Views & Ideas: Getting to the Source — Water Quality on the L.A. River

Views & Ideas is where Eastsider readers can express their opinions, start a conversation and share ideas on neighborhood  issues,  problems and potential.


That L.A. River water isn’t pristine may not be news. But Heal the Bay’s report last week, with measurements from last summer showing high bacteria levels, caused a stir. Unfortunately, it has also has led to some misunderstanding.

The City’s response states that Heal the Bay’s findings “agree with our most recent water quality results” and that “partners agreed on the need to focus more testing on the River’s recreational zones.” Our response is: “No. Please!” Further studies will not only waste valuable resources but fail to show anything new. It’s a distraction from doing something about the source of the pollution. Los Angeles faces a systemic water pollution problem.

Heal the Bay says they support river revitalization and emphasized that the report shouldn’t stop recreation—only that people should be informed and use common sense. As it is, the report may set back hard-fought years of efforts to change hearts and minds about using the river in positive ways.

What’s gotten lost is that the focus needs to be on methodically improving water quality rather than providing further difficulties for the recreational users and outfitters who are out there on the front lines, cleaning the river regularly (e.g., our Kayaking Cleanup Brigade) and educating the public to grow the ranks of environmental stewardship.

LA River Expeditions estimates it has put more than 5,000 kayakers on the river since 2008, and there hasn’t been one reported case of the types of health risks mentioned in the report.

Keep in mind that boating has been one of the most visible signs of progress toward the river’s revitalization. It was LA River Expeditions’ trip down the river’s 51 miles in 2008 that gave the EPA the legal muscle to finally decide that the entire L.A. River is to be protected under the Clean Water Act. Indeed, kayakers are part of the solution.

But with river-connected activities like kayaking, fishing, biking, birding and horseback riding increasing since 2010, people have figuratively, and literally, jumped in. Despite the State Water Board and the City of L.A. noting that the river’s water quality was acceptable for kayaking, they stopped shy of recommending swimming.

Opening up public access didn’t yet get us to the point that FoLAR’s Lewis MacAdams hoped for as a river goal: “…a swimmable river.” That’s OK. In recent years we’ve taken some large steps forward.

Looking ahead, the report notes that riverside cities and entities that discharge into the river will be legally required to clean up their acts by 2037. Seriously?! Two decades from now? Sure, there are some shorter-term “enhanced” goals. But the only study someone should do is on what the holdup is and what can be done constructively today to start making water quality better. Ferret out the greatest sources of watershed pollution and start attacking those in a concerted, strategic way — and fast.

If you’re a watchdog, then sharpen your teeth, keep your watch diligently and don’t bark up the wrong tree.

GEORGE WOLFE is the Founder/President of LA River ExpeditionsSCOTT CHER is Education Director of LA River Expeditions; & JOEL SHAPIRO, is Co-Founder, Arts: Earth Partnership / Electric Lodge

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  1. How do we clean it? An LA Times article identified “urban runoff, leaks and flows from wastewater collection systems and failing septic systems. Other bacteria sources include pets, horses and human waste..” http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-la-river-study-20160727-snap-story.html

    Several years ago, to settle a lawsuit from Heal the Bay, The City of LA stepped up it’s cleaning of sewer lines to prevent backups, which creates spills. Watershed Protection will investigate dumping and clean human waste, but they can only do so much. It’s a hard job since the watershed includes everything that drains to the river.

    • Yes, James, that’s the fundamental question: How can we, as a community, clean it? The problems are self-evident and have been known about for a long time, but we need to focus on quicker and more effective solutions.

  2. The reality is, the LA River in its natural state is just a little trickle. All that other water if from non-river sources, a lot of it from the Tillman sewage treatment pant in the Valley and more than the similar plant right there at Atwater. The plant at Atwater knows that water it dumps is not clean, it even posts a big sign saying its not suitable for drinking (it says nothing of any other contact with it).

    That sign also explains how they clean it, and it ain’t with any hepa filter, they just let solids settle in a vat for a little while, and then pour it over sand as the only filter, then dump lots of chlorine in it — and that’s it. I don’t believe that nothing gets through, as they claim, not from that explanation they give. I would not be quick to accept the city’s denials of any pollution from that.

    In addition, the “river” is actually now long since a flood control channel. ALL the drainage system from ALL the streets in the flood basin is drained out to the river – that’s another source of water when it rains, and another source of serious pollution. That is also what made it possible to develop that entire flood basin – without that flood control channel, it would all go under water frequently in winter rains.

    As a flood control channel, it was designed to handle what is called a “100-year storm,” a storm that WILL happen and happens on average about once every century. But the sediment accumulating into islands in the river, and lots of plant and tree growth on them undermines the ability fo handle the 100-year storm. I pointed this out repeatedly early on, and everyone shouted me down. Now, we see the Corp of Engineers clearly agrees with me, they have put up those sand things along the river too this past winter in fear that El Nino might very well flood the area because the river has been undermined as a flood control channel and can no longer handle the 100-year storm it was designed for.

    And I still continue to hear nothing but denial.

    I agree with this article that if activity on the river is to proceed, we should clean it up. I’m not clear that that study isn’t going to include finding wherever the pollution is coming from — you can’t clean it up unless you stop the sources. The kayak brigade walking along the river and picking up trash is good, I applaud them, but it isn’t going to stop this pollution.

    I do disagree with this article on some points, especially where it says: “…and there hasn’t been one reported case of the types of health risks mentioned in the report.” Come on, of course there has been no “report,” there hasn’t been any tracking. That was a false and prejudiced argument. Maybe there have been some infections, maybe not.

    I do not agree with the city that none of that is coming from the city. I do not find it plausible that it could be coming from the small amount of animals around, we are talking about a pretty significant amount of fecal matter, according to that report. Surely there is some fecal matter coming in from the storm drainage from the streets in the flood basin, but I do not expect a lot from that, that would give more chemical pollution from oil on the streets, and other stuff.

    The reality is, we are dealing with a river that is arguably not even a stream in its natural state – and we keep talking about “restoring” it for uses of a real, larger river. We are NOT restoring it, we are actually simply repurposing a man-made river. To “restore” it would be to eliminate all the possibilities people talk about for the river. Gee, if the city stopped dumping the sewage water in there, none of these activities, kayaking or other, could happen.

    • Some nice specifics here, J.W. But your core premise about the natural state of the river is simply incorrect. The river is the reason that both the native tribes and the Spanish settlers decided to position themselves at this particular spot (now Downtown) and elsewhere along the river: it was a relatively lush river valley that provided substantial fresh water year round. The river has been here ever since these three mountain ranges, rain (avg. of 15 inches/year or so) and local aquifers have existed—long before the Army Corps got its hands on it or we had the need to take water from up north via the aqueducts.

      Yes, now three water treatment plants pump water into the river. I can’t speak to the quality of individual treatment plants—that’s a matter for water professionals to provide information about.

      The plants and trees you mentioned help to filter the water naturally, so let them do their job. Yes, they may impede flow to some degree, but a healthy balance of green + flood control safety is the goal. The Glendale Narrows and Sepulveda Basin work just fine as is, and contain abundant brush and trees that wildlife also need to survive.

      You’re right that more is needed than LA River Expeditions’ Kayaking Cleanup Brigade. FoLAR and Heal the Bay do cleanups, too, at least one day a year, but it’s all a drop in the bucket without a better strategy to keep garbage (solid & chemical) out of the river to begin with. A lot more help is needed. So please keep pushing for that.

      You’re right on the note about no water-related health complaints over 6+ years of kayaking tours isn’t a scientific study. It’s an observation. But one from direct, on-the-ground experience and contact with participants. Then again, is anyone tracking ear infections from swimmers and surfers at our area beaches?

      Through the efforts of many different groups, we ARE restoring the river. It’s not realistic to think it will end up in its original, natural state. But there is a bona fide movement, in LA and around the world, to do better with our urban rivers in the 21st century than we did in the 20th century. That’s the heart of this difficult task.

    • You bring up some good points about the sources of water and contaminates, and other management concerns like flood control. However, I’d like to offer a few more points to consider.

      Regardless of how heavily modified the LA River is and its uses besides recreation, it is still protected under the Clean Water Act and water quality is regulated through the LA County MS4 (municipal separate storm sewer system) permit. Dischargers are required to bring pollution levels below the TMDL (total maximum daily load) or be fined.

      I don’t know much about the Los Angeles-Glendale treatment plant specifically, but what you describe sounds like the typical tertiary treatment process that we see at other plants like Tillman. This is considered a very high grade and can be used for non-potable applications like irrigation (which we see in many local parks). I have spoken with people who operate these plants and have never heard anyone claim that they remove *all* contaminants. Microbeads and pharmaceutical compounds are notorious examples. Bacteria, however, should not be an issue if the plant is functioning properly.

      As an organization running on a customer-service model, LA River Expeditions *is* in the position to receive feedback about illness. I’ve personally kayaked at these spots about 10 times and have never gotten sick, but I would definitely let the group I paddled with know if I did.

      Finally, am I right that the sediment accumulation and vegetation that you’re referring to is in the Glendale Narrows? The Corps never put concrete on the bottom of the channel there because they couldn’t. The soil is only about 20 feet deep, and hydrostatic pressure from the high water table would have forced the concrete up. The sand bars and vegetation are the “natural” riverbed, not a sediment management failure, and the Corps’ 100-year flood models take this into consideration.

      Ultimately, the point that this reinforces for me is the need to intercept water before it reaches the river channel, both for water quality and for flood management.

      • River Action Partners

        The islands are sedimentary and also there was concrete laid in Glendale Narrow. It was handled differently (rock with grout between) but I can assure you there us plenty of concrete on the river bottom. I have seen Army Corp drawings for typical grout bottom and have personally examined bottom in place. Much has been pushed up from pressure of underground waters or broken up in storms when debris runs downstream with force but it is not all soil “soft bottom” as many claim.

        You can find historical photos in Glendale narrows after channelization- you will not see the islands. Indeed for years the islands and sediment were cleared with heavy equipment after rainy season. The effort lead by Lewis began the effort to let nature return to the Glendale Narrow.

  3. Watch out for floaters from the homeless people and coyotes.

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