Environment & Science

Wash your hands: High levels of fecal bacteria in LA River water

Kayakers stretched out along the LA River. On June 1, 2013, George Wolfe and LA River Expeditions leads a kayak tour down the Los Angeles River. On Memorial Day, the Los Angeles River Pilot Recreational Zone officially opened to the public for kayaking, walking, birdwatching, and fishing along a 2.5 mile stretch of the river in the Elysian Valley. Los Angeles, California
Kayakers stretched out along the LA River. On June 1, 2013, George Wolfe and LA River Expeditions leads a kayak tour down the Los Angeles River. On Memorial Day, the Los Angeles River Pilot Recreational Zone officially opened to the public for kayaking, walking, birdwatching, and fishing along a 2.5 mile stretch of the river in the Elysian Valley. Los Angeles, California
Peter Bennett / lariverpix.com

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The city of Los Angeles is trying to turn the LA River back into a real waterway with a $1 billion restoration plan – but there’s a hitch.  A new report released Wednesday confirms the river has high levels of fecal bacteria and isn’t safe to swim in. Even kayakers should shower with soap after paddling its currents. 

The environmental group Heal the Bay sampled water from two popular recreation areas along the river for three months last summer. They tested for three kinds of fecal bacteria in the water at kayak launching sites along the river: Elysian Valley and Sepulveda Basin. The bacteria levels they found were very high, exceeding federal standards 100 percent of the time at some sites.

“Samples with high exceedance rates indicate that there are possible public health risks,” said Katherine Pease, a watershed scientist for Heal the Bay. “You could get sick with an ear infection, gastrointestinal illness, things like that.”

It’s not news that there are high levels of fecal bacteria in the LA River—it has been on the state’s list of rivers that do not met Clean Water Act standards since at least 2010. The LA Sanitation Division has also been monitoring fecal bacteria in the river since 2008, according to Mas Dojiri, who oversees environmental monitoring for the division. He said his agency's findings concur with Health the Bay's results. LA Sanitation tests, he said, include weekly monitoring of recreation areas during summer months.

Heal the Bay contends the city is not doing the testing Dojiri described.

The group's report comes at time when kayakers have become a de-facto poster child for efforts to make the LA River a recreational asset. 

Since 2008, two things have happened: it has become legal to boat on the LA River, which exposes more people to polluted water, and the river became cool. The city of Los Angeles has stepped up its revitalization efforts and, this summer, there’s a first-ever public art biennial centered around the LA River.

Both Pease and Dojiri say that water quality is getting left out of the push to restore the river.

“You’re talking about taking out the concrete, making it more natural, aesthetically pleasing. We’re going to encourage the public to recreate in the LA River,” Dojiri said. “But at the same time, let’s not forget about the water quality.”

He admitted that figuring out how to word that message is difficult.

“We don’t want to scare people. That isn’t our intent: to make the public paranoid of recreating in the LA river. But we also want to make sure they’re mindful that there are bacterial exceedances,” he said.

Heal the Bay is working with LA Sanitation and other public agencies on new signage that better communicates that message.

Currently, signs along the river warn visitors not to swim or drink the water. But there is no information about bacteria levels, or the suggestion, made by both Pease and Dojiri, to wash off after touching river water.

On Wednesday afternoon, several boys were dipping butterfly nets in the LA River at Sepulveda Basin. One boy dangled his feet in the water.

LA resident Don Jones said he rides his bicycle two or three times a week on trails along the river, where he often sees people swimming and kayakers paddling downstream. Jones said he wouldn’t swim in the river because “it’s city water,” he said. The LA River flows with treated effluent from upstream wastewater treatment plants, which are not a source of the fecal bacteria, according to both Dojiri and the Heal the Bay report.

Jones said he didn’t realize the river could make him sick. Still, he wasn’t surprised.

“There are a lot of birds down there,” he said. “And we all know what birds do in the water.”

Steve Appleton wasn’t surprised either, but the Heal the Bay report still “caused me to gulp,” he said. After all, he makes his living taking people on kayak tours with LA River Kayak Safari. He said he tells people to take a shower when they get home. He said they have not had “a rash of problems.”

“I came away (from the report) feeling pretty satisfied that the instructions we’ve been giving to people are good ones, are protective ones,” he said. “At the same time, I’m ever more committed that the region does the most it can. If it’s going to go about restoring the river for public access, it must address watershed improvements that render it completely safe for the intended activities.”