REGION — Commuting along Interstate 15, just before exiting Auto Parkway in Escondido, motorists drive over a concrete bedded portion of Escondido Creek. Whatever debris and other materials that find its way in there will eventually flow from that creek into the nearby watershed and possibly all the way out to one of North County’s beaches.
“It’s a recognition that what we do inland affects everything,” said Everett DeLano, an Escondido-based attorney and longtime member of the San Diego Coastkeeper.
And someone walking along the beach may stop to pick up that debris.
That might be a modest component to helping keep the beaches and waters clean, but somebody has to do it, DeLano said. “But what it does is raise the awareness level,” he added.
For 20 years now, San Diego Coastkeeper, a part of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, has been working to raise that awareness level about all things water related throughout the county.
Recently, that includes bringing attention to inland North County — namely the drought — and asking the question of where will the region’s drinking water be coming from, explained Megan Baehrens, executive director of Coastkeeper.
The organization has spoken out extensively against desalination plants and the state’s policy on their construction, including the one in Carlsbad, which is slated to go online later this year.
“Water recycling and conservation are always our top tier choices for water supplies,” said Baehrens. “Desalination, in some regions, at some point in time, and done in certain ways, can be an important part of water supply, but here in San Diego County and with the technology that they have now, it’s a really poor choice for us, because we haven’t exhausted other ways to get water,” she said.
The nonprofit has grown from a two-individual, single-issue organization back when it was known as Baykeepers, to one that now includes educators, scientists and lawyers, capable of affecting change by holding local government and businesses accountable through litigation — something not all nonprofits have the ability to do.
That’s what drew Marco Gonzalez, an attorney at the Coast Law Group, LLP in Encinitas, to the organization.
“They were the one environmental group out there that really wasn’t scared to use litigation as a primary tool for achieving its environmental objectives,” said Gonzalez.
In the early 2000s, Gonzalez was the lawyer representing San Diego Coastkeeper and the Surfrider Foundation in a lawsuit against the city of San Diego for what he said was its “historic neglect of its sewage infrastructure.”
The city, Gonzalez said, was having more than 360 sewage spills every year because their sewage pipes weren’t being maintained.
Ultimately, the lawsuit resulted in a settlement with the city having to replace or rehabilitate thousands of miles of pipe over a number of years.
That resulted in a reduction of sewage spills by more than 85 percent, he said.
“That’s probably Coastkeeper’s biggest achievement when you think about the impact to the people who use the beach, to the reputation of San Diego and the impact on tourism,” said Gonzalez. “We used to be considered one of the dirty water capitals of our country and we’re not anymore.”
But being a nonprofit with the ability to use litigation can lead some to see them as overly aggressive, making fundraising a challenge.
Coastkeeper operates totally on donation-based funding, according to Baehrens. Though she said they have a diverse portfolio of funding resources, which include foundations, corporate contributions, individuals and grants from the state for their water-monitoring program.
“If the nonprofit community doesn’t have the capacity to sue, then agencies and government in general, they don’t have the incentive to comply,” Gonzalez said. “I think we’d have a lot more dirty water, we’d have a lot more bad projects.”
DeLano agrees that litigation is a helpful tool for the organization. And as to whether it would ever become too expensive or time-consuming for the nonprofit to pursue a lawsuit, DeLano said that’s always a consideration no matter what the group is.
“Can you afford to do it…on the other hand sometimes, it’s, can you afford not to do it?” he added.
Baehrens said that looking ahead to the next 20 years, Coastkeeper sees an evolution of issues, but not really a wholesale exchange — one for the other.
“So we’ll continue to work on preventing water pollution, urban runoff…and water supply,” she said.