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Safety Check: Sampling the Los Angeles River Watershed

When summer heat bakes Los Angeles, there's no greater delight than immersing yourself in a deep body of water. Some of us have swimming pools to plunge into, others have newly opened fountains in public parks, but a few make the waters of the Los Angeles River Watershed their playground, swimming and fishing in its rivers and waterfalls.

While hundreds of people cavort in the water each year, scientists working at the Council for Watershed Health, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Southern California Coastal Watershed Research Project (SCCWRP), Aquatic Bioassay and Consulting (ABC), and the City of Los Angeles, Bureau of Sanitation Environmental Monitoring Division work together, sampling 85 sites across Los Angeles to make sure its waters are safe for public use.

The program is called the Los Angeles River Watershed-wide Monitoring Program. Developed in 2007, the program seeks to answer five main research questions: What is the environmental health of streams in the overall watershed? Are the conditions at areas of unique importance getting better or worse? Are receiving waters near discharges meeting water quality objectives? Are local fish safe to eat? Is body contact recreation safe?

To answer these questions, these scientists don't simply stick to the lab, they're driving, walking, and hiking to get their water samples. If you think about it, they perform a superhero-like function, protecting the public from harm, only without a mask and a cape -- and with a lot less glamour.

All sampling sites that are being tested. Image from the Council for Watershed Health.

Curious, I volunteered to ride along with a team from the Council for Watershed Health one day, not knowing I was actually signing up for a six-mile hike in the process. I figured we'd just walk up to the water and scoop something out of it. I was only one-third right.

On a warm August day, I met with Rickey Russell, a researcher working on his Master's of Urban and Regional Planning at UCLA, and Brian Sheridan of the Council at their office hidden inside the Metropolitan Water District office beside Union Station. Russell and Sheridan were my guides, walking and talking me through the plan.

There were three sampling stops for the day: Peck Road Park in Arcadia, Sturtevant Falls and Hermit Falls in the Angeles Forest. You can guess which sites needed hiking to.

These were all very popular recreational sites, which make them ideal candidates for testing. They're also closely connected systems. Sturtevant Falls flows downhill to Hermit Falls and continues down the Santa Anita Canyon through Whittier Narrows to Peck Road Park. From there, it travels along the Rio Hondo and eventually ends up in the L.A. River.

"We test in summer because that's when people are most likely in it. When the water's warm, they're more likely to incubate bacteria," says Russell. In short, more people, more bacteria, better chance of catching a public safety issue. Russell's samples will show levels of E.coli bacteria, "an indicator species for other bacteria pathogens that may be present and we are not sampling for," explains Kristy Morris, senior scientist at the Council, later on.

Peck Road Park

The sign says no swimming, but some people still won't take no for an answer. The Council still samples to see if it's safe for humans to get in contact with the water.

It was an easy drive to Peck Road Park. As we drove in, we were treated to a serene area with ducks swimming along the pond. Small fish were seen near the shallow edges of the water, but one would have to look hard to catch them. It's hard to believe that in the 1950s, the park -- now part of San Gabriel Valley's Emerald Necklace -- was once an abandoned rock quarry.

Aside from picnicking and biking trails, Peck Road Park is a popular fishing spot, says Russell. Largemouth bass, bluegill and carp can be found in the area, the California Department of Fish and Game also stock the lake with rainbow trout and catfish. "It's surprising how savvy the fishermen here are. They know when Fish and Game are going to stock the area with new game."

Today is surprisingly quiet. No one was fishing or bathing, though a young family did stop by as we were leaving the park. Russell surveyed the site and noted: no bathers (though there was a sign not to wade, he says there are still those who choose to ignore the warning), no fishermen, a few ducks in the area. He also noted the temperature, salinity and pH value of the water. He then took out a plastic bag and a canister.

As he reached out to scoop some water, he explained that the plastic bag goes to SCCWRP and the canisters go to ABC for testing. He then put the samples in a cooler filled with crushed ice to keep it at cool 4 to 6 degrees Celsius to keep bacteria from multiplying because of the heat. "I wouldn't want to inadvertently set off a public safety hazard alarm," jokes Russell, whose love of nature began while growing up in Northern California.

Our next two sites were more challenging because they involved a healthy hike, and I hoped my limited hiking experience was enough to get me through both sampling excursions.

Sturtevant Falls

Sturtevant Falls

The drive up to the Angeles Forest was beautiful. A winding road offered glimpses of green foliage that clutched all sides of the mountain, while the city spread out in its base. It's hard to believe that this verdant area is just in the city's backyard.

Thanks to Russell's regular sampling duties, he actually had a car pass that allowed us to skip past the usual parking hassles and drive past the park ranger's office. That saved us a bit of a walk, but still not a lot.

We grabbed our water bottles and equipment and followed Russell's confident lead. Much of the path was thankfully shaded by foliage, which saved us from the heat wave brewing in the county that week. We passed quaint cabins and manmade dams along the way.

After a few minutes, our hike was rewarded by the site of the Sturtevant Falls, whose waters rushed down from the algae-covered cliffs. This time, we weren't the only ones there. Ed was a warehouse manager who had the day off and went to the Falls at the advice of his friend. He brought his son and nephew along. While Ed's son was happily waist deep in the water, his nephew still looked hesitant, dipping his little toe in.

As Russell tested the waters, Ed half-jokingly asked him, "So, is the water safe?" Russell regularly fielded such questions. In fact, it's often one of the first questions posed to him. "As long as you don't drink it," Russell gamely advised.

Hermit Falls
Rickey Russell getting his sample
A quick gulp of water and we were back on the trail again. We made our way back the way we came and instead of walking to the parking lot, we turned downhill toward Hermit Falls.

Hermit Falls is a misnomer, says Russell. And we soon saw why. Despite its name, the falls held close to forty people that Monday. Many of them looked to be teenagers looking for a summer getaway.

Bodies lined the smooth rock, waiting in line to jump the canyons. Every few minutes, I'd hear hollers and big booming sound of a body splashing into the waters below. If I closed my eyes, I could easily think it a rambunctious fraternity house complete with pool, but a surreptitious glance at the waters below convince me otherwise. Sadly, the site's popularity also contributes to its current less-than-pristine state. Graffiti marks mar many of the large stone faces and the county doesn't really have the resources to remove all tags.

Amid the noise, a lone fisherman stood patiently. I'm amazed to find him a few minutes later posing with a tiny fish dangling from the end of his hook. "I've never seen anyone fishing here before," says Russell, who has been sampling the sites for the past summer. Once again, Russell took out his kit and negotiated the smooth rock faces down towards the water.

Handoff

After the three sites, the task isn't done yet. Russell still has to make the trade-off, meeting up with colleagues from SCCWRP and ABC. Samples are only good for a few hours, says Russell, so he and his colleagues have set up efficient ways to get the samples back to the labs as quickly as possible.

Russell drives down to Eaton Canyon to hand over half of the samples to ABC. He'll turn over the other half to SCCWRP at Norwalk, an hour or so drive away. It's a tiring day, but Russell says, he loves the outdoors and a day like this beats having to wear a suit and tie any day.

A few days later, I get word back. All is safe with Los Angeles County -- the water is good, people can play and fish in the water without concern. As the summer heat rages on and the water becomes more and more enticing, bacteria levels are the least of my concerns; it's good to know someone else has checked to make sure it's going to be just fine.

How safe is the recreational water near you? Get the annual results from the Los Angeles River Watershed Monitoring Program. After five years of sampling, the results will be summarized in a comprehensive "State of the Watershed Report." Results are also uploaded to the California Environmental Data Exchange Network managed by the State Water Resources Control Board.

All photos by Carren Jao

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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