crew leads sea change in water quality. San Diego Coastkeeper marks 20th
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
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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
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.
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
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
“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
“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:
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:
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.