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The plan to close the LA River when it gets too polluted

Kayakers on the L.A. River near Marsh Park during the opening day of the new "recreation zone." Mary Plummer/KPCC

Seven weeks after failing to notify the public about alarmingly high bacteria levels in the Los Angeles River, city of Los Angeles officials have established a protocol to close the river when the water is unsafe for kayaking and other recreation.

The plan was developed after a KPCC investigation revealed multiple government agencies, including the city, failed to act in early September after harmful E.coli levels spiked well above federal safety limits.

The new protocol was developed by LA Sanitation with input from the LA County Department of Public Health. It comes after at least five government agencies knew about the E.coli contamination in the days before a kayak race on September 9, but did little to alert the general public or close the river to recreation.

“It’s only positive news for the LA River and the people using it,” said Katherine Pease, a watershed scientist with the environmental group Heal the Bay. 

Starting Memorial Day 2018, LA Sanitation will test bacteria levels in the river more frequently (twice a week compared to the current five times per month) and display the results on a website. The agency will color-code the test results.

When E.coli levels are twice the standard, LA Sanitation will contact the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority, the agency in charge of opening and closing the river to recreation. The agency will lock the river gates, post signs and tell kayaking outfitters to stay off the water – something MRCA previous did only for flash floods.

“Everything is very clear now,” said Dash Stolarz, the director of public affairs for the MRCA. “This is going to make the public safer going forward.”

Public officials say they became aware of the need to develop a public notification system in early September when water quality testing on the LA River revealed E.coli levels 100 times the federal standard.

An LA Sanitation employee emailed a group of 27 government and nonprofit officials, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the City of Burbank, the L.A. County Department of Public Health and the regional water quality control board, to warn them of “very high levels of bacteria and fish kill” in the Sepulveda Basin. He recommended cancelling kayaking tours there in the next few days.

In the next few hours, various public officials tried to figure out who, exactly, had the authority to do that. LA Sanitation suggested it was the LA County Department of Public Health. But Public Health said no. The Army Corps of Engineers said it was probably the city or the county. Meanwhile the MRCA, the agency with the keys to the river gates, wasn’t included in the email and didn’t know about the high bacteria levels. Eventually, Heal the Bay contacted the kayaking operators and the media.

“We had not worked out those questions of at what point do we close the river and who is involved in that,” said Heather Repenning, a commissioner with LA Department of Public Works, which oversees LA Sanitation. “This is a good next step in making sure people can not only interact with the river, but they can do so in a way that they know somebody is making sure of their safety.”