Heal the Bay Blog

Happy #WorldWetlandsDay!

The Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve has the potential to be the most special wildlife area in Los Angeles – a rare remnant of the vast plain of marshes that once covered much of the LA basin. But the ecosystem is severely degraded, and getting worse. Much of the current Reserve is dried out and choked with non-native weeds. In fact, most of the almost 600-acre Ballona Wetlands Reserve doesn’t even qualify as a wetland anymore. Plus, only a tiny sliver of this ecological reserve is open to the public, even though it’s on state-owned land, right in the heart of LA’s westside, between Marina Del Rey and LAX.

Planning to restore the Wetlands and open them to the public has been underway for 17 years. Recently, that plan took a big step forward: after years of analysis, design, community meetings and environmental review, the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was certified by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in December 2020. Now this important project can move towards implementation.

Even better news – CDFW selected Alternative 1, the most robust of the possible restoration designs for Ballona. Alt 1 provides the most habitat for wildlife, the greatest amount of walking and biking trails, and the maximum climate resilience. It is a project truly worthy of this special and rare opportunity for urban wetland restoration in LA. 

Now the Army Corps of Engineers will prepare its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a process that should take about two years. This is a great opportunity for community input on project design. Heal the Bay will be reaching out for your thoughts and comments as the project proceeds. 

More Detail on the Project

Alt 1 will remove the concrete stream banks that separate the former wetlands from Ballona Creek. It will create a healthy, functioning estuary where fresh water from the creek mixes with salt water from the tides of the Pacific Ocean. It will create habitat for fish and migrating birds, educational opportunities for students, and many miles of trails for people to explore.

Heal the Bay and our partners have been involved in every step of the project, providing expert input on wetlands ecology and restoration principles, engaging the public, and advocating for restoration. The Steering Committee of the Wetlands Restoration Principles Coalition (WRP) supports Alt 1 for many reasons:

  • Alt 1 removes the most fill and concrete, and creates the most habitat, public access, and sea level rise resilience.
  • Alt 1 has more trails than any other alternative. It will create of 3.6 miles of walking + biking paths, as well as 5.5 miles of pedestrian-only trails and ADA-compliant elevated boardwalks. 
  • Alt 1 will be an asset to communities across LA County in support of public health and access to nature, and a prized jewel of the LA County coast.
  • Alt 1 provides parkland in Westchester, Playa del Rey, and the LAX neighborhoods. They are the most park-poor neighborhoods of the westside, with only 15% of the population within walking distance of a park (LA County Park Needs Assessment).
  • Alt 1 makes us more climate-resilient, by absorbing decades of sea level rise, restoring ecosystem function to capture Blue Carbon, and ensures safety of neighboring communities from flooding. Alt 1 maintains salt marsh and other habitats through 3.5 feet of sea level rise.
  • Alt 1 provides the greatest water quality and habitat benefits, by increasing tidal flushing and creating and restoring approximately 200 acres of marsh and salt pan habitat. 

The Ballona Wetlands Restoration is a generational opportunity to recover this unique Los Angeles ecological gem, and open it to the public for all to enjoy. Show your support for this project by adding your name to our coalition’s Ballona Wetlands Restoration Support Letter here:

Sign Ballona Support Letter

Check back for updates, there’s more to come on Ballona! 


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Surfrider Beach Third Point, Malibu. Photo by The California Coastal Commission 

On November 15-16 and December 13-15, 2020, head to the beach during the King Tides to catch a glimpse of what our future coast will look like with sea level rise.

King Tides occur when the Moon aligns with the Sun, and is also at its closest position relative to the Earth. This exerts cumulative gravitational pulls on Earth, resulting in the most extreme high and low tides of the year. In California, experts say that King Tides today are what we can expect our daily high tide to look like in the next few decades under climate change and sea level rise predictions.

For many people, it’s hard to see everyday impacts of climate change locally and difficult to understand real-life impacts that are here or coming. King Tides give us the opportunity to visualize firsthand what a higher sea level will be like, and it’s impact on California cities. This is also an opportunity to get involved as a community scientist and document the #KingTides through photos. These photos can be used by scientists, government agencies, and decision makers to understand, plan for, and educate about climate change impacts.

As sea levels rise, flooding and erosion along the coast will increase, putting people’s homes, freshwater aquifers, and critical infrastructure (like roads, bridges, wastewater treatment plants) at risk. Sea level rise is also predicted to result in the loss of 31-67% of SoCal’s beaches. However, the impact of sea level rise does not stop at the coast. As ocean water flows farther inland, it displaces groundwater, pushing it closer to the surface. Eventually, that groundwater can break the surface and damage roads and homes, and release toxins and pollution that would otherwise remain trapped in the soil.

There are actions that we can take today to minimize and prepare for coming climate change impacts. For instance, individuals can reduce their carbon footprint by driving less, adopting a plant-based diet, and demanding action from elected officials. Individuals and agencies can support and advocate for restoration of coastal wetlands, such as the Ballona Wetlands, which sequester carbon and buffer communities from sea level rise and storm surges. Governments can update their Local Coastal Programs (a planning document to guide development) for sea level rise and climate change adaptation.

You can take part in community science and take photos for the Coastal Commission’s Project and USC Sea Grant’s Urban Tides Program.

Want to learn more about climate change? Request a speaker from Heal the Bay to give a virtual climate change presentation to your school, club, or group.

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Mother's Beach, Marina del Rey 2019. Photo by The California Coastal Commission

Helpful resources for King Tides:

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On March 26, in response to lobbying from the oil and gas industry, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced rollbacks on enforcement of regulations during the COVID-19 response. These rollbacks put public health at risk by letting industries off the hook for their legal requirements to control their pollution. Communities that are already disproportionately burdened by pollution, including the unsheltered and low-income communities of color, are the ones who will be hit hardest. The government’s response to a pandemic should not upend its commitment to address other, longstanding threats to public health.

It is clear that COVID-19 is having major impacts on all sectors, from individuals to small mom-and-pop businesses to large factories. There may be cases when a relaxation in requirements is acceptable to help those businesses, but to cease oversight altogether is not the answer. Blanket exemptions cannot be tolerated, because doing so puts people’s health further at risk, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most likely to be impacted by COVID-19. Any regulatory flexibility must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Now is not the time for blanket rollbacks of environmental regulations. The administration’s recent actions to rollback regulations on car fuel standards as well as water and air pollution are unconscionable and only take advantage of this terrible pandemic at the expense of public health.

What do the EPA rollbacks mean?

We have seen dozens of piecemeal rollbacks during this current administration. Now the EPA has released a memorandum announcing across-the-board rollbacks on enforcement of regulations that protect public health and natural resources, including clean water. It applies to any facility regulated by the EPA including private industries that discharge polluted water, as well as essential services including drinking water or wastewater treatment facilities.

The memorandum states that COVID-19 “may affect the ability of an operation to meet enforceable limitations on air emissions and water discharges, requirements for the management of hazardous waste, or requirements to ensure and provide safe drinking water.” The memorandum encourages facilities to report instances of non-compliance that may create an acute risk to human health or the environment. But encouragement is not enough – these occurrences must be reported immediately and publicly so that people are aware of the increased risks to their health.

Additionally, the EPA will no longer penalize violations of routine monitoring and other obligations. Monitoring and record keeping are fundamental to addressing pollution – knowing which contaminants (and how much) are discharged into our waterways allows us to prioritize public health issues and demand plans to address the pollution.

Here in California, state laws like the Porter-Cologne Act protect public health and the environment by creating a strong backstop to prevent environmental rollbacks; however, this federal non-compliance policy creates enormous pressure for state agencies to follow suit.

The California State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) announced back on March 20 that the “timely compliance by the regulated community with all Water Board orders and other requirements… is generally considered to be an essential function during the COVID-19 response.” However, they are reviewing requests to roll back protective measures related to water here in California, on a case-by-case basis. We are counting on the State Water Board to uphold environmental and public health protections, and provide leniency only when it is in the public interest.

What are people doing about these rollbacks?

As we all know, WATER IS LIFE. Particularly now, as we respond to COVID-19, we must ensure reliable access to safe and clean water, to protect the health of people and the natural resources on which we depend. Therefore, advocacy groups across the country have been fighting these rollbacks since they were first announced.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and a coalition of environmental justice, climate justice, and public interest advocacy groups filed a Petition for Emergency Rulemaking in response to this reckless non-enforcement policy, stating that any facility that stops monitoring and reporting their pollution must notify the EPA, to be publicly posted within one day.

Dozens of California based environmental groups (including Heal the Bay) sent a letter to Governor Newsom and many other state officials, urging them to remain committed to prioritizing public health and the availability of safe and clean water for all Californians.

Heal the Bay is urging the EPA and the State Water Board to uphold environmental regulations that protect public and environmental health, and to give leniency only when it is truly necessary and does not jeopardize public health. We also demand transparency so that any requests approved by the State Water Board are publicly noticed so the public can protect themselves and groups like Heal the Bay can continue to watchdog the decision-making process.

How you can help!

Sign Heal the Bay’s petition to tell our State Water Board to:

  • uphold environmental regulations to protect public and environmental health,
  • only give leniency when it is necessary and does not jeopardize public health, and
  • ensure transparency so the public can know when any leniency is given.

Join the Center for Biological Diversity to fight the federal rollback by sending in your own comment letter directly to Andrew Wheeler (The Administrator of the EPA), or submit a letter to the editor of your local paper.


Sign Petition


Attention citizen scientists and naturalists, it’s time to charge your mobile devices. Our watershed scientist Katherine Pease is inviting you to BioBlitz with her for a few hours on Saturday, Aug. 26.

Compton Creek is a small gem of green and blue, bisected by noisy freeways, crumbling parking lots, aging shopping malls and a high-rise casino. Amid all this urban scrabble, a soft-bottomed section of the creek thrives.

Most people don’t know this earthen-bottomed half-mile stretch even exists. And some might argue that “gem” is too generous a term for this L.A. River tributary. But we see it as a forgotten jewel – a glimpse of what greater L.A.’s inland waterways used to be and a symbol of what we can hopefully bring back on a larger scale.

There are drooping willow trees, reeds, frogs, swarms of dragonflies, California ground squirrels and even majestic kites (a type of bird) flying overhead. There is also trash, a lot of it, and pollutants that can’t be seen with the naked eye: bacteria, metals and nutrients. But there is that glimmer of hope. Plants and animals persist here, and now it’s our job to find out what’s there and to protect it.

So we’re inviting you to a blitz. A BioBlitz to be exact.

On Saturday, Aug. 26, you can join scientists and experts from Heal the Bay and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in searching for wildlife and documenting it with your smartphone.

We’ll be spending three hours snapping pictures of the local flora and fauna, uploading the images to our growing catalogue of L.A.’s wildlife via the iNaturalist app.

You don’t need to be a scientist to participate – you just have to observe what is around you! In addition to looking for plants and animals, we will be picking up trash in and around the creek, which ultimately drains into the Pacific Ocean near Long Beach.

The data we collect will better inform restoration and revitalization of the Los Angeles River watershed. A revitalization plan for the Lower L.A. River is being formulated by the Lower L.A. River Revitalization Plan Working Group. As a member of this effort, Heal the Bay is fighting for better access, improved water quality and restored ecological habitats in the Lower L.A. River. Having data on the current conditions of biodiversity in Compton Creek helps set a baseline so we can establish goals for what we would like to see in the coming years.

This BioBlitz is part of two greater efforts in the Los Angeles area to document, protect and improve biodiversity and habitats.

First, the Los Angeles City Council, championed by councilmember Paul Koretz, recently passed a motion to protect and improve biodiversity in Los Angeles. Heal the Bay has been involved in this effort and sees this BioBlitz in Compton Creek as a way to understand the nature that exists all around us in greater Los Angeles.

The second push is the city of Compton’s revival of the Compton Creek Task Force. The Task Force is focused on creating stewardship opportunities along the creek, educating residents and visitors about its importance. The group will also help implement the city’s Compton Creek Regional Garden Park Master Plan, which includes restoring the earthen-bottom portion of Compton Creek.

If you ever thought about becoming a citizen scientist, this is an ideal opportunity to get started. Last year, we hosted similar events in the Ballona Wetlands and Malibu Lagoon. Dozens of volunteers made a big difference in our ongoing restoration work by creating a record of what they saw each morning.

You can register with us for the event here.

Dec. 7, 2016 –Dr. Katherine Pease, Heal the Bay’s wetlands scientist, takes the wraps off a new website to guide the restoration of L.A.’s few remaining wetlands.

In April 2015, Heal the Bay, along with partners Friends of Ballona Wetlands, Surfrider Foundation, and Los Angeles Waterkeeper, released a comprehensive, scientific set of principles for wetland restoration projects in Southern California.

Now that greater Los Angeles has lost 95% of its coastal wetlands, a concerted effort to protect the remaining 5% is critical for the overall health of our region. Using a science-based approach, the coalition has developed clear guidelines to support the restoration of such key ecosystems as the highly degraded Ballona Wetlands in Playa del Rey.

Besides providing habitat for animals, wetlands help buffer against climate change, provide much-needed open space, and act as natural water-purification systems.

Nine other organizations signed on in support of those guidelines. Since then, we have shared our principles with the California Coastal Commission, the California Fish and Game Commission, elected officials, and the public at our “Meet the Wetlands” event in July 2016. Now we are hitting the web!

The coalition has created a website to showcase our collective Principles of Wetland Restoration. We have shared the site with the nine groups that signed on to the principles as well as with local wetlands experts; their constructive feedback has been instrumental in the website development. Individuals and organizations can sign on in support of the Principles.

The website will serve as an additional tool for educating the public, as well for advocating for the restoration of Southern California’s remaining wetlands. We expanded on the pithy principles and gave examples of each principle in practice. We also compiled a list of restoration projects that have implemented a majority of the principles we believe are necessary for a successful and comprehensive project.

Looking forward, we are eagerly awaiting the long-delayed release of the plans (draft Environmental Impact Statement/Report) for the restoration of the Ballona Wetlands, expected from the state’s Department of Fish & Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers sometime next year.

We will use this website to educate elected officials and the public about the need for scientific and comprehensive wetland restoration projects that bring back functioning ecosystems. We look forward to seeing the principles in action at Ballona and beyond.

If you support the restoration of Southern California’s wetlands, read more about the Ballona Wetlands and sign our petition asking for an expedited EIR release.

October 11, 2016 — Watershed Scientist Katherine Pease, Ph.D., weighs in on the latest setback affecting the future of the Ballona Wetlands.

Way back in 2003, the State of California purchased the Ballona Wetlands, protecting one of our last remaining coastal wetlands in Southern California. Despite being protected, the Ballona Wetlands have been severely impacted by humans and are highly degraded. Thus, shortly after State acquisition, restoration planning began.

Fast forward thirteen years and we still do not have a plan for the restoration of the Ballona Wetlands.

Rumors had been circulating recently about a delay in the release of the much-anticipated restoration plan or Environmental Impact Report/Statement (EIR/EIS) for the Ballona Wetlands.

I am disappointed to say that official word has now confirmed those rumors. We are now told that we must wait until mid-2017 to see this document.

The draft EIR/EIS will detail and evaluate four tentative alternatives, ranging from the “No Action Alternative” – in other words, doing nothing – to a full scale restoration involving concrete removal to establish a more natural creek connected to the wetlands, walking and biking paths, and creation and enhancement of wetland habitats. The Army Corps of Engineers and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) are the lead agencies preparing the EIR/EIS and will make the final decision about restoration plans.

This further delay is unacceptable. The Ballona Wetlands need restoration and action needs to be taken now. Southern California has already lost 95% of its coastal wetlands. We need to act quickly to protect and restore our remaining 5%.

Heal the Bay and partners have been participating in good faith in a public process that began in 2006. The draft EIR was due in 2012. We have been awaiting this document for four years – that’s right, we are four years behind schedule. The deadlines have continually been pushed back and surpassed, but this time felt different; I was sure we would see the EIR in 2016. Alas, it was not meant to be. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll just sit around waiting patiently – we need to speak up and hold the Army Corps of Engineers and CDFW accountable.

What is the explanation for the delay?

  • The official notice states in great brevity that the delay is “due to the identification, discussion and resolution of various questions and concerns from the project agencies involved.”
  • We ask for more transparency and specific details about the delay. What are the questions and concerns? How will they be addressed? We suggest a public meeting to discuss the process. 

What assurance do we have that the new timeline will be met?

  • Transparency in the process about what went wrong will help give us confidence that the new timeline will be met. Further, we would like to see specific interim goals with dates to ensure that the process stays on track to meet the new timeline. The document needs to be made public as soon as possible. We ask that this work be prioritized and be finished by the end of 2016.

Heal the Bay will meet with partners, agencies, and elected officials to try to get answers to these questions and to put pressure on the lead agencies.

If you support the restoration of Ballona Wetlands and want to see it happen ASAP, starting with the release of the EIR/EIS, please sign our petition now.

You can also contact CDFW and your federal elected officials to let them know that you care about wetland habitat and that you want to see the EIR/EIS now.


Learn more about the Ballona Wetlands.

White egret at the Ballona Wetlands Student group on a tour at Ballona Wetlands Wooden posts at Ballona Wetlands

Aug, 5, 2016 — Staff scientist Katherine Pease launches our Freshwater Friday blog post, providing weekly updates on the latest bacterial exceedances at popular recreational zones

Heal the Bay’s inaugural study of Los Angeles River microbial water quality that we published last week and last year’s study on swimming holes in the Santa Monica Mountains called for more readily available public water quality information. The public has a right to know about water quality conditions in these freshwater recreation areas so that they can make informed decisions on how to minimize the risk of getting sick.

So beginning today with our Santa Monica Mountains sites, we will be posting a blog post every Friday during the summer with water quality information from our weekly sampling of freshwater recreation sites in Los Angeles County. (You can see this week’s findings at the bottom of this page, but first we want to explain our intent and methodology.)

We envision safe swimmable rivers and creeks throughout Los Angeles County. However, a number of recreational waterbodies are not regularly monitored or monitored at all. We know thousands of Angelenos use these aquatic resources.

As such, Heal the Bay would rather provide some information about the water quality they are immersing themselves into rather than no information. The idea is to prompt the user to ask questions about these waterbodies: What is the origin of the water? Can I get sick from it? What types of illnesses can I get? How do I get more information? We will be posting a Frequently Asked Questions document next week to help answer some of these questions.

Heal the Bay has been monitoring water quality in streams and rivers since 1998 through our Stream Team program. In 2014 we initiated a pilot study to monitor human use and water quality at freshwater swimming spots in the Santa Monica Mountains, focusing on bacterial pollution and public health implications.

The A-to-F grading system of the Beach Report Card took years of work to develop and fine-tune. We are only in the very early stages of thinking about an analogous River Report Card. But we want to start by making basic water quality information available to the public in a timely manner.

We will be providing weekly information about levels of fecal indicator bacteria at five sites. We will report on whether the sample from the current week exceeded limits set by the Regional Water Quality Control Board and US EPA and what the microbial water quality has been over the summer sampling season thus far.

We will report on two types of fecal indicator bacteria, or FIB: E. coli and Enterococcus. FIB, while not harmful themselves, indicate the possible presence of pathogenic bacteria, which have been found to cause ear infections, skin rashes, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illness. High levels of FIB are particularly concerning in areas where people come in contact with water through activities like swimming, fishing, and kayaking.

Excuse us for getting technical in this next section, but we just want to be clear about what we are measuring and what constitutes an exceedance.

We compare bacteria levels measured at each site to water quality objectives from the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for Bacteria in the Malibu Creek Watershed and EPA’s 2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria (RWQC)

The freshwater regulatory limit for E. coli is set in the TMDL at 235 MPN/100ml for a single sample and 126 MPN/100ml for the geometric mean. (A geometric mean is a type of average that results in a number that is not as heavily affected by very high or very low values).

We calculate geometric means from all samples over the last 30-day period (usually four or five samples). For Enterococcus, we used EPA’s statistical threshold value (for an illness rate of 32/1,000 (the more protective rate), which is 110 MPN/100ml for a single sample and 30 MPN/100ml for the geometric mean in a fresh waterbody designated for recreation.

For each site, we will report on the number of criteria that exceeded four standards. A site can have 0-4 out of four exceedances. A sample exceeds if:

E. coli single sample > 235 MPN/100ml 

E. coli geometric mean > 126 MPN/100ml

Enterococcus single sample is > 110 MPN/100ml

Enterococcus geometric mean is > 30 MPN/100ml

So, what does that all mean?

The greater the number and magnitude of exceedances at a site, the worse the water quality is, indicating a potentially increased risk of getting sick.

Deciding what to do with this information depends on the risk level you are comfortable with. Single sample values give you an indication of the most recent water quality, while geometric mean values give you an indication of the ambient water quality over the last 30 days.

However, it is important to note that the single sample gives information for the day on which the sample was taken and conditions can change throughout the week until the next sample is taken.

The thresholds that the US EPA and the RWQCB have put forth are based on epidemiological studies and risk. An increased risk of illness is not a guarantee that you will get sick. Certain activities are more risky when water quality is poor; for instance, swimming and submerging your head is more risky than wading; swimming is more risky than kayaking; kayaking is likely more risky than hiking (at least with regards to picking up a waterborne illness), and so on, with the risk dependent on how likely you are to ingest or contact water.

We recommend following these best practices to stay safe and healthy.

  • Swimming: In waters known to exceed bacterial limits, swimming is not recommended, particularly submerging one’s head. Elevated bacteria levels can occur at any time. Swimmers should use caution when entering the water by checking the latest water quality results, avoiding contact immediately after a rainfall, if they are immunocompromised, or if they have an open wound. If there is any water contact, then rise off with soap and water afterward.
  • Kayaking and Fishing: In waters that are known to exceed bacterial limits, people should limit water contact, especially avoiding hand-to-face water contact. Users should not enter the water with an open wound, if immunocompromised, or after a rainfall. If there is any water contact, then rinse off with soap and water afterward.

Malibu Creek State Park

for the week ending August 3, 2016

1. Rock Pool: Three exceedances

Three of the four criteria exceed the threshold values this week at Rock Pool site in Malibu Creek. For E. coli, the single sample and geometric mean values were over threshold values; the single sample Enterococcus value was under the threshold of 110 MPN/100ml but the geometric mean value was over the threshold value. Since June 15, 2016, we have documented exceedance rates (for single samples) of 43% for E. coli and 14% for Enterococcus at this site.

2. Las Virgenes Creek at the bridge: Three exceedances

Three of the four criteria exceed the threshold values this week at Las Virgenes Creek at the bridge. The single sample E. coli value was below the threshold of 235 MPN/100ml but the geometric mean for E. coli was over 126 MPN/100ml, and both the single sample and geometric mean values for Enterococcus were over their respective thresholds. Since June 15, 2016, we have documented exceedance rates (for single samples) of 29% for E. coli and 57% for Enterococcus at this site.

July 27, 2016 — Heal the Bay released today a landmark study of water quality in the Los Angeles River. Dr. Katherine Pease, the study’s author, explains why improving the river’s water quality should be an integral part of any plan to restore it.

Last week’s massive 2.4 million gallon sewage spill into the Los Angeles River and subsequent closure of local beaches illustrates the serious water-quality challenges facing our inland waterways.

Sewage spills are unusual one-time events, but a new study that I have just completed demonstrates that bacterial pollution continues to plague the river on a chronic, long-term basis. We are releasing the results today.

The findings are a cause for both concern and opportunity — given the growing recreational uses of the river and a $1 billion revitalization plan for L.A.’s central water body.

The L.A. River Study

The study shows that popular recreation spots along the Los Angeles River suffer from very poor water quality, which poses health risks to the growing number of people who fish, swim and kayak in its waters.

Kayaking and other recreational opportunities are frequently described by participants as transformational in their perception of the Los Angeles River. Getting on the water helps people move beyond the stereotypical image of a concrete drainage ditch to a vision of a vibrant river filled with life and potential.

My transformational moment at the river took place in 2009 when I was asked by a friend to participate in River School, an educational event put on by Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR) in the Elysian Valley. We scouted an area by Fletcher Avenue the day before, searching for examples of native and non-native plants as well as aquatic life in scoops of water.

Sepulveda River BasinI was amazed at this newly discovered area that had been hiding in plain sight. I found a hawk pellet underneath an overpass of a busy street. I ate a mulberry from a tree growing in the river. I also saw signs of a waterbody that needed help. Pollution in the form of trash was obvious, but the unseen pollution was also troubling.

The importance of developing a personal connection to the river cannot be overstated. Heal the Bay hopes that people continue to have transformational moments in its waters and that the river itself can be transformed into a waterbody meeting its beneficial uses of recreation, recharging groundwater, and providing habitat for wildlife.

But we have a long way to go – as the study clearly demonstrates.

Building on Heal the Bay’s work as a watchdog for public health at local beaches, we began monitoring popular, previously unmonitored freshwater recreational areas in 2014 starting with swimming holes in the Santa Monica Mountains, and adding sites in the L.A. River in 2015.

Taking samples at the L.A. RiverHeal the Bay staff scientists collected and tested water samples weekly for fecal indicator bacteria at three sites in the two recreation zones in the Sepulveda Basin and Elysian Valley areas of the river over a three-month period in summer 2015.

Bacteria levels varied among the sites in the new L.A. River study, but overall were quite high. For example, samples for one type of fecal indicator bacteria, Enterococcus, exceeded federal standards 100% of the time at two sites in Elysian Valley (Rattlesnake Park and Steelhead Park) and 50% of the time in Sepulveda Basin. The Rattlesnake Park site also suffered from a 67% exceedance rate for E. coli.

These exceedances indicate risk for ear infections, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses for people who come in contact with the water.

Much of the water that flows in the L.A. River is highly treated and sanitized wastewater from the city of L.A.’s Tillman Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys, nearly 16 million gallons a day. Tillman’s discharge is not considered a source of bacterial pollution, and without its flow there would likely be no kayaking in the Los Angeles River.

Train by the L.A. RiverAlthough the recreation zones were previously unassessed, monitoring in other stretches of the L.A. River show high bacteria counts, which led to the L.A. River’s designation by the state as a bacteria-impaired waterbody. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has also imposed a bacteria Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, for the river, which identifies several contributors of harmful bacteria to recreational zones along the river: urban runoff, leaks and flows from wastewater collection systems, illicit connections and failing septic systems. Bacteria sources include pets, horses and human waste.

By law, cities along the river and entities who discharge into it are required to enact pollution-reducing measures to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. The final deadlines for these regulations are a ways off, with interim and final goals set for 2030 and 2037, respectively. However, cities have worked together to develop an Enhanced Watershed Management Plan to address these issues with shorter-term milestones along the way.

In the report, Heal the Bay staff scientists laud recent efforts to revitalize the L.A. River and to open up public access to recreational zones. However, water quality improvements are needed to expand these opportunities and protect public health.

The federal Army Corps of Engineers has an approved $1.3-billion plan to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the river, focusing on habitat and recreational improvement. Heal the Bay strongly urges that rehabilitation work incorporate specific and measurable measures to enhance water quality.

The full report has a detailed list of recommendations for increasing beneficial uses while protecting public health. Among them:

  • Swimming: While many families recreate in the water, particularly on hot days, adults and children should avoid swimming in the L.A. River, particularly submersing their heads under water. We envision a swimmable L.A. River one day but current water quality is not yet at a healthful level. If there is any water contact, rinse off with soap and water afterward.
  • Kayaking and Angling: People should limit water contact, especially avoiding hand-to-face water contact. Users should not enter the water with an open wound, if immunocompromised, or after a rainfall. If there is water contact, rinse off with soap and water afterward.
  • Public notification: All groups promoting recreation in the L.A. River should provide water quality information and best practices to all participants, using consistent, accurate and prominent information on all outreach materials, and in multiple languages, consistent with the demographics of visitors.
  • Increased monitoring: The City of Los Angeles or responsible municipal agency should institute, at a minimum, weekly water quality testing for fecal indicator bacteria in the recreation zones during the open season (Memorial Day to the end of September), and at other known swimming spots along the Los Angeles River.

OSO Park Boat ExitThe City of Los Angeles recently convened a stakeholder workshop to discuss water quality issues in the L.A. River and specific near-term and long-term measures to ensure that the public is informed of water quality issues. We had a robust discussion about ways to minimize risk and to implement solutions to reduce chronic pollution. We are cautiously optimistic and look forward to working with the City to put these plans into motion.

At the regional level, Heal the Bay continues to advocate for funding for comprehensive water-quality improvement projects like increased stormwater capture and wastewater recycling. These measures would reduce polluted flow into our recreation zones while increasing local water supplies in a time of drought.

About Heal the Bay and the L.A. River

Heal the Bay has been monitoring water quality in streams and rivers since 1998 through our Stream Team program. In 2014 we initiated a pilot study to monitor human use and water quality of freshwater swimming spots in the Santa Monica Mountains, focusing on bacterial pollution and public health implications.

Dr. Katherine Pease, author of the L.A. River StudyWe are currently in our third summer of monitoring water quality in those swimming locations. Given Heal the Bay’s 25-year history of informing and educating beach-goers about beach water quality through our Beach Report Card, assessing the water quality of the Los Angeles River recreation zones was a natural next step.

Heal the Bay has a long history of work on the Los Angeles River; we have advocated for improved habitat, water quality, and recreation by weighing in on numerous policies and permits concerning the Los Angeles River such as TMDLs, the Recreational Use Reassessment (RECUR) study, permits for dredging and clearing vegetation, and other regulatory actions.

Mar. 23, 2016 — The Coastal Commission made the right decision to support removal of invasive iceplant in the always contentious Ballona Wetlands, writes staff scientist Katherine Pease.

Iceplant, the green succulent plant found flanking our freeways, is well-known to many Angelenos. It’s also highly invasive and problematic, now that it’s taken over significant areas of coastal habitat and dunes in California.

The California Invasive Plant Council classifies iceplant’s potential impact on native ecosystems as high and you can find it listed as one of the “Terrible 10” invasive plants of Southern California.

Iceplant has negative impacts by crowding out native plants, creating a monoculture that provides low-value habitat. The overall impact is a reduction in biodiversity in plants and animals.

A proposed project to remove iceplant on three acres of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve sought approval from the California Coastal Commission at a March 10 meeting. The California Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Bay Foundation created the plan, which calls for removing iceplant by placing tarps over the iceplant and having it killed by solarization.

It’s a tried-and-true method to remove invasive iceplant in a non-invasive way, ironically enough. It has been used in the Carpinteria Creek Mouth project in Carpinteria and in the Channel Islands Restoration Projects in Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands. Further, any wildlife would easily be able to escape from underneath the tarps because ample space is left between the garden staples used to anchor the tarps down.

Heal the Bay supports this iceplant removal project, which will help to restore ecological function to the degraded wetlands.

The Ballona Wetlands are particularly important because they provide unique and increasingly rare open space and wetland habitat in urban Los Angeles and Southern California. The benefits that wetlands provide (such as wildlife habitat, water purification, buffering against flooding, and recreation) can only be achieved when they are healthy and functioning.

In areas like Southern California, which have faced unprecedented wetland loss (upwards of 95%), it is extremely important to protect and restore these valuable habitats. The remaining 600 acres that comprise the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve have been highly altered and degraded.

Today, more than half of the reserve has been taken over by non-native invasive plants such as mustard and iceplant1, creating habitats with reduced ecological, social, and economic value. To restore function, projects like the removal of iceplant need to occur, along with larger-scale restoration efforts that are planned. Restored wetlands show marked signs of success, such as increased biodiversity, carbon sequestration, improved water circulation, and improved water quality2.

Last year, Heal the Bay joined forces with our partners at Friends of Ballona Wetlands, Surfrider, and Los Angeles Waterkeeper to craft the Nine Principles of Wetland Restoration, which outline practices of successful scientifically-based wetland restoration projects. A total of 13 respected environmental groups signed on in support of these Principles. Heal the Bay and our partners have been sharing the Principles with government agencies and elected officials to educate them on the importance of wetlands and the need for their restoration in a manner consistent with the Principles.

The proposed iceplant removal project follows the Principles of Wetland Restoration because it is based in scientific evidence, native plants and wildlife will be safeguarded, other alternatives were examined, and monitoring the site response to the restoration activities will occur.

Despite numerous scientific studies showing that the Ballona Wetlands are highly degraded and continue to deteriorate, the hearing for the proposed project met with some opposition, led by the Ballona Institute. (The plan also met with public support at the meeting from Friends of Ballona Wetlands and Team Marine from Santa Monica High School).

Sitting in the hearing, I could not believe that an argument was being made to keep invasive iceplant. I felt like I was in an alternate reality where up was down, native plants were bad, and iceplant was good.

Listening to the opponents’ testimony, I surmised that their evidence was not based in science as I understand it. Their arguments focused on the beliefs that iceplant provides important habitat for numerous native species and that animals (the Pacific chorus frog in particular) would be killed by the plastic tarps.

Photographs were shown as “evidence” that there were many native animals that depend on the iceplant as habitat. First, photographs are not scientific evidence, and there was no further evidence showing that native species rely solely on this habitat or really depend on it. Many species are adaptable and will use habitat that is less than ideal, but that doesn’t mean that they need it or that some other habitat with native plants and animals wouldn’t be better.

The Pacific chorus frog was touted as a species that depends on the iceplant habitat and would be “endangered” by the removal of iceplant. I studied this species of frog for my doctoral dissertation at UCLA. As I said in public testimony, I have a great fondness for this frog but I also am not worried about them and they are not a species of conservation concern. They are widespread and highly adaptable; among our local native amphibians, they are the most resilient to human disturbance. That doesn’t mean that we should be careless with them. The proposed project takes care to protect wildlife while tarping and these frogs move around easily, using a wide variety of habitats, and do not rely on iceplant habitat in any way.

Further, the opposition cited a recent New York Times article as “scientific evidence” that invasive species aren’t necessarily bad. Aside from taking issue with a New York Times article being called scientific evidence, I will also say that I had previously read this article and do agree that not all non-native species are equal and not all should be viewed as bad or assumed to have negative ecological impacts.

However, as the article states, “some alien species are undeniably harmful” and I would put iceplant in that category. Numerous scientific studies have documented iceplant’s negative impacts on soil chemistry, native species, and hydrology3.

The opponents of the project stated a belief in the principle of “first do no harm.” And strangely enough, I agree with them on that point but our conclusions differ: By doing nothing, we are doing harm.

The Ballona Wetlands have such great potential but desperately need restoration, whether it is in the removal of invasive iceplant, reconnecting the creek to the wetlands, or removing layers of fill.

Sometimes you need to act – smartly and with care – to protect something valuable. Letting nature “take its course” isn’t wise when manmade impacts are the very thing changing the course of events in our few remaining wetlands.

Thankfully, the Coastal Commission agreed that the proposed project is beneficial and approved the project. Overall, this is a small restoration project; bigger projects are to come and opposition will continue. Heal the Bay will be there, along with our partners, to support and fight for a healthy and functioning ecosystem at Ballona Wetlands.

The California Department of Fish & Wildlife, which oversees the Ballona Wetlands, expects to release its long-awaited Environmental Impact Report on its proposed restoration of the entire wetlands sometime this summer.    

Friends of Ballona Wetlands volunteers removing iceplant                                           Friends of Ballona volunteers removing iceplant from the wetlands as part of a separate initiative.




[2] Abramson et al. (2015) Malibu Lagoon restoration and enhancement project comprehensive monitoring report (year 2), Retrieved from:… ; Richardson CJ et al. (2011) Integrated stream and wetland restoration: a watershed approach to improved water quality on the landscape. Ecological Engineering37: 25-39; Espinoza M et al. (2011) Habitat use, movements and site fidelity of the gray smooth-hound shark (Mustelus californicus Gill 1863) in a newly restored southern California estuary. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 401: 63-74. Keller JK et al. (2012) Soil organic carbon storage in restored salt marshes in Huntington Beach, California. Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences 111: 153-161;

[3] Albert ME (1995) Portrait of an invader II: the ecology and management of Carpobrotus edulis. CalEPPC News 3: 4-6; Conser C & Connor EF (2009) Assessing the residual effects of Carpobrotus edulis invasion, implications for restoration. Biological Invasions 11: 349-358; D’Antonio CM & Haubensak K (1998) Community and ecosystem impacts of introduced species. Fremontia 26: 13-18; D’Antonio CM & Mahall BE (1991) Root profiles and competition between the invasive exotic perennial, Carpobrotus edulis, and two native shrub species in California coastal scrub. American Journal of Botany 78: 885-894; Vila M et al. (2006) Local and regional assessments of the impacts of plant invaders on vegetation structure and soil properties of Mediterranean islands. Journal of Biogeogrpahy33: 853-861

Feb. 05, 2016 — Staff watershed scientist Katherine Pease bugs out about our major legal victory in Malibu Creek.

In May 2013, I stood in front of a packed meeting room in Agoura Hills, filled with West Valley residents concerned about rumors of rate increases from their local water district. My job was to convince them to care about aquatic bugs as much as their water bills. Needless to say, I faced an uphill battle.

Well, two years later, I’m proud to say that the bugs won.

This week a federal court upheld pollution reduction requirements created by the EPA – and informed by data collected by Heal the Bay scientists – to protect creatures both large and small in impaired Malibu Creek.

Back in 2013, the federal EPA established a formal Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) – basically a numeric pollution reduction requirement – to address the fact that Malibu Creek, some of its major tributaries, and Malibu Lagoon had very poor or impaired biological communities.

Katherine Pease at Malibu CreekBiological communities in streams are assessed through the different types and numbers of aquatic bugs (or benthic macroinvertebrates) that live there. Think of snails, worms, crayfish, and larval stages of dragonflies, damselflies, black flies, and mayflies. Which brings us back to why we or anyone should care about bugs.

Benthic macroinvertebrates are relatively stationary, ubiquitous, and they show a diversity of responses to stressors, making them an ideal indicator group of biological health. The biological condition of a stream tells a meaningful and comprehensive story of the condition of the stream’s water quality and habitat. A stream’s benthic macroinvertebrate community provides insights into its ecology, incorporating the effects of many factors that are difficult or impossible to replicate in a laboratory setting.

In essence, these bugs are an excellent indicator for the overall vibrancy of the stream.

For example, is the stream filled with only bugs that can tolerate polluted water? Or, is there a diversity of bugs that are sensitive to pollution in the creek? Healthy streams mean healthy watersheds, and healthy watersheds mean healthy cities.

The TMDL identified two main factors impairing the biological communities: high levels of nutrients and sediment. EPA came to that conclusion after completing a careful scientific analysis of water quality and biological data from the Malibu Creek Watershed.

One of the major sources of data came from Heal the Bay’s Stream Team. Since its inception in 1998, Heal the Bay citizen science volunteers and staff have been collecting water quality data monthly and conducting biological assessments yearly (since 2000) in the Malibu Creek Watershed.

These data helped to identify specific problems with the biological community and their sources. Sediment and nutrients both create poor habitat for aquatic bugs. Sediment blankets the stream bottoms, choking out prime habitat and diversity. Nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen cause excess algal growth, which also can impair stream bottoms. (You can read more about these challenges and our proposed solutions in our detailed study here.)

The Tapia Water Reclamation Plant, which treats wastewater and discharges the treated water to Malibu Creek, has been a significant source of nutrients to Malibu Creek. While the effluent generally meets a high standard and contains low bacteria counts, the treated water still contains high levels of nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus.

The operators of the Tapia plant (the Las Virgenes-Triunfo Joint Powers Authority or JPA) objected to the new pollution limits and sued EPA to nullify the TMDL in the fall of 2013. As part of its challenge, the JPA questioned EPA and Heal the Bay’s science. They also argued that the costs of lowering nutrient levels in treated wastewater would be excessive. Because of the importance of the TMDL, Heal the Bay and our environmental partners NRDC and LA Waterkeeper intervened in the lawsuit, supporting the EPA.

We are very happy to report that this week that the TMDL has been upheld in court, thanks to good science and strong legal representation by NRDC.

We stand behind the science informing this important pollution limit, and we are proud that Stream Team data contributed to this process, which will ultimately improve the water quality and biological communities of our local streams and lagoons.

While the financial costs of protecting local streams need to be weighed carefully, we also need to weigh the environmental costs of not acting to preserve healthy watersheds – and what that means for water quality and wildlife that use the streams, including humans.

We should be creative in thinking about our water future, and how water quality and water supply are connected. In this time of drought, there are financially and environmentally strong investments in technology, like water recycling, which will reduce discharge to creeks, clean up water pollution, and help enhance our local water supplies.

Thankfully, the JPA is evaluating increasing water recycling as an option for the future health of Malibu Creek and local residents. This win is also a reminder that even though they may seem small and insignificant, aquatic bugs loom large. They tell us important information – like whether you can drink the water in your local stream, swim in it or eat the fish in it – if we just pay attention.

Photograph of the author courtesy of the Ventura County Star