By Deborah Vietor
Megan Baehrens, Executive Director of San Diego Coastkeeper draws on 10 years of experience in nonprofit management and oversees the fundraising, financial and operational aspects of the San Diego Coastkeeper. She holds an MBA with a focus on non-profit management from the Yale School of Management and an international business degree from Georgetown University. A native San Diegan, Baehrens continues to live and play at the water’s edge. Her passionate belief in the public’s right to and responsibility for clean water—whether salt, brackish, fresh or for drinking, drives her leadership of San Diego Coastkeeper. Megan is known for her collaborative style of management and for connecting well with various organizations, staff and Board of Directors. Since 2009, Megan has raised an annual budget of $1 million and created philanthropy and community opportunities for corporate partnerships, events and volunteers. L’CHAIM sat down with Baehrens to learn more about the organization, how to continue to keep our waterways safe for drinkable, fishable and swimmable waters, and how to conserve water for the future.
L’Chaim Magazine: Let’s start out with a little information about Coastkeeper. Tell me what you are all about and whom the organization benefits in San Diego County.
Megan Baehrens: Coastkeeper is a watchdog organization to help the community collaborate; started in 1995 by a brave group who did not want polluted water in our homes. We are a local, community-based advocacy group improving the waters for San Diego. I learn something new every day and develop new relationships. Water is so fundamental to life. We are not just protecting oceans, fish, birds and streams, but protecting a way of life. Here, we do not have to search for meaning, there are seven paid staff members and thousands of volunteers.
Our programs are molded to benefit everyone because water is important to every sector in San Diego County. With passion and drive, we have worked on the issues surrounding the drought, polluted water, changing policy and collaborative efforts regarding recycled water.
L’Chaim: How long have you been with the Coastkeeper and what keeps you here?
MB: I have been with Coastkeeper for more than six years and started in Business Development, providing fundraising for three years. As Executive Director, I have been offered a tremendous opportunity to work with staff who are well-educated, happy to be here and can direct their own programs. We can train the best and brightest and work together as partners, as opposed to serving as merely an employer. We are interested in people as people as they are as much of our tapestry as our advocacy work.
L’Chaim: How can San Diegans connect with Coastkeeper?
MB: We offer a wide variety of ways to engage, from beach clean ups, to grade school internships for up to 40 hours per week. We have ways to develop a common sense of purpose, working with the City Council and our Board of Directors. There are many more ways for the community to engage to create more clean water for all, and people who are interested in getting involved should reach out to us to get there.
L’Chaim: Please share some of your new programs.
MB: Throughout the San Diego Unified School District there is a K-12 program called Project SWELL and outside the school district, we’ll soon launch Water Kits For All. This program will empower anyone who wants to teach about water quality and the program can be adjusted as needed. The information can be downloaded easily and comes with hands-on models.
We work with organizations such as the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club and share seven different lesson plans in a program for educators that can be implemented in classrooms for kindergarten through high school with lesson plans, field trips and hands on lab projects for students.
L’Chaim: What can we do as citizens to heal the water situation in San Diego County?
MB: The number one message is to redefine what a beautiful San Diego looks like. Tropical trees, big lawns and fruit trees may change to a landscape that looks more like Torrey Pines, with beautiful, flowering bushes and a landscape utilizing significantly less water. Many residents and businesses have stepped up, replacing turf lawns with draught tolerant options.
The main pollution problem has been runoff. Every house, business and street contributes to runoff. When plants are irrigated, pools are cleaned, cars are washed and pollutants are added, this creates runoff; which goes into our natural waterways. How healthy are sea lions, birds and fish when ammonia and phosphates are added to the water? Nurseries without proper storm water management practices can contribute to the problem. We need strong laws regarding dumping and storm drains, too.
We are not talking about wholesale changes here; we need to be strategic. With planned communities, everyone will have access to parks and smaller backyards. Just a few simple landscape changes could make a significant difference in water conservation.
L’Chaim: Coastkeeper’s 18th annual Seaside Soiree event is approaching. What is the purpose and focus?
MB: With this fundraiser, we will bring the community together to implement future clean water options. Our sponsors fund the party and we will have an auction. This is really a time to celebrate for the organization, considering all the good work which has been accomplished regarding clean water and conservation in San Diego as we look forward to future programs.
Robert Kennedy Jr. is our keynote speaker for the event, and he has really stepped forward as an advocate and President of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international advocacy organization empowering 252 local Waterkeeper programs in 29 countries, defending local waterways from pollution. Their mission supports swimmable, drinkable, fishable waterways worldwide. In 1999, he formed the Waterkeeper Alliance, building on a movement that began in the 1970s with the first Riverkeeper on the Hudson River.
RFK Jr. is the Chief Prosecuting Attorney for Riverkeeper according to their website, and was named “Hero of the Planet” by Time magazine for his success in helping Riverkeeper lead the fight to restore the Hudson River.
L’Chaim: What do the next 20 years look like for Coastkeeper?
MB: We need to secure a water supply and educate people regarding how they view water. We need to shine a light on solutions we know; building the community will and political will. We will bring industrial polluters who are dirtying our water to task. We need to lead common sense water conservation measures and identify innovative new water management practices like recycling and storm water capture. To this end, we have trained 300 citizen scientists investigating the impact and root causes of urban runoff strangling our water quality.
For more information regarding how to promote clean water and conserve water in San Diego County, visit: SDCoastkeeper.org