t been able to reach the offending resident until that day, but was finally able to get in touch and inform the resident of the policies regarding the disposal of paint. According to a write-up of the incident that Witkowski posted on Coastkeeper’s website, when the resident who had filed the complaint returned home that evening, the neighbor was hard at work cleaning up the mess.

“Reporting these issues is often a last ditch effort for people when they feel like they can’t talk to their neighbors,” Witkowski said. “We like to see it as a way for everybody to pitch in to educate others and help change behaviors, which will lead us to better water quality. We’re just trying to provide a service to help those that can’t reach a solution through neighborly conversation.”

In another case, a La Jollan brought to Coastkeeper’s attention the buildup of sand, mud and debris that had caused the low-flow diversion drains in the community to be clogged, thus causing urban runoff to flow directly into the stormwater drains — and right on to the beach.

Because La Jolla is situated directly in front of an area of special biological significance (ASBS), the city devised a system a few years back to deal with runoff that, when properly maintained, diverts low-flow runoff — from sprinkler systems, driveway car washes, etc. — into the sewer system in the dry season, instead of flowing into the stormwater drains, which lead to the beach. The clogged diversion drains, however, allowed the runoff to skip right over them an into the stormwater drain, rendering the system useless. Once again, the complaint from the resident prompted Coastkeeper to get in touch with the city’s Transportation and Stormwater Department, which quickly took action to correct the problem.

Though the hotline has been in effect for quite some time, Witkowski said the number of incoming calls and emails has increased lately — heartening news for those who, no matter how badly they want to combat water pollution, simply can’t be everywhere at once.

The more we can talk about the pollution problem, the more likely it will be we can do something about it,” she said. “We all contribute to pollution, and it’s difficult and expensive to expect the city and county to clean up after we’ve caused the problem, instead of doing our part to confront it beforehand. I think if people look at it as a pocketbook issue, hopefully that could be an effective message and they’d be prompted to do something.”

Doing something, Witkowski said, can be as easy as talking about action.

“We need to get educated about the impacts of the choices we make, and we can all act on the little things to prevent pollution,” she said. “Taking your car to a car wash that collects the soapy water or washing your car in the grass if you can, making sure your sprinklers water the grass and not the sidewalk — these are all little things we can do. Once we’re able to do those things in our own lives, we can talk to our friends and neighbors. It’s that simple.”

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