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Heal the Bay Blog

Author: Luke Ginger

Luke Ginger, Water Quality Scientist at Heal the Bay, discusses our disappearing Los Angeles County beaches due to climate change, and what we can all learn from the COVID-19 pandemic as local beaches begin to reopen. Luke fights for the environment’s rights by advocating for water quality regulation and enforcement. But he’s also looking out for the humans who go to the beaches, rivers, and streams by managing the Beach Report Card with NowCast and the River Report Card.

The beach has always provided me with happiness, fun, comfort, and adventure. As a kid, my parents had to pry me and my siblings away from the beach every time we went – we would have gladly tried our luck sleeping on the cold damp sand rather than get into our minivan. Two decades later, most of my beach days end with me reluctantly walking back to my Prius clutching my beach accoutrements with pruney fingers and purple lips from staying in the water too long. Only now I don’t have to convince anyone to stop for ice cream on the way home!

The ocean always has and always will be a fixture in my life. And, the same is true for many people living in SoCal. Beaches are where families gather, where people go to relax and have fun, and where anglers provide food for their families. The beach is a priceless resource woven into our lives providing us with happiness, memories, and sustenance. This makes it hard to accept the bitter reality that we will lose many of our beaches due to impacts from climate change and coastal development. 

Climate change is causing our oceans to warm up. When water warms up it expands, leading to sea level rise. The melting of glaciers and ice sheets also contributes to sea level rise. This puts our local beaches at risk because the ocean will gradually get bigger and eat up more sand and land. 

Our coastline is also shrinking because coastal development exacerbates beach loss by acting as a barrier to the natural movement of beaches inland as well as by cutting off natural sources of sand that would have nourished our beaches.

Depending on our response to sea level rise and our approach to coastal development, Southern California is predicted to lose between 31% and 67% of its beaches. What’s even more devastating is the fact that we cannot make that figure 0% because there has not been enough done to stem climate change both locally and globally. The hard truth is losing beaches is an inevitability due to humanity’s inaction to properly safeguard them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a dire glimpse into what our future holds. It is telling that many beaches in California had to be shut down during the pandemic because too many people were drawn to them. The beach gives us opportunities to exercise and offers moments of mental peace and relaxation, especially during difficult times. While beaches in Los Angeles County start to reopen this week for active recreation activities only, we still face the reality that soon there will be less beach for all of us to enjoy. 

These facts are hard to live with. But, we need to harness our emotions and use them for action. Our actions now can ensure we give our disappearing beaches a fair chance at being saved.

Here’s what you can do right now to help save our remaining beaches:

  1. Become civically engaged! Support policies that reduce pollution and wane our dependence on oil and fossil fuels. Heal the Bay supports California Senate Bill 54/Assembly Bill 1080, which requires companies to reduce their single-use plastic packaging (derived from oil) by 75%. We also support the end of drilling in neighborhoods as well as on the coast. If there are no climate action policies to vote on, or if you can’t vote, become an activist and participate in local events like Fire Drill Fridays or volunteer with organizations like STANDLA.
  2. Change your behavior! Consider personal lifestyle changes such as eating more plant-based meals and reducing your dependence on single-use plastics. See our list of climate action tips to help you. If we all take steps to reduce our individual climate impacts, we can have a huge impact. But we can’t rely solely on our individual actions; we need policies at all levels of government that will reign in polluting industries. Learn more about why we need to make systemic changes along with personal changes.
  3. Volunteer with Heal the Bay! We offer many opportunities for individuals and groups to help make an impact on protecting the environment. Register for a virtual volunteer orientation. Once we are back up and running, you can join us for a beach cleanup, help educate the public at Heal the Bay Aquarium, and participate in our community science programs.  
  4. Enjoy the beach safely! Tackling climate change requires widespread public support and for all of us to adapt to new realities. Whenever you visit the beach, make sure you are following all signage posted in the area as well as health and safety guidelines. And before you go in the water, make sure you check the Beach Report Card for the latest water quality grades and information.
  5. Increase coastal access! Heal the Bay supports coastal access for all, and it concerns us that many local communities in California have no access to open space. Nature heals us, and everyone should be able to enjoy the outdoors. As we continue to prioritize the COVID-19 response, and look toward the gradual reopening of outdoor spaces and related services, it is crucial for our state to work with diverse stakeholders to set clear health and safety guidelines so our outdoor spaces can reopen to all people and for a variety of activities. You can take action by urging your local and state government to prioritize safety, equity, and access when creating reopening plans for our beaches, parks, and trails.


Our team at Frogspot in Elysian Valley. The LA River’s soft, mud-bottom sections are capable of supporting vegetation and wildlife.

In the summer of 2019, Heal the Bay’s team of water quality monitors spent many sunny days gathering freshwater samples from Malibu Creek State Park and the LA River, and testing them for bacterial-pollution in the lab. (Dive deeper into the findings.)

We’re thankful to partner with Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC) who allowed us to work out of one of their labs, managed by Manuel Robles. As always, our team included local students eager to learn about water quality and public health. Along with sampling, this group also took part in outreach, educating and encouraging more people to be invested in improving the health of the LA River Watershed.

Read on for some of our team’s favorite highlights from the summer

Erik Solis
My favorite part about the summer program was not only the job itself, but the outreach to younger students who show interest in environmental science. I was able to tell them about what I do for Heal the Bay, why it matters, and how they can contribute themselves. It all comes together to make a positive impact in the community and encourage young minds to promote a cleaner L.A. watershed. I enjoyed the work I’ve done this summer, as I know I have done a huge service to the L.A. river area. I can recall this one time a couple of fishermen and women said, “Hey, the Bay healers are here!” Another favorite part was participating in the Coastal Cleanup day on September 21st, as not only was I able to meet a lot of people, talk to students, and clean up a river, but I was also able to bring my family out to participate and enjoy doing their part in doing a service to the Greater Los Angeles Area. I have also enjoyed the lab work, but it was a little overshadowed by the field work.
Stephanie Alvarez
As someone who grew in Los Angeles I wasn’t as aware of how much nature we still have in the city, and I want to help protect it and the people who want to enjoy it. My most favorite memory was when a few of us got to speak to high school students and saw how most of them grasped the urgency of keeping our water clean. They all had their own unique ideas and all agreed that keeping our waters clean was very important. This gave me even more hope that we will be able to save our bodies of water. As someone who wants to help find ways to clean water, in an effective and cheap manner, this experience helped me see the problem in different angles. I went into this program thinking only of how to clean water to drink it, and now I am thinking about how we can make it clean enough for people to swim in and wildlife to thrive in. This program helped me gain experience in the lab and helped me dream bigger. We were so lucky to have worked alongside many amazing people, and I wanted to thank Luke for being an amazing leader! I suggest, if you are reading this and you want to help your planet, to get involved. There are so many programs and events that you can sign up for free. Change always starts with one person! Together we can save our planet and our wildlife!
Blaire Edwards
I started off by trying something different and left with an abundance of information about the environment around me. My favorite part of this experience had to be learning about all the matters happening environmentally and what I can do to get more involved and help make a difference.
Christina Huggins
With so many adventurers heading outdoors to enjoy the summer weather, the highlight of sampling water quality for Heal the Bay this summer was the opportunity to connect with the community and educate them about their environment. From early morning hikes through the Santa Monica Mountains to curious explorers and hikers asking questions about our yellow boots and sample bottles. Getting the opportunity to be a part of keeping the public informed about freshwater quality has given me a new direction in my career and educational path.
Michelle Allen
The biggest highlight of working on the team this summer is knowing that what we do and the information we collect makes it to the general public. The fact that our samples that we test affect people’s choices to make safer decisions, is a huge part of why I love being a part of this team. Collecting samples is always something fun to me. I love the fact that we go out into nature and see how the land changes each time we go out while meeting people along the way.
Olivia Garcia
My favorite part of the summer was collecting water samples for analysis. I liked being able to see, understand, and make note of the factors that could potentially contaminate the water quality in the river. I was also fascinated with the quality control protocol. I gained a lot of knowledge about the importance of consistency in documentation and testing, and a better intuitive understanding of quality control as a whole. It’s hard to pick out what the overall highlight of the summer was because it was all so amazing.
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Christina and Michelle collecting samples from the popular Rock Pool in Malibu Creek State Park.

Learn more about our summer of freshwater sampling and our River Report Card.




Blaire, Olivia, and Luke collecting storm drain samples along the Elysian Valley.

Luke Ginger, Water Quality Scientist at Heal the Bay, recounts the latest season of freshwater monitoring, reveals the disappointingly poor water quality grades, and explains what this means for public health and the future of the LA River.

The summer of 2019 marked Heal the Bay’s sixth summer sampling in Malibu Creek State Park and the fifth summer sampling in the LA River freshwater recreation areas. Currently, there is no federal or state mandate or funding for monitoring freshwater recreation areas as there is for ocean beaches. So local freshwater stakeholders monitor water quality in LA County with their own funds. Heal the Bay samples in various places to fill in some of the sampling gaps left by those organizations.

This season, we regularly monitored the Rock Pool and Las Virgenes Creek in Malibu Creek State Park, the LA River at Burbank Boulevard, and three sites in the LA River near Elysian Valley. We also sample the storm drains along the Elysian Valley to help us understand the origin and amount of bacteria entering the LA River. In total, our team collected 96 river and stream samples, and about 84 storm drain samples.

 

Disappointing Findings, Yet Encouraging Outreach

Grades in the LA River recreation zones were disappointingly poor this summer. The four sites we tested had good water quality (green grades) just 16% of the time on average. That means bacteria levels exceeded at least one standard (yellow or red grades) 84% of the time in the LA River. Malibu Creek State Park sites had similar water quality where green grades were issued 19% and bacteria exceeded standards 81% of the time. For the public, this means that water quality presents indicates a risk for human illness more than 80% of the time.

In addition to protecting public health by reporting freshwater quality grades, our mission is to conduct outreach and get more people invested in improving the health of the LA River Watershed. This summer was jam-packed with events that allowed us to spread our message and make an impact. We tabled at events along the LA River, participated in river cleanups (including the first-ever Trash Blitz at Compton Creek) and also collaborated with Pacoima Beautiful, FOLAR and CSUN to educate high school students on water quality in the river. This fall, we are continuing our student outreach by giving lectures at local high schools and providing students hands-on experience collecting water samples.

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We tabled at the Wiltern for an Ice on Fire documentary event. We even got to take over the Wiltern’s Instagram account for the day!

Looking Forward

Protecting the public from potentially harmful water has been Heal the Bay’s mission for the past 30 years with the Beach Report Card, so our next step has been to provide the same water quality information for freshwater recreation areas. Because a healthy Bay starts with a healthy LA. To dive deeper into our freshwater work, check out our River Report Card. And stay tuned for the next release in Spring 2020, which will include a full assessment of these recent water quality grades.

We are also anxiously waiting for the release of the LA River Master Plan in December 2019, which is LA County Department of Public Works’ plan to revitalize parts of the river. We are eager to see an LA River that supports both nature and the surrounding communities without displacing them, so we urge everyone to follow the LA River Master Plan updates and get involved.


Our monitoring program also got some attention in the media!