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L.A. River Has Scary Levels Of Fecal Bacteria, Study Shows

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L.A. River in the Sepulveda Basin (Photo by Matthew Dillon via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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Despite their increasing popularity, water quality at the L.A. River's two designated recreation areas remains "very poor," with high levels of fecal bacteria.

As you may already know, there are two different zones along the river where you can now legally engage in all kinds of fun stuff like kayaking and fishing. People have, of course, fished and played and waded in the L.A. River since humans first settled along its banks, but, as Heal the Bay writes in their report, those recreational activities were prohibited by trespassing ordinances after the river was channelized (i.e. concretized) more than a half century ago.

The practice of having designated "recreation zones" along the L.A. River where walking, non-motorized boating, and fishing could take legally place (at least during the summer) began with a pilot program in 2011 at the Sepulveda Basin river site in the Valley, and the second recreation zone—a 2.4-mile-long stretch of the river in Elysian Valley, opened in 2013. Both sites are now open for "recreation" from Memorial Day to Labor Day annually.

But even as the popularity of those recreation areas has grown (four separate kayak outfitters now operate on the river!), no one had formally studied the water quality in those specific areas, or looked at possible public health risks as more Angelenos kayaked—and occasionally even swam—in our fair river.

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"What was novel about this study," Dr. Rita Kampalath, Heal the Bay's Science and Policy Director told LAist, "was the location in the recreation zones." Heal the Bay scientists studied three sites within the river's two designated recreation zones during the summer of 2015, performing weekly tests for fecal indicator bacteria, of which they found plenty.

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Map of recreation zones (Courtesy of Heal the Bay)
Fecal indicator bacteria is an umbrella term for several bacterias; they aren't necessarily disease causing alone, but they indicate the presence of fecal matter—whether it be from humans or animals—and are often linked with disease-causing pathogens. Heal the Bay tested for several specific bacterias within that umbrella, including E. coli and Enterococcus. Bacteria levels varied between the three sites, but they were high overall, exceeding federal standards and indicating a risk of ear infections, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses for people who come in contact with the water.

Kampalath told LAist that her team wasn't surprised with the results, given what they already knew about L.A. River water quality from previous tests, but that they want to draw attention to how uses of our waterbodies are changing. Those changes, particularly the concretized river becoming more recreation-friendly is something that we celebrate and encourage, but the regulations and monitoring have to catch up so that public health is protected," Kampalath said.

So what should river-loving Angelenos know to keep themselves healthy even as they enjoy those hard-won recreation areas?

The important thing to understand is that health risks from the bacterias in question aren't airborne, so there is no risk of getting sick from lovely stroll along the Frogtown path. What you most want to avoid is any hand-to-mouth contact after you've touched river water.

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(Courtesy of the City of L.A.)
" There are smart ways for people to protect themselves if they choose to get in the water, or really even recreate on the water," Kampalath said. "We would definitely advise against swimming, especially if you are going to dunk your head."If people do get in contact with the water, Kampalath advises that they thoroughly rinse off, and do their best not to actually have hand-to-mouth contact. She also said that those who are most susceptible to illness from bacteria might want to avoid physical contact with river water entirely.

Much of the water that flows through the river comes from the City of L.A.'s Tillman Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys, but that reclaimed wastewater is highly treated and sanitized. The estimated 16 million gallons of water a day that enter the river from Tillman are not only not the source of that fecal indicator bacteria, some studies actually show that the wastewater treatment plant dilutes the bacteria, according to Kampalath. So where is it coming from?

The bacteria concentrations that we see likely stem from stormwater and dry weather urban runoff, which carries bacteria from the streets into the river. And for any readers wondering about that recent sewage leak, we have a silver lining for you: it was downstream of both recreation areas.

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With the release of their study, Heal the Bay is pushing for better monitoring, better public notification and, of course, more research. In the long term, "our strategy is really about recognizing that the cities have put together these pretty detailed plans about what needs to be done to fix these issues, and we as the public need to support our decision makers in making sure that those plans are implemented," Kampalath said.

"We've historically been very supportive of recreation and we still are. We're very supportive of the restoration efforts in the L.A. River, we just want to ensure that the water quality piece of that doesn't get lost in the conversation," she told LAist.

Related:
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About The L.A. River, All On One Site