For this Swim Guide Spotlight, we reached out to Matt O’Malley from San Diego Coastkeeper to learn more about their work with water recycling.
Where: San Diego USA
Number of regions: 1
Number of sites: 85
Sampling season: Year round
Sampling frequency: Once a week
Swim Guide Affiliate since: 2012
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Matt: My name is Matt O’Malley and I’m the executive director and managing attorney at San Diego Coastkeeper as well as the waterkeeper. I’ve been with Coastkeeper for seven and a half years but I was involved with the organization for a little bit before that. My background is in environmental law. About 22 years ago I decided that I wanted to have a career in trying to make change around the world concerning the environment. Since then I’ve been engaged in environmental advocacy, policy, and litigation.
I ended up coming to San Diego almost 12 years ago and I immediately reached out to the director of Coastkeeper at the time and asked how to get engaged. When a position opened up with them I applied and got the job. I started as a legal policy director/waterkeeper in 2014. A few years later I became the executive director. It’s a heavy lift, I do everything from litigation to policy to legislation to HR.
Matt: Our jurisdiction covers 11 coastal watersheds in San Diego County, which consist of about 70 miles of coastline including rivers, creeks, lagoons, wetlands, and two large bays. Our county and all of its watersheds make up the most biologically diverse county in the United States. We have everything from deserts to wetlands as well as 11 Marine Protected Areas that we fought very hard for.
We also get very little rain in San Diego. This year we only got around 4.5 inches, which doesn’t sound like much but with climate change, when it rains it really pours. This can lead to runoff and pollution issues.
Matt: We import over 80% of our water so water supply issues are primary. Most of our imported water comes from the Colorado River many miles away. Very little of our water is locally sourced. Desalination plants are energy intensive and expensive but at San Diego Coastkeeper we saw other options.
Historically, San Diego county has spent a whole lot of money and energy importing water from other places, treating it once, and then dumping it partially treated into the ocean to the tune of hundreds of millions of gallons a day. That’s problematic because it causes nutrient pollution and interferes with protected areas and the natural function of ecosystems. It seems idiotic to us to not try and recycle that water and as a result we pushed for a large scale wastewater recycling program.
Additionally, our waterbodies are heavily recreated in and any day of the year there are surfers, swimmers, and tourists down here. Despite that, we have a lot of bacteria in our waters. Certain parts of our counties had bay closures for 300 out of 365 days which is unacceptable to us. Like other keepers, we believe everybody has a fundamental right to clean water.
Matt: We wanted to figure out how to stop dumping pollutants in the ocean and also how to create a local water supply. It took 15 years of us consistently advocating for large scale wastewater reuse until we were finally able to work out a long term deal that would significantly reduce the release of polluted wastewater into the oceans.
We worked out a deal where the city would have to produce up to 83 million gallons a day of potable water as of 2035. This project is a win-win solution as it not only reduces the ejection of wastewater into the ocean, which worsens red tides and harms local marine wildlife, but also increases local water supply so we don’t have to rely on imported sources.
Originally the city estimated that by 2035 the recycling program would contribute 30% of the city’s water supply but because of conservation efforts that we’ve advocated for, the city estimates that the pure water project will actually supply 50% of the city’s supply by 2035. This is one of our biggest accomplishments as an organization over 26 years and we are extremely proud of the project’s multi-benefit solution.
Matt: Yes, to the extent that water is used indoors and can be recaptured, it can be recycled indefinitely since it will go back into the system where it gets purified, then put in a reservoir, and then treated again to become drinking water.
Matt: This is the largest surface reservoir recycling project in America, and maybe even the world. It’s a pretty novel thing. When we were fighting for this project we wanted to implement stormwater capture as well. If we could implement more water recycling in the form of stormwater capture, it could boost the water supply even higher than 50%. We want to rely less on other ecosystems, which in turn builds climate resilience and water independence.
Matt: I was able to stand on the shoulders of the people who came before me in laying the groundwork for this project. I give them so much credit for allowing me and the organization to negotiate this project over years.
I learned that persistence really pays off because from start to finish it took around 15-17 years of advocacy, litigation, negotiation, education, and any other -tion words you can think of! Once we arrived at the agreement in 2015, looking forward towards 2035 felt like forever. But now we’re six or seven years into it and it actually does come along quickly. There were a few folks who said, “Well we just want San Diego to upgrade its treatment plants”, but we said why spend two billion dollars to keep dumping 200 million gallons a day into the ocean? Let’s reuse that water. Getting creative and looking at the big picture is a great lesson I’ve learned.
It also taught me that cross-sector stakeholder group building helps. We did not approach this only as environmentalists but also considered who else in the region would benefit from water recycling? We would go into city council meetings and have environment, business, and labor groups aligned which carried greater weight. Figuring out how to form factions that weren’t necessarily friends but had mutual interests was integral.
Matt: Our mantra is reduce, reuse, recycle, which is one of the first environmental lessons you learn as a kid. Same thing goes for water. We want to reduce our use because we’re so reliant on outside sources in San Diego, which burdens other ecosystems. We have an ethical and moral responsibility to use water wisely and with the value it deserves, which includes recycling it as much as possible. If we want to keep prospering as a society, these are the kinds of solutions we all need to look at.
We also try to train advocates of the future. We call it “one water solutions”. We look at water as one single resource and manage it as such and treat it as such. We need to keep stressing that water is a precious single resource that needs to be managed, reused, and recycled to the greatest extent possible in an eco-friendly way.
Matt: We use a multi-prong approach: Science, education, outreach, and advocacy. We have staff who develop water and science curriculum for our school district and teach students about the importance of water and water pollution. We also do water monitoring to provide water quality data. We do a lot of outreach like advocacy training, beach cleanups, and litigation. A lot of our work revolves around stormwater and wastewater because this intersection causes a lot of our water quality issues in San Diego. Being heavily recreated and biologically rich comes with a lot of responsibility to protect the ecosystem and the people. We’re very active in that space.
Matt: By the book it would be how biodiverse it is, but to me personally I feel like after travelling all over the world, I recognize that every time I come back to San Diego, I just love it here. The fact that you can go hiking in the upper watershed and see mountain lions and deer and then within 15-20 minutes you could be snorkeling with sea lions and sea turtles or doing whale watching, is amazing. It’s just so beautiful and diverse. It’s really unique and magical.
I would urge anyone who hasn’t come to San Diego to do so and especially if where you live it gets cold, it’s a good place to be comfortable year-round. I feel really happy that I can make my career and my life protecting this place because it is so special. Everyone on our staff feels that same way. It could be a burden but it’s also a really great thing to have.
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