(760) 741-1200


104 W. Grand Avenue, Suite A
Escondido, California 92025

< Back to News

Small crew leads sea change in water quality. San Diego Coastkeeper marks 20th anniversary 
Joshua Emerson Smith, November 15, 2015

Forcing mega corporations to clean up San Diego Bay. Making city officials speed up their work on crumbling sewer pipes. Helping to usher in a new era of water conservation for the region with an unprecedented water-recycling plan.

San Diego Coastkeeper, a nonprofit with a handful of employees and a small boat, has realized these achievements with 20 years of dogged lobbying, diplomacy and litigation.

The group, which its members affectionately describe as “the biggest little environmental organization nobody's ever heard of,” is marking its anniversary in a region that hasn't always welcomed its efforts.

While Coastkeeper has provided a model for environmental activism, its future success could require its own evolution. After seeing its budget sliced in half because of the Great Recession, the group now hopes to rebuild while continuing its legacy.

“Threats always come from new and unexpected places,” said Coastkeeper's interim executive director, Travis Pritchard. “To fix these problems, we can pull from our experience. But we must learn, be nimble and think creatively to develop solutions that will work for each unique problem.”

Lately, Coastkeeper's financial picture has improved, prompting talks of bringing back a second staff attorney. But first, the nonprofit has to find a new executive director, a search that's been ongoing for two months.

“We spent a lot of time on the search committee,” said Elizabeth Taylor, president of the nonprofit's board. “It's a special skill set, someone who's able to effectively form relationships with a very diverse group. We respect people even if you have different viewpoints.”

Two decades ago, San Diego wasn't a friendly place for environmentalists, especially water-quality activists.

Coastkeeper board member Everett DeLano served as the group's first staff attorney during the mid-1990s. He previously worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in Denver.

“Get down to San Diego and it felt to me like we rolled the clock 20 years backward,” he said. “I was blown away.”

DeLano said he routinely felt like a “pariah” when speaking before the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency that deals with everything from permits for watersheds to urban runoff fouling the county's coastline. “When I stood up at hearings, we were persona non grata in those conversations. They didn't want to hear from us — industry, municipalities, regulators, none of them wanted us at the table.”

John Robertus, former executive officer of the water quality board, joined that agency in 1995 — the same year San Diego Coastkeeper was founded. It took the better part of a decade, he said, but the nonprofit has made a sizable impact on the mindset of regulators.

“It's definitely had a positive effect,” Robertus said. “The board members who were appointed either weren't in tune or had marching orders. The awakening was accelerated by Coastkeeper, that you had to stop polluting.

“You have to understand, there was a paradigm that it was OK to pollute, everybody does it,” he added.

In 1999, after Bruce Reznik joined Coastkeeper as executive director, the group scored its first major court victory. The ruling held Southwest Marine, now called BAE Systems San Diego Ship Repair, accountable for discharging pollution into the bay.

Reznik continued to build the organization during the next 11 years, establishing it as a group not only to be respected but also feared.

In 2003, Coastkeeper racked up another significant triumph when a San Diego Superior Court judge dismissed a developer-led lawsuit challenging protections in the water quality board's regional stormwater permit. At the same time, Camp Pendleton agreed to implement a program for preventing sewage spills.

Then in 2005, Coastkeeper reached a landmark settlement with San Diego that forced the city to spend millions of dollars in upgrades to sewage infrastructure that had been leaking waste on a daily basis.

“It's a group that really at its core is about advocacy,” said Reznik, who now works as executive director of Los Angeles Coastkeeper. “At its heart we are an organization, a movement that stands up and says, ‘These waterways belong to all of us, and we're not going to allow people to pollute.' If that's pissing off powers that be, if that's suing people that need to get sued, that's what we're here to do.”

San Diego Coastkeeper is part of an international network of more than 260 “waterkeeper” organizations in more than 21 countries. The first waterkeeper group formed in the 1980s on the Hudson River in New York. In 1999, a Waterkeeper Alliance was founded to support waterkeeper groups that had independently launched all over the world.

In California, there are 12 waterkeeper groups and a statewide Coastkeeper Alliance based in San Francisco.

Like other waterkeeper groups, San Diego Coastkeeper does more than take large polluters to court. Its programs include Project SWELL, a partnership with the San Diego Unified School District that teaches students about water conservation.

Starting in 2000, the local Coastkeeper launched a campaign to monitor water quality around the county. It's now the largest such program in the state, with more than 100 volunteers.

Along with its successes, San Diego Coastkeeper has weathered its challenges.

It was hit hard by the economic downturn. After 2010, the small organization went from pulling in more than $1.4 million a year to less than half that amount. At its peak, the nonprofit had 17 full-time staff members. The current count is five.

Reznik left for Los Angeles in 2010, shorty before the financial troubles. Megan Baehrens, formerly part of the local group's development team, eventually took over as executive director. Under her leadership, Coastkeeper continue to notch regulatory victories.

In 2012, the regional water quality board ordered a major cleanup of shipyards in San Diego Bay. Under pressure from Coastkeeper and others, the regulators agreed that the city of San Diego, the Navy, San Diego Gas & Electric and shipbuilders were responsible for allowing toxic heavy metals to accumulate in soil at the bottom of the bay.

Still, it was a precarious time for the group. Tension between activism and fundraising increased as the nonprofit looked for new donors.

“They had a phase that was more oriented toward cooperation, but that's not necessarily always a bad thing,” said former board member Nicole Capretz, who now heads up Climate Action Campaign, a group focused on local environmental policies. “Stability and funding are a challenge for almost all nonprofits. After a period of a few years, (Coastkeeper) went back to the original model — which is you have to use every tool, including litigation.”

Environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez of the Coast Law Group in Encinitas said he stopped working with Coastkeeper until recently because he had become disillusioned by its softer tactics. His assessment shifted last year after the group hired attorney Matt O'Malley as its waterkeeper.

“I think things changed when Bruce left, and things changed when Matt showed up,” he said. “They've been back to their old self again. They're not afraid to wield the stick that the movement was founded on.”

O'Malley has aggressively pursued tougher stormwater runoff rules for the building industry and taken on a proposal for a massive fish farm proposed by the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, raising questions about the project's potential impact ocean life.

“My philosophy as an advocate is, and has been for some time, that in order to be effective, all tools need to be left on the table,” O'Malley said. “What that amounts to is a good mix of policy advocacy in the legislative and executive arenas and litigation.”

Today, Coastkeeper has some unlikely members on its board of directors, including several developers. Lani Lutar, a lobbyist and former president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, joined the board about six months ago.

While this might seem like strange bedfellows to some, Lutar has played a key role in pushing bipartisan support for the Pure Water program, a multibillion-dollar venture that would turn wastewater currently processed at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant into drinking water. Nearly a decade in the making, the project only recently secured initial approval from the city of San Diego.

“I have an appreciation for the organization's mission because of my background at the Taxpayers Association,” Lutar said. “Both types of organizations are in existence to hold the government accountable for being in compliance with laws.”

“I view myself as a taxpayer advocate, and I think the piece of the picture that people don't always see is that Coastkeeper has saved the city a tremendous amount of resources,” she added.

As the organization goes forward, major challenges remain. Stormwater runoff from municipal and industrial sources continue to pollute San Diego's beaches. Pure Water is far from a done deal. And SeaWorld's fish farm proposal remains controversial.

With few water-quality organizations in the region as influential as Coastkeeper, observers said the nonprofit's direction will largely determine the future of water-quality advocacy in the region.


Reduced sewage spills:

In 2005, the city of San Diego agreed to invest roughly $1 billion over several years in sewage infrastructure upgrades as a result of a Clean Water Act lawsuit spearheaded by Coastkeeper. As a result, sewer spills, which in 2000 occurred daily, decreased by more than 90 percent.

In 2013, Camp Pendleton, under pressure from a Coastkeeper lawsuit, agreed to ramp up its sewer infrastructure maintenance at the Marine installation in order to reduce sewage spills to fewer than 10 a year by 2017. It also agreed to notify the environmental group of spills greater than 50,000 gallons or those that trigger beach closures.

Marine protected areas:

In 2010, the California Fish and Game Commission voted 2-to-3 to create Marine Protected Areas along the California coast between the Point Conception lighthouse in Santa Barbara County and the Mexican border. Along with regional partners, Coastkeeper fought for several years to create these so-called “underwater state parks” that prohibit or limit fishing to preserve the coastal ecosystem.

Included in a statewide network of Marine Protected Areas, San Diego has locations at Swamis in Encinitas, south La Jolla, Point Loma and Imperial Beach. With limited state resources for enforcement, Coastkeeper routinely monitors these areas, alerts people to regulations and reports violators, if need be, to the regional Fish and Game warden.

Bay sediment cleanup:

In 2012, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered the local shipbuilding industries and the United States Navy, San Diego Gas & Electric and the San Diego Unified Port District to clean up decades of soil pollution collected on the bottom of the bay. The order to remove the contaminated soil, resulted from a years-long campaign by Coastkeeper and several other environment groups, which included legal posturing, public campaigning and the release of multiple technical studies.

Pure Water deal:

In 2014, the San Diego City Council voted unanimously to approve long-term plans to create drinking water from recycled sewage, a project known as Pure Water. Led by Coastkeeper, environmental groups had long pressured elected officials to adopt a wastewater recycling program.

The water-quality group and others eventually cornered decision makers, who for years had put off roughly $2 billion in upgrades needed at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant. As part of a negotiated deal, conservatives at the city agreed to pursue recycling effluent for drinking, which is currently discharged into the ocean in violation of environmental standards. The $3.5-billion endeavor would include constructing three recycling plants and miles of pipe.




Home | Practice Areas | Firm Background | FAQ’s | News | Resources | Attorneys | Contact | About Your Case
Law Offices of DeLano & DeLano ©2015 All Rights Reserved. Site by Sterling Productions