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Volunteers Vital To San Diego County Waterways

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Aired 4/19/09

San Diego county, city and state agencies don't have money to monitor water quality at many areas of the county on a regular basis. But that's where dozens of volunteers step in, donating their time on weekends to check more than 14 different sites. KPBS Environmental Reporter Ed Joyce tells us about these watershed teams.

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(Photo: Volunteers receive training at Coastkeeper's Liberty Station office. Ed Joyce/KPBS )

The Blue Water Task Force was formed nine years ago by the Surfrider Foundation and San Diego Coastkeeper.

Volunteers from watershed teams test water samples in rivers, lagoons, streams and other waterways along San Diego County's 75-mile coast.  

Coastkeeper's Lillian Luong is the program coordinator.

She says the government agencies don't have the funding to perform monthly checks of the county's watershed areas.

Luong:
It's pretty much not enough funding or not enough manpower and we're tying to get grants and trying to fill in those gaps.

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(Photo: Lillian Luong, right, is the program coordinator for Coastkeeper. Ed Joyce/KPBS News )

Luong is one of several people training new volunteers on Saturday mornings at Coastkeeper's Liberty Station office.

The outdoor fountains serve as convenient training sites.  

Luong:
So what you do is you just open it up, open the seal, break the seal.

She trains volunteers to use five different testing instruments to record key data such as air and water temperature.

And Luong demonstrates the three ways of collecting the water in a bag - using a bucket, a pole and by hand.
 
Luong:
You just submerge a few inches deep and then take it along and take your sample.

Luong makes sure the volunteers know how to collect the samples without contaminating them and watches as the group practices each technique at the fountain.

After the hands-on field equipment training, volunteers break into teams and head out to various testing sites.

I follow four volunteers and two team leaders to their first stop - the mouth of the Los Penasquitos Lagoon.

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(Photo: Watershed team tests water samples at the Los Penasquitos Lagoon. Ed Joyce/KPBS )

Kinnane: It's an estuary and we have a number of rivers and creeks draining into a wetland area here that then comes on through and goes into the ocean, which is right in view there, a couple hundred yards away. And it's a very sort of interesting biological border between salt and freshwater environments.

Team leader Adrian Kinnane says there's a wide variety of marine life in the water - but today's task is testing water quality.

Kinnane:
Which has to do with the ph levels, the salinity, the water flow itself-the rate of flow, the number of hydrogen ions or electrical conductivity of the water and the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, which tells us something about how it might be able to support the variety of life that we, we hope is in there and we're pretty sure is in there right now. But we keep monitoring to make sure that life can grow in there.

Kinnane and the other team leader, Steve Kwik, are here to assist Monique Ford, Carylie Miller, Alyssa Blakely and Vanessa Bento.

The four college students are part of an increasing number of volunteers coming from local colleges - this foursome sent by their microbiology professor.

Volunteer:
It's definitely better and more interesting than the lab report which is like the alternative to actually getting out and doing something hands-on so...

Team leader Kinnane says the tasks may look easy, but there's a lot going on.

Kinnane:
You're sort of standing around being quiet, trying to pay attention to how much time has gone by because you have to take measurements at specific intervals and there's a lot of very detail-oriented activity going on. But to the outside observer it might look as though you're just sort of standing around, but your mind is concentrating all the time you know, on the measurements.

The practice at the Liberty Station fountains pays off.

The four volunteers efficiently split the tasks of sampling the water, taking measurements and logging the information.

Kinnane: So have we finished this site. Yeah, great, I think so. So we're ready for the next one. I must warn you from here on in we're going in to some sort of tough jungle territory.

The group heads out to their next testing site.

Later in the day, the volunteers return the samples to the Coastkeeper lab, where the samples are prepared for testing the following day.

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(Photo: Lab and data manager, Justin Hohn prepares samples for testing at the Coastkeeper lab. Ed Joyce/KPBS News )

That's when Justin Hohn, the lab and data manager, takes over.

Hohn:
So what you have behind here in these incubators is all the samples from yesterday. They have been mixed with free agents and we're testing the water samples for indicator bacteria.

Like the field operation, the lab is completely operated by volunteers.

Hohn:
This data is used then to bring about the awareness that we have high levels of potential bacterial or nutrients, different environmental pollutants in these water areas that currently aren't being monitored.

Some of those areas are monitored but by local volunteers, not by the city or state.

Program Coordinator Lillian Luong says the testing wouldn't be possible without more than 400 volunteers who pitch in each year to collect the water samples from Imperial Beach to Oceanside.
 
Ed Joyce, KPBS News.

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