Protecting and Restoring the Morro Bay Estuary.

First Flush in the Morro Bay Watershed: What goes down the drain?

First Flush in the Morro Bay Watershed: What goes down the drain?

First Flush Embarcadero

 

 

Each fall, many of us busily prepare for the first big rain of the wet season. Homeowners might clean out gutters and put away patio furniture. Cities often run their street sweepers and vacuum out storm drains to prevent flooding. This past fall, the Estuary Program prepared for what is known as First Flush monitoring.

What’s the harm in a little runoff?

In the course of daily life, pollutants build up on our streets and sidewalks. Things like oil spills from cars, fertilizer from landscaping, pet waste, and trash can gather. When the first big rain arrives, these pollutants are washed from our yards and streets, down the gutters, and into the nearest storm drain.

First Flush Embarcadero

If you live in Morro Bay, runoff and pollutants go straight into the bay without any treatment. Things like bacteria, metals, sediment, nutrients, and fuel can be harmful to humans and toxic to wildlife. This storm drain is located at the end of Marina Street, and the discharged stormwater often results in a visible plume of sediment and sometimes even foam.

First Flush monitoring is important because the first storm of the season often has the highest pollutant load of any of the storms during the year, due to the length of time since the last storm. The more time between storms, the more pollutants build up in streets and yards.

Paved areas like sidewalks, patios, and parking lots can exacerbate the impact of runoff because the water isn’t able to sink into the earth in these areas. Instead, it rushes to the nearest drain or straight into the bay, carrying with it the pollutants it picked up along the way. One area of concern in our watershed is the large paved parking lot at State Park Marina. During storms, rainfall runs off the parking lot and straight into the bay.

State Park Marina is a popular access point near the Morro Bay State Park Campground with boat moorings, a boardwalk trail, a kayak launch area, and a restaurant. The parking lot is heavily used, and it is beginning to show its age.

State Park Marina is a popular access point near the Morro Bay State Park Campground with boat moorings, a boardwalk trail, a kayak launch area, and a restaurant. The parking lot is heavily used, and it is beginning to show its age.

2020 First Flush Monitoring

The Estuary Program partnered with a local consulting firm to conduct the 2020 First Flush monitoring at State Park Marina. In the early morning hours of November 7, a storm generated just under a half an inch of rain. During this storm, technicians collected rainwater running off the parking lot just before it entered the bay.

This map shows the eight sites sampled for stormwater runoff.

This map shows the eight sites sampled for stormwater runoff. A blue dot marks each site.

While some parking lots have grated drains to collect runoff and large pipes to whisk it away, the marina parking lot has cuts in the curb that allow the stormwater to exit the parking lot and run into the bay.

This is one of the eight First Flush monitoring sites in the Morro Bay State Park Marina parking lot. Stormwater moving through the parking lot exited through a cut in the curb and then flowed onto the kayak launch ramp and directly into the bay.

This is one of the eight First Flush monitoring sites in the Morro Bay State Park Marina parking lot. Stormwater moving through the parking lot exited through a cut in the curb and then flowed onto the kayak launch ramp and directly into the bay.

The samples collected were analyzed for bacteria, sediment, oil and grease, gasoline, diesel, and metals. These are the types of pollutants that you expect to find in an area with extensive vehicle traffic.

The stormwater samples appear very dark in color due to the high levels of sediment they contain. The technicians first collected runoff in the large containers on the left and then poured it into the smaller sample jars pictured on the right. After collection, the samples were stored on ice and then sent to a lab for analysis.

The stormwater samples appear very dark in color due to the high levels of sediment they contain. The technicians first collected runoff in the large containers on the left and then poured it into the smaller sample jars pictured on the right. After collection, the samples were stored on ice and then sent to a lab for analysis.

The Results Are In

The data from the eight sites was compared to State Water Board targets that help facilities determine if their stormwater runoff is clean. Ideally all monitoring results are lower than the target levels. Here’s what the data from the November 7 storm showed:

  • Bacteria levels were high at all sites, and up to seventy-five times higher than the level safe for swimming.
  • Copper was detected at all eight sites and exceeded the target level at one site. Copper can come from engine oil and brake pad decomposition, and it can be toxic for aquatic life.
  • Zinc was detected at seven of the sites and exceeded the target at one site. Zinc in stormwater can come from vulcanized rubber, galvanized metal, oils, and lubricants. Zinc can also be toxic for aquatic life.
  • Lead was detected in low levels at all sites but did not exceed the target for concern. Historic stormwater monitoring data from Morro Bay has never indicated widespread issues with lead.
  • Total suspended solids is a measure of sediment, such as soil, in the water. All eight samples had levels between five and thirty times higher than the target. This much sediment draining into the bay can cloud the waters, preventing sunlight from reaching plants like eelgrass. The sediment can also transport pollutants such as excess nutrients. While nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous are essential for healthy plant growth, too much of these compounds can harm plants instead of helping them grow. Harmful metals can also adhere to the sediment and end up settling into the bottom of the bay where plants root and wildlife forages for food.
  • Oil and grease was detected but at levels below the target.
  • Traces of gasoline were detected at three of the sites, and traces of diesel were detected at all eight sites. Specific targets for traces of these fuels have not been set for stormwater runoff.

Make a Difference

What can you do to help protect the bay from stormwater runoff? There are some simple things:

  • Keep your vehicles in good repair to avoid oil leaks, and visit a mechanic to change your oil and patch up any leaks you do find.
  • When your car is dirty, take it to a car wash instead of washing it at home. Car washes recycle water and keep soap, dirt, and anything else that washes off your car from running into a storm drain and out into the bay.
  • Prevent soil from running off your yard by installing ground cover, like native plants and mulch, or by building a rain garden. These options all slow down and hold runoff, giving it a chance to sink into the ground.
  • Clean up pet waste to prevent bacteria from reaching the bay.
Youll find dog waste bag dispensers like these throughout Morro Bay. They are funded through generous donations from community supporters with help from the City of Morro Bay.

The Estuary Program runs the popular Mutts for the Bay program. We manage donations to set up pet waste bag dispensers and to purchase bags so that dog owners can pick up after their pets. The program distributed 320,000 bags in 2020, keeping an estimated 134,000 pounds of dog waste out of the bay.

Be sure to protect yourself from bacteria and other pollutants by staying out of the bay and ocean for 72 hours following a storm, as advised by Surfrider and Heal the Bay.

Finding smarter, cleaner solutions

The Estuary Program is partnering with California State Parks and the Ocean Protection Council to redo the parking lot at the Morro Bay State Park marina. The current parking lot allows runoff to flow directly into the bay without any treatment and is in poor shape, with cracks and gravel that can contribute sediment to the flowing runoff. For the project, the parking lot will be repaved and graded to direct runoff into stormwater treatment features such as bioswales. These vegetated drainage areas slow the flow of water and filter out pollutants before it reaches the bay. The project is expected to be completed in the next year.


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