Wednesday, July 27, 2016
LAKE BALBOA >> Raul Aquino followed a group of kayakers down to the Los Angeles River, dipped a yellow boot into its flowing stream, then waded past some rocks and algae.
He stooped to collect a water sample in the Sepulveda Basin just as nearly a half dozen kayaks passed beneath the Burbank Boulevard bridge.
“I didn’t see any fecal matter,” reported Aquino, 29, a volunteer for a Heal the Bay “stream team” now studying pollution in rivers, streams and watering holes throughout Los Angeles. “Just some fish.
“Doesn’t look clean.”
It wasn’t. Such recreation hot spots that have sprung up in recent years along the Los Angeles River can suffer from very poor water quality, according to a Heal the Bay study released Wednesday.
The popular river stretches can also harbor enough fecal bacteria to make kayakers, anglers and swimmers sick, it said.
• RELATED PHOTOS: Heal the Bay finds pollutants in LA River
The study found elevated levels of two fecal indicator bacteria within the last remaining natural-bottom sections of the L.A. River: in the Sepulveda Basin in Lake Balboa; and in the Elysian Valley north of downtown. Samples were drawn once a week for three months last summer.
At Rattlesnake and Steelhead parks in Elysian Valley, where federal officials have approved a $1.3 billion plan to revitalize 11 miles of river habitat to enhance recreation, the team found the bacteria Enterococcus exceeded federal standards in 100 percent of water samples.
At Rattlesnake Park, testers found E. coli exceeded standards in 67 percent of 13 weekly samples.
Miles upriver at the Sepulveda Basin, testers found Enterococcus in 50 percent their summer samples, and E. coli in 20 percent.
High fecal indicator bacteria suggest a potential risk for ear infections, respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses.
It was on a bright Tuesday morning that Heal the Bay watershed scientist Katherine Pease joined Aquino and intern Xochitl Garcia at the Los Angeles River north of Sepulveda Dam. A snowy egret and black-necked stilts pecked at the shallow flat between rows of cattails, castor bean and willows.
“The bacteria is sometimes over the threshold limits and can be unhealthy in the Sepulveda Basin,” said Pease, author of the study and leader of 30 regular Stream Team testers. “These bacteria can make kayakers sick if they get it into their mouths, or cuts, or eyes. I wouldn’t drink it.
“(But) If you take certain precautions, it should be pretty safe.”
Others had tested the river and found bacterial pollution -- enough for the state to declare the river impaired. But no one had regularly sampled the waters in its increasingly used recreation areas.
• RELATED STORY: Study: Polluted swimming holes in Santa Monica Mountains may pose public health risk
Bird watching, fishing and wading had once been L.A. River pastimes until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers transformed it into a mostly concrete flood control channel beginning in the 1930s.
But then, river advocates and city officials called for it to become an urban oasis for recreation and a watershed for new commercial and residential development.
In 2011, the Sepulveda Basin was dubbed a destination for freshwater recreation. Then three years ago, Elysian Valley was legally opened to non-motorized boating, fishing, birdwatching, and walking.
With four kayak outfitters now offering river tours, however, the new bacteria study may serve as a public health warning.
But a spokesman for Paddle the L.A. River, an outfitter for the Los Angeles Conservation Corps that ferried a group of at-risk teens Tuesday for a Pokemon Go kayak hunt filmed by Telemundo, was convinced the Los Angeles River was safe. It hosts public tours three times a day on Friday and Saturday for $30.
“The water is purified,” said Mike Meno of the Conservation Corps, before heading on a ¾-mile paddle upriver. “And if it’s deemed safe enough to paddle, it’s good enough for us. If it wasn’t safe, the L.A. Conservation Corps wouldn’t be putting kayaks in the water.”
Heal the Bay was quick to point out that the treated Los Angeles wastewater from the Tillman Reclamation Plant upriver was not considered a source for bacterial pollution. A 2.4-million gallon sewage spill on July 18 in Boyle Heights occurred downstream and was not included in the study.
Rather, the harmful bacteria was likely caused by urban runoff, leaks from wastewater collection systems, illegal connections and failing septic tanks. Bacteria sources include pets, horses and human waste.
A similar study published last year by the environmental advocacy group found two of three popular swimming holes in the Santa Monica Mountains contained similar bacteria caused by runoff.
Heal the Bay recommended that residents avoid swimming in the L.A. River, while kayakers and others should limit water contact. The group also called for increased monitoring and public notification.
“The public has a right to know about water quality conditions in the L.A. River so that they can make informed decisions on how to minimize their risk of getting sick,” said Rita Kampalath, Heal the Bay’s science and policy director, in a statement.
“We look forward to working with the city and recreation outfitters to improve outreach and monitoring measures along the river.”