Saturday, June 3, 2006 | John Robertus is 59 years old, a former Marine and now the head of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. That’s the agency that fines people for polluting into waterways and maintains a massive, massive stack of monitoring data on the region’s major polluters. Robertus is in his 11th year as executive officer of the board.

He sat down with voiceofsandiego.org and shared his thoughts about why border sewage problems won’t be solved in his lifetime, the effect that air pollution from Asia has on our water quality and whether or not he’s the John Wayne of water issues.

Knowing what you know about the region’s water quality, tell me where you’d be most likely to swim and least likely to swim.

It’s not just where, it’s when. I would not swim for a week after a rain. I typically swim at large open beaches that are a long way from rivers. I do check the postings. In San Diego, of all the places in the United States, I don’t know where you can have such a high level of confidence that you can pick a place to go swimming and it’s probably safe. There’s a difference between not posting a beach because you’ve sampled the water and posting a beach because you don’t know. Fifteen years ago, that was the case.

The border’s water quality has plagued the region for decades – some say 70 years. Do you envision a time when swimmers and surfers enter the water around the border without worrying about catching Hepatitis A?

No.

Why not?

I don’t see for a very long time to come the development of the infrastructure to collect, treat, convey and discharge the sewage effluent generated by that growing population (in Tijuana). The current practice is to discharge over the beach (in Punta Banderas). And they treat 25 million gallons a day in the United States.

What would it take to conceivably be able to reduce the duration and severity of closures? Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge has been closed for more than three months.

The reason the slough gets closed – and the reason there are closures – there are two primary reasons. One is that sewage discharged over the beach a few miles from the border drifts north. So the ocean is polluted. The other problem is the water pollution that comes from the Tijuana River bypasses the diversion points and then enters the river in the United States and flows into the ocean. That problem won’t be resolved until there’s an adequate sewage infrastructure to collect and convey sewage to a treatment plant. But I don’t see that happening.

Tell me about the challenge of improving water quality one small step at a time. So many issues like border sewage have been around for decades. How do you move forward with that slow, evolutionary dynamic?

I think there are some dynamics that are at work here. First of all (there) are what we call legacy pollutants. They’re pollutants that were discharged here a long time ago. In California we have extensive legacy pollutants. There are things that have happened where the pollutants are present today but the people who did them are long gone. It’s something we have to deal with. The second is that you have trends that have been in place for decades that are causing discharges of waste. An example of that is brake pads have copper in them. Copper isn’t a big deal in Kansas, but it’s a really big deal here in Southern California because copper in the ocean is highly toxic – that’s why they use copper in paint on boats, to keep organisms from attaching to boats. A lot of these products we use such as the brakes on our cars, even antifreeze, are toxic, and they get into the environment, and we all do it every day. … And you have a growth problem. There are people moving into California, who exacerbate the problems. So you not only have to reverse the trends you have to do it at a rate that exceeds growth.

Do you find that your job and your knowledge of the world around you affects the way that you view everything – like the sound of a scraping brake pad on the highway?

I think when you do this kind of work, it’s hard to leave it at the office. My wife can attest to that. I’m pretty much always aware of water-quality impacts. Virtually every place I’ve lived has been on a river or the ocean. I’ve lived in a lot of different locations, and I’ve seen the impacts of irresponsible waste discharges in oceans and rivers. I’ve also seen dramatic cleanups take place – the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River. In San Diego, we’ve also seen some rather dramatic reversals. The fact that there have been fewer beach closures – there have been reasons for that. …I sense a growing awareness of the people in the San Diego region of their stake in this clean-water business. I think we’re approaching higher and higher standards of the citizens wanting to do their part.

What gives you the sense that peoples’ perceptions of water-quality and their impact on it are changing?

There are a lot of Web sites. The newspapers report beach closures. The reporting of sewage spills. It’s just an awareness all-around. There’s a public health dimension to it, that it has impacts on the environment. I think the Exxon Valdez was the searing image of that. Aerial deposition (when the air conveys polluting particles) is emerging as a major issue. I just heard a report on public radio about the impact of dust on snow in the mountains, causing it to melt faster. Aerial deposition is already a big deal here in San Diego, because when you do an analysis of storm water, you find out there are pollutants that come from Asia that get carried over the jet stream and left on the ground. There’s just more and more information about the impacts of things on the environment and the water.

Sewage spills have steadily been dropping year after year. Are you concerned they’ll rise again because of the city of San Diego’s fiscal instability?

I’m confidant that the current leadership of the Metropolitan Wastewater Department – Scott Tulloch – and the people who are working on the system will continue to do a good job. I am a little concerned about the capital replacement aspect, the construction aspect of it. The sewage system’s components, when they reach a certain age, they begin to fail and it costs more and more to maintain them. I think that’s where the real challenge is.

In an esoteric sense, how do you describe your role? Some call you the top pollution cop. Do you see it that way? Are you the John Wayne of water quality?

Ah … I think there’s a lot of leadership involved in these positions. But there’s also I think more of an orchestration of the process. We never sleep here. The challenges are constantly changing. The greatest difficulty we have is finishing something we started, because there are always new challenges. … What it’s all about is to reduce the pollutant load into the waters of this region over time … It’s not a total elimination of pollution, it’s a reduction so you’re not impairing the waters. And that’s going to take time.

Interview by ROB DAVIS

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