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The Not-So-Cleansing Rainfall in San Diego

Saybrook University | Tuesday December 20th, 2011 | 1 Comment

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

Photo courtesy of CBS 8 San Diego

By: Clay Sellers

Every autumn in San Diego County, we residents gird our loins for the fire season.

While New Englanders are marveling at the rapturous beauty of the changing foliage and its subsequent leaf-raking chores, we on the West Coast are clearing out the dry, brittle brush of our desert environment ensuring that there is as much open space surrounding our buildings as we can provide. It’s a bit of an anxious time, but well worth it to live in paradise.

The devastating Cedar fire of 2003 and the more recent Witch Creek and Harris fires of 2007 are only too clear in our memories. Blackened skeletal trees still punctuate the hills and valleys around the county.

A couple of weeks ago, we were blessed with a rare November rainstorm, which hesitated off the Western Pacific Coast for the early week until it finally moved onshore during the weekend. The dark clouds brought a refreshing coolness and doused the dusty trails and dry road beds, soaking away the multitude of pollens and allergy-evoking bits of plant matter that had been drifting about the winds in the valleys for weeks.

After the rains, the cool, clear air smelled sweet and pure and the world appeared washed clean.

Or was it?

Living in this coastal paradise—notwithstanding the seasonal fires—has its price. A quick trip to the San Diego Beach Status website a few days later showed a dismal picture—a seemingly endless progression of yellow warning triangles from Oceanside south to Mexican border at Imperial Beach. There, this snaking line of yellow was punctuated by bold, red danger triangles.  The website pronounced:

The Department of Environmental Health has issued a GENERAL ADVISORY for the coastal waters of San Diego County due to contamination by urban runoff following rain. Swimmers, surfers, and other ocean users are warned that levels of bacteria can rise significantly in ocean waters, especially near storm drains, creeks, rivers, and lagoon outlets that discharge urban runoff.

Urban runoff isn’t an inner city political function, but rather the results of our own progress and expansion. “Urbanization” results in a proliferation of impermeable surfaces—roadways, buildings, and other man-made structures—which do not allow the rain to normally soak into the ground and percolate naturally. Instead, it falls to the hard surfaces and runs down hill, picking up all sorts of man-made hazards on its way to drains, lakes, rivers, and the sea.

“This toxic soup of water and pollution is called stormwater, or urban runoff,” according to HealTheBay.org. “Urban runoff is the main source of pollution to California’s coast.”

While the hazards to swimmers can be annoying—rashes, infections, and lung problems to name a few—the hazards to marine life are also significant. Marine mammals can also develop skin and respiratory problems; high concentrations of these pollutants in inland waterways and lakes has decimated aquatic life, including plant life. There have been concerted efforts in recent years to fight back against our careless destruction of the environment, but progress in that direction is slow.

Discussing the storm water problems with a friend, the question arose: Why, if we as humankind are at the top of the evolutionary chain, are we so detached from the very world that nurtures and sustains us?

Many today would say that we reached that point long ago. Despite the valiant efforts by many environmental groups, including the organizations dedicated to clean bays and harbors throughout the country, I’m afraid that we may have missed the proverbial boat in actually preserving clean, natural waters.

Even though I can breathe much easier after the cleansing rain, I hesitate to grab a boogie board and wade into the waves after a rainfall in San Diego.  And I surely won’t let my dogs swim at Dog Beach in Coronado, at least not for 72 hours.

Clay Sellers is a Ph.D. student in organizational systems at Saybrook University and is a regular contributor to Rethinking Complexity, a blog produced by students and faculty members of Saybrook’s organizational systems program. Read more of Clay’s work at: www.rethinkingcomplexity.com.


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  • Dave Shires

    What percentage of that runoff is coming from Mexico? I suspect a lot!