Earlier this month, about 150 people descended on an increasingly popular stretch of the Los Angeles River to paddle, splash and frolic in an annual boat race. But just days before, water quality tests taken upstream indicated the presence of harmful feces-borne bacteria 100 times the federal safety limit for swimming and recreation.
According to emails obtained by KPCC, at least five government agencies knew about the E. coli-tainted water in the days before the fourth annual L.A. River Boat Race on Sept. 9, but they did little to notify the general public or close the river to recreation.
The Los Angeles River is at a pivotal moment in its history. For most of the past century, it was exclusively a concrete-lined flood control channel. But since 2010 — when federal officials opened two short sections to boating — it's increasingly become a popular recreation spot.
Advocates, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, see recreation as a crucial step toward building support around plans to spend more than $1 billion to remove portions of its concrete channel and restore the river to a more natural state.
But as the recent E. coli spike proves, regulatory authority to protect public health has not kept pace with the enthusiasm to remake the L.A. River into a hallmark recreational draw for the region.
While government officials do close the river for safety risks related to flooding during heavy rains — something they did on Sept. 3 — there is no protocol in place to keep an increasing number of boaters safe from harmful bacteria that can cause illness.
"That's not our authority to tell kayaking companies to cancel your kayaking trips," said Mas Dojiri with the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, which monitors water quality along the L.A. River along with Heal the Bay and a second non-profit called the Council for Watershed Health.
Bacteria levels spike
Beginning Sept. 1, all three groups began to notice something alarming: E.coli levels were spiking to their highest levels in years.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, the E. coli standard for Elysian Valley and Sepulveda Basin, the portion of the L.A. River that is open to kayaking, is 235 per 100 milliliters. It’s a level designed to protect the health of people who are swimming, fishing, wading or doing any other activity “where ingestion of water is reasonably possible.”
On Sept. 5, some parts of the river that were open to kayaking were showing E. coli at more than 24,000 per 100 ml – a hundred times higher than the federal limit.
E. coli lives in the intestines of humans and animals, and when found in water, indicates the presence of sewage or feces. Swallowing or drinking water contaminated with high levels of E. coli has the potential to cause diarrhea, vomiting and fever.
L.A. Sanitation officials now believe illegal dumping of portable toilets into the river caused the levels to spike so high.
Whatever the source, on Thursday, Sept. 7, the high E.coli levels triggered a flurry of messages on an email group informally called "L.A. River Bacterial Data distribution list." The group is made of up 27 government and nonprofit officials, including the US Army Corps of Engineers, the City of Burbank, the L.A. County Department of Public Health and the regional water quality control board.
At 1:50 p.m., Ken Franklin with L.A. Sanitation sent the group a brief email, warning them of the latest water quality readings.
“If any kayak tours are planned at the Sepulveda Basin in the next few days, I would recommend canceling them due to the very high levels of bacteria and fish kill,” Franklin wrote.
The finger-pointing begins
But there was a problem: Who had the authority to cancel kayaking on the river?
All afternoon, officials with the city, L.A. county and environmental groups emailed back and forth, pointing fingers at each other.
“Canceling kayaking is not within our authority,” L.A. Sanitation's Dojiri wrote at 2:33 p.m. “I believe that Dept of Public Health would need to weigh in on this.”
Half an hour later, Public Health emailed back. “We do not have the authority to close the river,” wrote Nick Brakband, the department’s chief environmental health specialist.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which built the flood control channel in the river, did not weigh in on Thursday, although it was included on the email chain. Spokesman Jay Field told KPCC it was not his agency’s responsibility to look after water quality in the river, although the agency can close the river due to Army Corps operations.
“It would be the city or the county to make that call, not the Army Corps,” he said. If the city is doing its own water quality monitoring, “they have some responsibility. Why else would they collect the data?”
"They could call us and tell us to close the river"
The one agency that actually has the authority to close the river wasn't even on the email chain, and had no idea the bacteria levels in the river were so high.
The Mountains River Conservation Authority has a contract with Army Corps to oversee activities within the Los Angeles River Recreation Zone — made up of two stretches of the river within the Sepulveda Basin and Elysian Valley.
MCRA can direct all kayaking groups to cancel their trips when conditions are unsafe for boating, and it is their rangers who physically lock the gates to the river bike path.
MRCA closed the river twice this summer due to concerns about flooding. Because the concrete-lined L.A. River is designed to move water efficiently from the mountains to the ocean, it can rise rapidly without warning when it rains in the Santa Monica or San Gabriel Mountains.
In those cases, Walt Young, the deputy executive officer of the MRCA, received an alert from the National Weather Service informing him of a flash-food risk for the San Fernando Valley. Five minutes later, he instructed his rangers to “advise our vendors to shut down operations and close the river ASAP based on the watch within the watershed.”
But MRCA did not close the river on Sept. 7 due to concerns about high bacteria levels, because no one from L.A. Sanitation, the county Department of Public Health or the Army Corps asked them to.
“They could call us and tell us to close the river. Of course they could,” said Dash Stolarz, the director of public affairs for the MRCA. “We’re the enforcement arm.”
She said MRCA does not employ scientists or do any of its own water monitoring.
“It’s not our responsibility to be informed," she said. "It’s the informers responsibility to inform us, and we take action."
But the information never arrived: MRCA was not on L.A. Sanitation’s Sept. 7 email about bacteria levels in the L.A. River.
“No one contacted MRCA and said there was an issue with bacteria,” she said, “I think that’s really odd.”
An environmental group takes action
On Thursday afternoon, Katherine Pease, a scientist for Heal the Bay, announced to the group she was going back out the following day to do more water quality testing. Dojiri was interested in the data: the City of L.A. was planning a kayaking trip for one of its council districts that weekend, and needed to know soon whether or not to cancel.
The following morning at 6:42 a.m., Pease wrote to Dojiri and told him she was concerned about the way the city was handling the situation.
"I am concerned that the water quality information is not readily getting to the kayak outfitters and people who are in the water," she wrote.
Although the council district cancelled its trip, L.A. Sanitation did not publicize the water quality data before the weekend. Ultimately, it was Heal the Bay, not a government agency, that decided to tell kayaking groups about the E. coli problem, so that they could make an informed decision about whether to hold their weekend events or not.
On Friday, Sept. 8 at 11:41 am, Pease emailed all the kayaking outfitters on the L.A. River and informed them that L.A. Sanitation had “unofficially” recommended canceling trips in Sepulveda Basin. She also urged L.A. River Expeditions’ to consider postponing its boat race through Elysian Valley that weekend, where samples Heal the Bay had taken Sept. 8, eventually showed levels of E. coli roughly two to four times higher than the federal safety standard. Pease also published a post on Heal the Bay's website.
And she added, “There is not a general protocol in place to make this recommendation 'official' with notification to the kayak outfitters and the general public.”
Before Heal the Bay sent out its email on Friday, only one kayak outfitter had been informed directly by L.A. Sanitation about the recent E. coli levels in the river: Paddle the LA River, which runs trips out of the Sepulveda Basin, was the lone kayak outfitter on Ken Franklin’s email on Thursday afternoon. Upon reading it, the group’s marketing director, Kea Duggan, decided to suspend trips for the rest of the season.
“Knowing we have such a public-facing activity in a popular section of river, for us, ethically, it was important to take that direction and protect the public as much as we could, knowing the data that was available to us,” she said.
Two other outfitters, L.A. River Expeditions and L.A. River Kayak Safari, did not hear directly from the government officials with access to the data. Instead, they received Heal the Bay’s email on Friday, and decided against cancelling their weekend trips.
In a statement, L.A. River Expeditions said they held the race because MCRA hadn't called it off and had even provided rangers to keep coordinate the event.
"As nonprofit outfitters running trips on the river, we are required as a condition of our permit to give standard warnings about how to safely engage with river water," the statement read. "We are also required to provide cleaning materials participants can use when they exit the water. We did so again on Saturday, providing more than the required number of wash stations at the event."
The race goes on
Twenty students from the Dorris Place Elementary School in Elysian Valley were among the 150 who participated in the river race. While none of the kids got in the water, one teacher did. John Han, the school’s principal, was surprised to find out that E.coli levels had been twice the regulatory limit the day before the event, according to Heal the Bay’s data. He said race organizers did not mention the water quality issue at all.
“The safety of our children is always our priority,” he said. “It’s concerning if the water isn’t healthy.”
L.A. River Expedition’s Anthea Raymond, who organized the race, said they told everyone who kayaked that day about how to “safely engage with river water.”
But she also called out Heal the Bay’s Katherine Pease for being vague in her Friday advisory to kayaking groups, “It reported no hard data,” she wrote to KPCC in an email.
“The L.A. River doesn’t need more reports that say that the river needs help,” Raymond wrote. “We know that. What we need is for Heal the Bay to flex their funding muscles to proactively go after sources of pollution in the river instead of beating up on other environmental groups who have been at the forefront of making riverfront recreation a reality.”
Many local environmental groups want to see the Los Angeles River transformed from a gritty, often polluted, storm channel into a beautiful greenway cutting through the heart of the city. But different groups have distinct, and at times conflicting, approaches on how to achieve that.
Heal the Bay believes that drawing attention to the water quality in the river will spur action to clean it up. The position comes from the group’s experience cleaning up the beaches in Santa Monica Bay decades ago by grading the beaches, A through F, based on how polluted they were.
“There’s this kind of pushback from recreation groups, the kayaking groups, that the water quality is fine,” Pease said. “We’ve seen this before with the beaches. ‘If you point out how polluted they are, no one will come.’”
Indeed, kayaking companies and groups like Friends of the Los Angeles River say they are worried that if people think the L.A. River is unsafe to boat in, it will jeopardize their efforts to clean it up.
Stephen Mejia, the policy and advocacy manger with FOLAR, said when Heal the Bay put out its annual River Report Card last summer, he was inundated with calls from people asking if the L.A. River was coursing with raw sewage. The report found that E. coli levels in popular kayaking spots routinely violate regulatory standards.
So this time, Mejia decided to get ahead of the response. He asked L.A. Sanitation if he could use their data to show how often water quality samples have shown no exceedances for bacteria in the L.A. River.
In its own press release responding to Heal the Bay, FOLAR did not acknowledge the extremely high levels of bacteria in the river over the past two weeks. Instead, the organization wrote that, “despite fluctuations, the water quality in stretches of the River actually meet” federal standards.
Mejia said he was not attempting to downplay the significance of the recent pollution, but rather, to give the full context of the water quality in the river.
Indeed, water quality met federal standards for swimming 72 percent of the time in Elysian Valley and between half and two-thirds of the time in the Sepulveda Basin, according to data collected by the Council for Watershed Health.
"This really caught me off guard"
But for at least one government official, the early September incident “really sent up a red flag.”
“This really caught me off guard,” said Mas Dojiri of L.A Sanitation. For decades, he said, the primary aim of water quality monitoring has been to make sure the river is in compliance with Clean Water Act standards, “not public health.”
When the river was a flood control channel that no one kayaked in, making sure E.coli levels stayed below the swimmable standard “wasn’t quite on our radar screen" so monitoring, regulations and public outreach weren't developed accordingly, he said.
Dojiri hopes L.A. Sanitation will soon have a webpage where river users can find the most up-to-date water quality information, similar to what Heal the Bay and the Council for Watershed Health provide now. He also hopes the myriad partners that deal with the river – the L.A. County Department Public Health, the Army Corps, the kayaking groups, the environmental groups and MRCA – can develop a better system of notifying people when bacteria levels are high. Indeed, the various partners have been trying to develop signage similar to what gets posted at beaches on days when bacteria levels are high. But it’s not in place yet.
“I think we need a more coordinated protocol,” he said. “There is room for improvement.”