Environment & Science

New plan looks to close the LA River when bacteria spikes

The Los Angeles River flows under the 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles, California.
The Los Angeles River flows under the 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Ever since kayakers began paddling down the Los Angeles River in 2010, public officials have faced a problem: how to encourage the revitalization of the river while also protecting the health of people who boat and fish in its waters?

On Wednesday, an L.A. city council committee got closer to finding a solution when it voted to adopt a protocol of how to close the river and notify the public when when fecal bacteria levels exceed safety standards.

The vote came nearly six months after at least five government agencies failed to notify the public when, in advance of a kayaking race on the river in early September 2017, E.coli levels spiked to 100 times the federal safety limit for swimming and recreation. Instead, it fell to an environmental group, Heal the Bay, to send out a press release and media alert about the poor water quality.

Since then, L.A. Sanitation, which is part of the City of Los Angeles, has been developing a plan to do more water quality testing in the Elysian Valley and Sepulveda Basin recreation areas during the summer months, and to warn river users when bacteria levels rise. Ingesting water contaminated with fecal bacteria can cause diarrhea and vomiting.

The first version of the plan, which L.A. Sanitation unveiled in October 2017, would have closed the river to boating when bacteria levels exceed 576 per 100 milliliters in a single location. The level is twice the federal safety limit for swimming or other activities where ingestion of water is likely.

But it was rejected by L.A. City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell for being developed too hastily and without enough consultation from kayaking groups, who could lose business if the L.A. River were closed due to high bacteria levels. If the protocol had been in place during summer 2017, the river would have been closed four times due to poor water quality, according to emails obtained by KPCC.

“A lot of us believe the water in the L.A. River is safe to navigate in a kayak,” O’Farrell said in a November meeting of the Arts, Parks and River Committee.

The revised plan, adopted at a Wednesday meeting of the committee, seeks a compromise between closing the river too often and keeping it open when bacteria levels are so high people could get sick. Now, for the river to be closed, water samples taken at two or more sites in the recreation zones would have to exceed 576 per 100 milliliters, instead of at just one. River closure notices will be posted online and on social media by L.A. Sanitation, and physically in the river recreation zones by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. It remained unclear though whether gates to the river would be locked.

Environmentalists and river recreation advocates were mostly pleased at the adoption of the protocol, although some thought it could be stricter and urged the city to focus on cleaning up the river, not just notifying people when it’s dirty.

“The protocol is good for communicating information to the public, but in terms of actually doing the work of cleaning it up and making it safe, we’re still a long way from there,” said Stephen Mejia, the policy and advocacy manger of the Friends of the Los Angeles River.

If approved by the full city council, the new plan is scheduled to take effect on Memorial Day weekend, the start of the summer kayaking season.