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North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

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Watching Over Our Waterways

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Oceanside CA— Today, June 8, 2016 is ‘World Oceans Day’, a global day of ocean celebration and collaboration for a better future. This year’s theme is ‘Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet.
In Oceanside, Dr. Mo Lahsaie, Ph.D.,REHS, aka Dr. Mo, and his team at the Oceanside Water Utilities Department have the task of getting and keeping local waterways in compliance with Federal and State standards.
An Oceanside resident for more than 25 years, Dr. Lahsaie has been in charge of the city’s Clean Water Program since 2003. Dr. Lahsaie, who is of Persian descent, has been in the United States for forty-years, over twenty-seven of those have been working for various government agencies, mostly in the environmental arena.
A large part of Dr. Lahsaie and his teams’ responsibilities are keeping our waterways in compliance with a master regional permit. The permit which covers most every city, 18 of them, in San Diego County is titled Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems or MS4. “The reason it is called ‘separate’ is we have two different sewer systems. A sanitary system and the storm drain system.” explained Dr. Lahsaie “It wasn’t until recently that people understood the difference between the two systems. People would wash their cars, change their oil and wash that down in the driveway thinking it would go to the sewer plant. It doesn’t. It goes straight to the nearest receiving waters, meaning a local creek, river or the ocean.” Oceanside isn’t unique in that regard “The entire state of California is like that except for possibly San Francisco which has a very old combined system.” said Dr. Lahsaie.
Older cities, such as the larger cities on the east coast, have combined systems. “When it rains hard and the storm sewers get overwhelmed, everything gets bypassed because the treatment plants can’t handle it and that isn’t a good thing.”
The MS4 is given to local governments through the Regional Water Quality Control Board which is a branch of CalEPA. The permit is divided into to nine territories and most of San Diego County is in Region 9.
“Everyone in the region has to communicate with each other. We all have to adhere to the same standards. However, there are different requirements for us to protect our water at the coast as opposed to a city like Escondido or Lakeside.” continued Dr. Lahsaie, “Everyone agrees that this permit is the most stringent permit that you can see at the Federal level.”
The MS4 permit falls under a Federal category of permits titled ‘National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System’ (NPDES) “No other permit requires such demanding standards because it touches almost everything.” explained Dr. Lahsaie, “The reason is; the discharges that come through the storm drains have more impact on water quality than almost any other source on our waterways. Imagine all the cities and the activities around us. When the rain comes, that’s it. All of that goes to the storm drain, into the waterways and those need to be protected.”
Waterways are defined as any creeks, rivers, lakes, ponds, ocean, whatever is natural and waterways have a natural ability to clean themselves.
The permit has eleven components to it and covers among others, industrial, commercial, residential and municipal activities. “It says we have to monitor all of our waterways to see what going into them and that is very costly. We also have to do a lot of inspections in those categories. We are required to inspect everything once a year. It’s close to one thousand sites we inspect every year.”


Oceanside is the third largest city in San Diego County after San Diego and Chula Vista, “We have a big town with a lot of businesses here plus we are a coastal city. We have a lot of interest and concerns in keeping our beaches clean. After all, everything eventually drains to the beach.”
Dr. Lahsaie and his colleges work closely with other departments in the city to make sure they are in compliance, “For example; say a large truck tips over and there is a fuel spill. The fire department calls us and we do some detective work to find out where the spill is going and collect the fuel. We have to do a lot what we call CSI-clean water. We do a lot of detective work to identify the pollutant and find the source.”
“We know that when it rains, there is going to be a lot of pollutants washed into the waterways. If that pollutant load is larger than what the receiving water can take care of by itself, that waterway will be declared an impaired body of water. That body of water will go on a Federal list called the Clean Water Act 303D list.” continued Dr. Lahsaie “The list is only for certain pollutants. You may have a body of water with a heavy load of bacteria but not nutrients or some may have heavy loads of nutrient but not bacteria. For example we know the San Luis Rey River is above that limit for bacteria. In Loma Alta Creek, we know our nutrients and bacteria are above the limit that the creek can take care of by itself so that goes on the list. Once you’re on that list, there is another mandate that applies.”
The mechanism that kicks in and is enforced by CalEPA is titled ‘Total Maximum Daily Load’ (TMDL). “Essentially, every waterway has a maximum load that it can take, above that they are impaired. It’s like our liver. If you drink a little alcohol, your liver can handle it but as you drink more, the liver can’t handle it any longer. The alcohol is bypassed by the liver into your blood and you become intoxicated. Same thing with a river. It can take a little as it flows along but too much, you intoxicate the river and disaster is going to happen.”
We have two TMDL mandate locations in Oceanside; the San Luis Rey River and Loma Alta Creek. “You can’t clean a river overnight. The nice thing about these mandates is they give you enough time to work on a resolution, between 10 and 20 years depending on the severity of the problem.” Each time period is set after a series of complex calculations done by engineers.
So what do you do? “You beef up inspections. Instead of once a year, you do it twice a year. You beef up enforcement and you aggressively seek the sources of the contamination and eliminate them. We know the bacteria level is high in the river but why is it high? Is it man made and something we can control or is it natural that we have no control over? So we do scientific studies, which are very expensive, to determine the cause of the high levels.”
The city has completed one study on the San Luis Rey and another is underway at Loma Alta Creek. “The only way we can do these is because we received grant money. The studies cost about half a million dollars.” said Dr. Lahsaie.
Water samples are taken and sent to a lab. “They have very complex equipment there like a police lab that collects DNA. They can tell us; these bacteria came from human guts. These came from dogs or this one came from birds. If it’s human or dogs, it’s our responsibility. We can educate people about their dogs. Some of the problem is our homeless situation. Of course we can have accidental sources too such as a leaking sewer pipe.”
In one instance people began complaining of a foul odor coming from near the mouth of the river. “One of the sewer guys looked inside a storm drain thinking that there might have been a dead animal in the drain. Instead he found that a private sewer line was leaking into the storm drain causing the odor and contaminating water in the area. They fixed it and the problem went away.”
“Thousands of birds landing in an estuary we can’t do anything about. Those problems are called natural contribution.”


The San Luis Rey River heads, or originates, in the mountains east of Oceanside. “Everyone along the river is in it with us. We collaborate with the County and those cities, along with five Native American tribes, all working together to solve problems.” The plan everyone works under is titled, the Water Quality Improvement Plan (WQIP). “All of us use the WQIP to protect the area as a whole.” said Dr Lahsaie.
Because the river travels along way before it gets to Oceanside, there are more sources for contaminants to enter the river. “The city is aggressively monitoring bacteria levels in the San Luis Rey River including the agricultural area east of the city.”
“Loma Alta Creek on the other hand is all ours.” Loma Alta Creeks makes daylight near Oceanside Blvd. and Melrose. “We don’t have anyone to join us when there is a problem there. There might be a little runoff from Vista but the entire watershed is Oceanside.” The blueprint the city follows for Loma Alta Creek is titled the Jurisdictional Runoff Management Plan (JRMP).
Simply, a watershed is the amount of land that drains into a common body of water. Each watershed has its own WQIP.
The drought brings along pluses and minuses for water quality. “When we have drought, we ask people to use less water, use less irrigation so there is less runoff. Less runoff means less load. That’s good. But when there is less water, the concentration of soup is much higher, especially when the source of contamination isn’t stopped.” continued Dr. Lahsaie, “Mostly during the drought years; I see an improvement in water quality especially when we put in the drought restrictions.”
“The low hanging fruit for us in all of this is education.” explained Dr. Lahsaie, “We need to educate people. For example; If the bacteria level is high in a creek, it’s probably because you’re not picking up after your pet. So we spend a lot of time on educating everyone, from kids in kindergarten to senior citizens. One of our inspectors spends a lot of her time just doing education. We work very closely with the three school districts, in Oceanside, and try to integrate our education into their science programs.”
That’s the beauty of this job.” said Dr. Lahsaie, “Everyone in the city is involved with keeping the water clean.”

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Watching Over Our Waterways