Why taking a dip in the L.A. River may be hazardous to your health

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


ELYSIAN VALLEY — Heading down to the L.A. River this summer? Maybe you should avoid getting wet, according to a water quality study. The study conducted by the environmental group Heal the Bay found high levels bacteria in the water in Elysian Valley and the Sepulveda Basin, prompting the group to warn visitors to limit their contact with the water and avoid swimming or dunking your head in the river.

“We envision a swimmable L.A. River one day but current water quality is not yet at a healthful level,” according to the report prepared by Heal the Bay’s watershed scientist Katherine Pease. “Avoid swimming in the Los Angeles River, particularly submerging your head underwater; and limit water contact, especially avoiding hand-to-face water contact. If there is water contact, then simply rinse off with soap and water afterwards.”

The report was issued as kayakers, hikers and anglers are allowed access to the river during the summer months as part of the L.A. River Recreation Zone.

“We’ve  always known to use caution when utilizing the Los Angeles River for recreational purposes,” said Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, whose district includes Elysian Valley, in response to the report. “The City will continue to work with the Council for Watershed Health, as well as our non-profit partners, to raise awareness about safety along the L.A. River.”

In Elysian Valley, water was tested on a weekly basis last summer near Rattlesnake Park, a prime access point for kayakers, and down river near Steelhead Park. Samples from both locations showed high levels of bacteria. Enterococcus, which typically inhabits the intestine, exceeded federal standards at both sites, and the site at Rattlesnake Park showed a high rate for E. coli, the study said.

The L.A. River gets nearly 16 million gallons a day of highly treated and sanitized wastewater from the City of L.A.’s Tillman Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys. But the report says the treated water is not considered a source of the contamination.

Instead, Heal the Bay notes other possible sources of harmful bacteria: urban runoff, leaks and flows from wastewater collection systems, illicit connections and failing septic systems, as well as pets, horses and human waste.

The organization said people who come in contact with the water run the risk of ear infections, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses. The report adds that people should also not enter the water with an open wound  or after a rainfall.

Although this is the first time these particular zones were assessed, other stretches of the L.A. River have also previously shown shown high bacteria counts, Heal the Bay said.

A map of the Elysian Valley River Recreation Zone is available here.

Barry Lank grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, then went away for a seriously long time. He has worked in TV and radio, and currently helps produce The Final Edition Radio Hour.

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  1. And this is why you get staph, bronchitis, conjunctivitis, and other fun infections when you surf after a rainfall. Dirty city by the ocean = Dirty water flowing into Dirty ocean.

    • When Heal the Bay says the waters in the study exceed bacteria standards they are referring to EPA standards for swimming. The river is required to meet those standards by 2030. In the meantime, kayakers or those who fish can follow some common-sense precautions. Avoid drinking the water and taking a shower after paddling .

      Friends of the Los Angeles River put out a great statement you can find here: .http://folar.org/news/la-river-water-quality-how-to-stay-safe-and-enjoy-our-river/

      Some good news- water testing at Steelhead Park in Elysian Valley showed it was compliant with the tough swimming standards for e coli bacteria 91% of the time. It will take public pressure and the effort of many to get all of the river to the next stage of clean water compliance.

  2. Who would be surprised by this information?

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