Revelations strike where and when they want. This particular one occurred in Northern California, far away from the windswept beaches, far from the mighty redwoods, and without a sun-drenched vineyard in sight.

It was, in fact, while slogging hip high through a manure-settling pond in Davis, California that Travis Pritchard decided a change in career was his next step forward. This realization happened to hit him while he was sweating it out taking agricultural water quality samples.

“It was miserable, the guy was a dirty farmer, there were dead cows everywhere, it was not a good time.”

So Pritchard moved south to his hometown of San Diego, where he’s now Interim Executive Director for San Diego Coastkeeper.

Twenty Years of Victory

San Diego Coastkeeper just celebrated its 20th anniversary. The group has the rare ability to point out landmark success over its two decades, including an early court victory forcing San Diego to upgrade its creaking sewer infrastructure.

“Twenty years ago the city averaged one sewage spill a day. The lawsuit forced the city to spend one billion dollars in upgrades. That’s cut spills down by 90 per cent. So over the last twenty years there are a lot of beaches that would have been closed but are open now because of that win.”

As Interim Executive Director, Pritchard oversees one of the largest water quality monitoring programs in California. Pritchard, along with 250 volunteers, gathers samples from 36 inland river sources in 9 of the 11 watersheds in San Diego County, from Oceanside to the Tijuana River. Even the lab is run on volunteer power, with Pritchard training and overseeing 85 new volunteers a year.

The presence of fecal indicator bacteria is tested using Idexx monitoring systems Enterolert and Colisure. Basic ambient indicators and nutrients such as nitrates, phosphorous and ammonia are also monitored.

San Diego Beach Culture

In the city itself, Pritchard and San Diego Coastkeeper staff work with local government to keep watch over 70 miles of beach.

“Year round. We don’t have a beach season in San Diego, we have a beach culture. I was out at 6 a.m. this morning and it’s not even a warm day and there were already 50 guys surfing.”

Surfers everywhere are often the canary in the coal mine when it comes to ocean health. In the water first and in the water longest, they’re most likely to be the ones who spot sewage spills or other slicks. But they’re not always the first to admit dirty water can make them sick.

“Some of the surfers make the worst misassumptions about the beaches. I’ve actually had guys tell me that they’d built up ‘surfer’s immunity’ because they’d spent so many hours in the water they thought the pathogens couldn’t affect them.”

Photo by Andrew Magill

Public outreach and education remains a big part of Pritchard’s work, and not just with the surfers. Sewage is most likely to be found in the water and on the beaches in San Diego after a rainstorm when urban runoff (lawn fertilizer, dog crap, soap, road oil and greases, and all the other assorted urban flotsam) flash through the city’s stormwater system into open water.

“The problem is that our weather patterns here mean storm one day, beautiful beach day the next. People don’t want to hear that they have to wait 72 hours before going back to the beach, that they can get sick. People just want to get back out there fast, especially when those storms kick up some of the best surfing waves.”

There’s also the problem of cross-border contaminants.

From Mexico, the Tijuana River travels up the Pacific Coast. It reaches some of San Diego’s beaches, which Pritchard gives a solid failing F in the winter when rain and urban runoff are highest.

This is a problem beyond his jurisdiction, but Swim Guide helps. “It’s allowed us to connect to beaches across the country and into Mexico. It’s tied us into dialogue with a broader community.”

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