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From Dumping Ground to Recreational Space, A Reason to Consider L.A. River Bacteria Levels

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LA River Water Quality Sampling: Heal the Bay
L.A. River Water Quality Sampling

It’s easy to get caught up in verdant dreams of the Los Angeles River’s future, but increased open space and recreational opportunities in park poor Los Angeles is just one of the many considerations Angelenos should be looking at: water quality should also be one of them.

“In the general understanding of revitalization, water quality gets let out of the conversation frequently,” said Dr. Katherine Pease of Heal the Bay.

Heal the Bay is supportive of the river’s revitalization efforts, but it says that it should also incorporate specific and quantifiable measures to enhance water quality, especially in light of the increased recreational use of the river.

The non-profit has released the result of its first-ever Los Angeles River monitoring report to help LA river enthusiasts make informed decisions when it comes to river recreation.

Heal the Bay has been weighing on Los Angeles River issues for many years because it understands that whatever outcomes happen on the rivers and creeks affects what happens in the oceans. “What we do in our watershed is all related to the health of our creeks, rivers as well as oceans,” said Pease, “You can’t have one without the other.”

Dr. Katherine Pease: Heal the Bay
Dr. Katherine Pease

Through this report, the non-profit is working to increase awareness of water quality in the river, a subject that doesn’t get as much media play as say its rewilding or regreening.  

The consistent sidelining of water quality may be why Frank Gehry has insisted he isn’t going to add any architectural landmarks on the river, but instead study it as a kind of machine that treats polluted storm water. “I said I would only do it on the condition that they approached it as a water-reclamation project, to deal with all the water issues first." Gehry told the Los Angeles Times.

The organization has reason for its caution. Its recently released water quality study showed that popular recreational areas on the Los Angeles River—the Sepulveda Basin downstream of Burbank Boulevard, Rattlesnake Park downstream of Fletcher Drive, and Steelhead Park at Oros Street—had high bacteria levels that would increase the risk for ear infections, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses for people who come in contact with the water.

For example, samples for Enterococcus exceeded federal standards 100% of the time at Rattlesnake Park and Steelhead Park and 50% of the time in Sepulveda Basin. The Rattlesnake Park site also suffered from a 67% exceedance rate for E. coli. The figures weren’t as bad at Sepulveda Basin, which exceeded 20% of the time and Steelhead Park, which exceeded 9% of the time. These bacteria Heal the Bay tested for are well-known indicators of fecal matter in the water.

In comparison, Heal the Bay's two monitoring sites in Malibu Creek State Park showed better results. Exceedance rates for Enterococcus at Rock Pool were 22% in 2014 and 7% in 2015, and at Las Virgenes Creek, 61% in 2014 and 79% in 2015. Exceedance rates for E. coli at Rock Pool were 11% in 2014 and 0% in 2015, and at Las Virgenes Creek, 28% in 2014 and 36% in 2015.

The LA river’s disturbing water quality isn’t because of the additional foot traffic in the river, clarifies Pease. “The Los Angeles River has been known to have bacteria problems even before they allowed recreation.”

The most likely culprits to the river’s plight, according to Heal the Bay, are urban runoff, leaks and flows from wastewater collection systems, and failing septic systems. In fact, regulars on the river may just be as helpful to the river’s water quality by reporting any storm drains that always seem to be running or any sort of runoff that are cause for concern. Heal the Bay’s website provides a comprehensive list of agencies to alert during these cases.

Trash in the LA River
Trash clogging drains along the L.A. River

Contact with Los Angeles River water won’t make residents mutants, no, but Heal the Bay does ask people to take precautions such as avoiding hand-to-face water contact, rinsing off after any water contact, and not to go in the river with an open wound.

The report’s results are by no means a deterrent to keep people off the river, but to arm future LA river visitors with more information, much like its 25-year old Beach Report Card has given the public the ability to make an informed decision about whether to go into beach waters on the West Coast.

“We want to use this monitoring to spur positive change and to think about how we can make things better on faster timelines,” said Pease.

The Los Angeles River needs the help it can get. For centuries, the river has not enjoyed the bucolic image other waterways have. In fact, in his book, “The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death and Possible Rebirth” Blake Gumprecht writes, “The destruction of the river had begun half a century before the first concrete was poured...when the river ... began to be viewed not as a giver of life or a thing of beauty, but as a dumping ground--for horse carcasses, petroleum waste, and the city's garbage.”

Raw Sewage Pours into LA River, 1955
Raw sewage pours into the L.A. River, 1955

Even in the early days of Los Angeles, its river has been perceived as unsightly. Gumprecht recounts many instances as proof. In 1887, when 80 horses were killed in a stable fire, their carcasses were dumped in the riverbed just south of Seventh Street. In 1910, Joseph Mesmer, a prominent local merchant called the river “the most unsightly sight in the city.” About the same time, a member of the Los Angeles Board of Park Commissioners while suggesting to regulate quarrying on the river bed and curb dumping, commented, “It would be expensive and difficult, if not impossible ever to make the river bed a thing of beauty.”

It is also telling the in Los Angeles’s 1965 master plan, the river wasn’t even called as such. Instead, according to Matthew Gandy in his book, “The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination,” it was called “open flood control channels” referring to its then-central function of whisking dangerous stormwater out of the city and into the ocean, as fast as possible.

The Los Angeles River’s channelization has transformed the river from a natural waterway, into more of an engineered object, whose sole purpose is to receive stromwater and bring it, as efficiently as possible, out into the river--used motor oil, paint, trash, pet waste, and other pollutants included.

Built in the 30s and 40s--the same time as the channelization of the Los Angeles River--the city’s stormwater system collects excess water from the city streets and guides it to the rivers and creeks of the city. Even on the driest day “tens of millions of gallons" of runoff flow through our waterways and out to Santa Monica and San Pedro Bay. On rainy days, this volume ups to 10 billion.

The city’s aging infrastructure is no boon either. Just last July, 2.4 million gallons of sewage made its way to the Los Angeles River, after a 1929 sewage pipe--normally a totally separate system from the stormwater system so intertwined with the river--collapsed in Boyle Heights. The spill closed Long Beach and Seal Beach.

LA River Pollution
Photo by: KCET Departures/Flickr

Over the past two decades, the city has invested in its infrastructure, which resulted in 85% reduction of sewage spills, but its constant upkeep needs to be a priority. Bruce Reznik, Executive Director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper tells KPCC “The city has done a good job. They’ve gone from being a fairly bad agency... to really one of best in the region and kind of a model but certainly this is an eye opener for us...we’ve got to stay on top of our infrastructure.”

The same goes for water quality in the Los Angeles River.

Los Angeles is currently working on ways to comply with the federal Clean Water Act and is due to fulfill their goals by 2030 and 2037. But Pease says there are simpler things the city and its residents can do to help improve water quality in the river such as calling in identifying running storm drains (smoking guns for pollution) to the proper authorities, re-routing storm drain flows into water treatment plants during dry weather, and developing new communities that capture and treat runoff rather than allow it to leave the parcel of land to pick up pollutants on the way to the river, a strategy called low-impact development.

It also recommends looking at the creation of parks, not just as an additional way to get open space, but as opportunity to increase water quality by designing in infiltration and rainwater catch systems that would treat water for pollutants before it finds its way to the river.

Though it seems difficult, the task is achievable. Pease points to the organization’s experience publishing the Beach Report Card. After repeatedly landing the Heal the Bay’s Beach Bummer list, Doheny and Poche Beach now receive "A" grades after Orange County officials invested in a source tracking study and fixed broken sewer lines. Colorado Lagoon in Long Beach also boasts of a similar turnaround after the state invested nearly $5 million to improve water flow, installed trash traps and built stormwater diversions.

Like these locations, Pease hopes the river would soon see a cleaner future. Heal the Bay plans to make monitoring more regular along the Los Angeles River. Each week, members and volunteers will continually test the river’s water quality and publish the results on its blog.

“Some people don’t want bad news about the Los Angeles River coming out,” said Pease, “But the ultimate goal is to improve water quality. As the Beach Report card has proven, even though some beaches get called out, it brings attention to it and the typical thing that happens is that it gets resources it needs to be improved.”

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