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Public left in the dark about a spike in L.A. River bacteria levels

Kayakers preparing to launch into the river in Elysian Valley | Martha Benedict

When there’s a risk of flooding in the L.A. River, officials are quick to issue warnings and close the channel to the public.  But when there’s a big spike in harmful bacteria in the water, there’s no official procedure in place to warn people away from the river, reports KPCC. That issue came up earlier this month when levels of E.coli, which is associated with feces, jumped to about 100 times above federal safety limits a few days before kayakers raced down the river in Elysian Valley.

Water quality officials began detecting a spike in E.coli in the river as early as Sept. 1 and shared that information among a small group of agencies, KPCC said. But no government warnings were ever issued and the river remained opened for public use, including the boat race on Sept. 9. The problem did not become public until the day before the boat race was held when Heal The Bay, an environmental group, advised kayakers and river users to stay out of the water.

A series of email exchanges between government agencies revealed that no one believed they had the authority to keep the public out of the river. “Canceling kayaking is not within our authority,” said a person with the city’s Bureau of Sanitation. A county health specialist said that “we do not have the authority to close the river.”

A spokesman for the Mountains River Conservation Authority, which oversees the river recreation zone in Elysian Valley,  told KPCC that the authority could have  shut down the zone in light of the high bacteria levels but it was never asked by city, county or federal officials to do so.

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17 comments

  1. When you let the homeless camps pop up along the sides of the river what do you expect? They use it as their own personal toilet. This tolerance for problem will continue until you make a daily effort to move the camps. But when you have lawyers suing the city, and the gutless city council settling the million dollar lawsuits like it not their own money, (just our money not theirs) you can expect the problem to get worst. The L.A. river will become just like the Ganges in India.

    • How ignorant and hate-filled a statement. Blame it on some homeless people, not on the city dumping treated but still dirty toilet water into the river from its plant at Supulveda Dam and the other one along the river at Atwater. It couldn’t possibly be from that, such a drastically high volume would have to be instead from some homeless people along the river, the homeless are to blame for anything bad.

      Just because they often have to shut down the ocean due to high pollution including e-coli in the area of the Hyperion Treatment Plant shouldn’t tip you off that these facilities are dumping dirty water.

      That’s no hepa filter they’re cleaning the water with, they just put it through some “sand” and then dump a bunch of chemicals in it, and then out to the river — just read the sign explaining that at the Atwater plant.

      And here they are passing the buck at the river, even though they clearly have authority to take action on health matters there the same as by the Hyperion Plant.

    • Simply put, the Heal the Bay “announcement” was a public relations effort on the part of this non profit to highlight itself, while unfortunately putting out bad science information.

      The fact is that in the recreational zone of the Los Angeles River in Elysian Valley, the testing was compliant with EPA swimming standards almost 88% of the time. The big exception is after rains when no one is allowed to kayak or fish in the river for 72 hours because of the predictable negative impact of street run off and storm drains. The water tests very clean except after rains and nobody should be worried. Heal the Bay has-for two years running- created a great big to do about nothing.

      To put things in perspective, the standards are developed so that for full immersion swimming not more than 3.5% of people who swim in waters at the limits might develop a short lasting health impact like gastrointestinal distress. Since no one is allowed to swim in the river, kayaking and fishing represent much much less of a risk. Likely at the threshold value for e coli the risk for kayakers is no more than 1%. That’s why after five years of legal kayaking on the LA River we don’t see any rash of illness or bad impacts.

      To Heal the Bay: great sound bite but get your facts straight. Hey there Eastsiders, you can thank the westside organization Heal the Bay for trying to use the LA River’s supposed bad water quality to raise its profile as an eastside player. All wrong and not accurate at all.

  2. Correct R Patton. There are homeless camps down there and no toilet facilities. Perhaps we should provide housing for these folks.

  3. The city needs to get the homeless out of the river before they destroy the habitats with all the fecal matter. Poor wildlife

  4. Honestly, just reading the comments about how the homeless along the rivers are using the LA river as their personal toilet is nothing new to the city and sanitation.

    I am a native angeleno, for as long as I remember the LA river has always been polluted. Its not only are seeing fecal matter from the homeless, but all the runoff from surrounding cities, i.e. people who urinate in public, to dog and cat feces, as well as run off from lawns that have fertilizer. Let alone all the other people in Los Angeles that use the gutters of LA Streets as there personal trash can.

    So there is a bigger problem with just the homeless living by the river and using it as a toilet.

  5. I used to volunteer on the Kayak trips and noticed that there were no facilities for the Kayakers who spend three hours making the trip. Maybe some potable toilets in key places could reduce this problem as well as giving those who live in the river an alternative. Currently the businesses and parks are being overwhelmed by the needs of all the users.

    • David, It seems like a good idea, but I believe the main issue would be about maintenance of portable toilets. This, of course, would be in addition to finding a source of funds to buy/rent and install them.

      • Maybe they could use some of the money allocated for draining and refilling the Ivanhoe reservoir or sealing underground walkways.

  6. Thanks, Eastsider, for publishing this information.

  7. Stoppedeatingmyroomatestorta

    First of all, the spike in bacteria usually happens rite after after a storm, secondly there are just as many other harmful components that add to the equation of filth and disease. Copper, lead, zinc and other metals harm the water that run through the river. Every golf course, manufacturing company and place where people bbq, all have a negative effect. Stop blaming the homeless, every drunk and hiker that pees in public all contribute to the problem. Everyone that litters and drives a car all contribute to the problem.

    • In this case, officials told KPCC that they believe the spike in bacteria was the result of the the illegal dumping of portable toilets into the river.

      • So I guess the installation of portable toilets isn’t the answer!

      • Oh for god’s sake, the officials keep changing their story of who to blame it on, because they are the ones to blame it on. A few months ago when a permanent alert was put out about that water being highly polluted, the city claimed it was from some small animals along the river, a completely unbeliveable response. So now they want us to believe it must be people dumping porta-potties into the river — yet nary a port-potty operation is named, because they claim is just made up out of thin air.

  8. Yeah man, those homeless encampments are toilet terrorizing the river. I can’t see myself ever going on those kayak river tours, just not safe for my health.

  9. Attention: Los Angeles transplants/ homeowners
    The river was never meant to be used for recreation! It is a flood channel. It is not safe. It is extremely contaminated as it consists of treated sewage and urban runoff.
    The water you see trickling down stream is not mountain stream water. The water is spewing from the SEPULVEDA BASIN TREATMENT PLANT!!
    The city of Los Angeles is selling you a lie in suggesting it can be used for recreation. This is all part of a false neighborhood branding to perpetuate their plan for mass development and to continue the overvaluation of surrounding real estate…
    Bottom line, you paid too much for your house!

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