Winter rains in Los Angeles County flush an enormous amount of pollution into our storm drains from our streets, sidewalks, and neighborhoods. Where does this pollution end up? Who is responsible for monitoring and regulating it? And what’s next in the efforts to reduce it? Join Annelisa Moe, Water Quality Scientist at Heal the Bay, as she dives into the underworld of LA rain.
So, we know that stormwater is a huge source of pollution for LA’s rivers, lakes, and ocean. But have you ever wondered why? Or wondered how we track and manage this pollution? Well, let’s get into it…
In Los Angeles County, we have a storm drain system and a sewage system which are completely separate. The storm drain system is called the municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4). Separating these systems reduces the risk of sewage spills when storms might flood our sewage system, and attempts to get stormwater out of our streets before they flood. However, this separated system is also the reason why stormwater flows directly into our rivers, lakes, and ocean without being filtered or treated, leading to serious water quality issues throughout LA County that threaten public and environmental health.
Two main types of water flows through the storm drain system: (1) Stormwater, which is rainwater that cannot infiltrate into the ground naturally and instead builds up as it flows over the ground surface, and (2) dry weather runoff, which originates when it is not raining through activities such as overwatering lawns, or washing cars.
Water quality is much worse within 72 hours of a significant rain event in LA County. Last year alone, rain in our region accounted for almost 200 billion gallons of stormwater flushing through our storm drain system and into local bodies of water.
Under the Federal Clean Water Act, anyone who discharges water is required to limit the concentration of pollution in that water. This requirement is regulated under a permit to discharge water. The discharge of polluted stormwater and dry weather runoff through the storm drain system is regulated by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board through an MS4 Permit. Cities and counties are permittees under an MS4 Permit, and are each responsible for their polluted stormwater and dry weather runoff.
The LA County MS4 Permit has been around since 1990, but in 2012 water quality had not improved much at all since then. The last update to the permit occurred in 2012, and, to our dismay, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board unanimously voted to approve a 2012 MS4 Permit that was even worse than before – essentially setting up a scheme of self-regulation (meaning no regulation).
By no longer forcing cities that discharge millions of gallons of runoff into the storm drain system to adhere to strict numeric pollution limits, the Board took a giant step backward in protecting water quality throughout Southern California.
Under the 2012 rules, cities just had to submit a plan for reducing stormwater pollution (called a Watershed Management Plan) to the Board and have it approved to be in compliance, rather than having to actually demonstrate they are not exceeding specific thresholds for specific pollutants, such as copper or E. coli bacteria. These plans allow each permittee to choose the types of projects to build, and the timeline on which to build them. But these plans are adjusted each year, continuously drawing out implementation, and they do not include any clear way to determine if the permittee is making good progress.
We knew that this would slow progress even more, leaving stormwater pollution unchecked at the expense of public safety and aquatic health. Seven years later, we have the numbers to prove it.
In the next few weeks, Heal the Bay will be releasing a new report assessing the progress toward managing stormwater pollution in Los Angeles County, and how we can fix the permit when it is renewed in early 2020.
In the meantime, we encourage you to safely document photos and videos of trashed waterways and beaches, clogged storm drains, and stormwater pollution in LA County after it rains. Remember, safety first! Proceed with caution, observe all posted signs, and watch out for heavy flowing water. If you do snag a good image, please tag your location, #LArain, @healthebay and #healthebay. You can also tag relevant government officials to help raise awareness.
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.
Christina and Michelle collecting samples from the popular Rock Pool in Malibu Creek State Park.
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.
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!
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!
Meet the local artist and illustrator behind our 2019 Coastal Cleanup Day poster, and get a glimpse of the process all the way from brainstorm to sketchbook to print. We love the final product and the journey it took to get here, thanks so much Aaron!
Give us some background on yourself and this project.
My name is Aaron Gonzalez and I’m a Los Angeles-based creative. The majority of my work is a stylized documentation of what’s going on around me, so my work naturally reflects L.A. It was a real honor to spend time drawing the variety of wildlife in L.A. County for this year’s Coastal Cleanup Day. My work tends to be a blend between representational and imaginative drawings, but this project leaned more on the representational side. Below is the final product.
What was your goal, inspiration, and process for creating this poster?
In addition to advertising Coastal Cleanup Day, the main goals of this poster were to highlight the local wildlife living throughout and watershed running through L.A. County. It was important to Heal the Bay and I to provide a visual aid explaining a watershed, since there is a lack of visuals on the topic. Watersheds keep L.A. County connected through waterways that flow from summit to sea. It’s extremely necessary we keep our waterways clean because it has a direct impacy on our water supply and the health of our natural environment.
We decided to break the poster up into thirds to represent the mountain, river, and ocean regions. By including these three regions, we hoped to communicate how Coastal Cleanup Day doesn’t only have cleanup sites on the coast, but throughout L.A. County. I depicted L.A. County’s watersheds with a painting made up of loops flowing through the composition and ending where the poster text begins. I’ve always been a big fan of hidden messages within images, so I included “LA” within the waterways toward the top of the poster.
A collection of poster iterations we explored, before settling on the final version.
During the poster design process, I took a couple of trips to Heal the Bay Aquarium and spent some time with a few of the marine animals I was drawing. I also took a trip to visit my sister, who is studying wildlife biology at Humboldt State. She gave me insight on what to be mindful of when depicting animal and plant life. For example, how the wrong petal or leaf count can determine one plant species from another. Heal the Bay provided me with a hefty list of animal and plant species to include, along with their scientific names, so it made my job easier and the drawings more accurate. It was also super helpful to have in-house aquarists at Heal the Bay Aquarium and scientists at Heal the bay to double check the accuracy of each species.
What were some of your favorite parts of the process and things to illustrate?
My favorite animal to illustrate was the egret. Not only is it iconic to L.A., but the physical features are super interesting. I like to draw wavy and wobbly lines, so drawing the egret’s elongated neck was really satisfying. I had to keep the consistency of drawing representational wildlife throughout the poster, but I kept thinking about the possibilities of drawing an egret with an extra long wobbly neck with twists and turns similar to the waterways in the background. One of the toughest animals to draw was the sea hare. For the longest time, I didn’t know what I was looking at. They look like deformed blobs with spots. It was one of those drawings where you didn’t know what you were making until it was done. I had to draw multiple sea hares, close my notebook, open it the next day with fresh eyes until I understood what they were. Now they’ve become some of my favorite drawings from the poster.
Another aspect of the project I was really excited about was the Korean lettering for the poster’s language variations. I am not familiar with Korean, so it felt like I was creating abstract shapes and developing a secret code. The challenge was to make the Korean text match the type style I was creating for the English and Spanish versions, maintain the consistency of each character’s height and width, and do my best to keep it legible. I managed to recognize a few patterns within the text by the end of it and I now look at signs in Koreatown a lot differently. I sent off what I came up with and was excited to hear it was approved by the Korean translator.
On top of the watershed, I sprinkled each wildlife species in their proper region. I keep imagining these drawings as textile adorning objects. Forming textile designs based on specific groups within a particular region would be great. For example, all of the plant life from the river and mountain regions living on a button down shirt or sundress. Or a collection of aquatic life forming a pattern on the interior of a beach bag. The possibilities are endless.
Overall, it was an amazing opportunity to design this year’s Coastal Cleanup Day poster. Heal the Bay is an incredible organization who has been amazing to work with from start to finish. Thank you for all that you do.
If you’re curious to see more of Aaron’s work, check out his website and Instagram.
A day spent enjoying the waterways of L.A. County should not make anyone sick.
Heal the Bay today released the annual River Report Card, which assigns water quality color-grades of Red, Yellow, or Green for 27 freshwater sites in Los Angeles County. Grades are based on levels of bacteria monitored in 2018 and prior years.
Our staff scientists put a ton of work into this comprehensive study of bacterial pollution in our local waterways. We encourage you to soak up all the stats and charts we’ve assembled in the report, so we are all better informed about water quality in our region.
The River Report Card is the most comprehensive water quality report to date on bacterial pollution in popular freshwater recreation areas within the Los Angeles River Watershed, the Malibu Creek Watershed, and the San Gabriel River Watershed. These valued public places are often used for swimming, wading, fishing, kayaking, and other activities, especially during summer months when communities seek relief from hot SoCal days.
Here are some of the major findings:
The good news is that over half of all the water quality samples taken at freshwater sites in 2018 received Green grades – so bacterial levels were not a cause for concern at the time of the sampling.
However, there is a significant risk of getting sick from freshwater contact in Los Angeles County during dry weather. In 2018, 43% of water quality samples monitored by Heal the Bay came back as Yellow or Red, signaling a moderate to high public health risk.
The River Report Card features a Top 10 Freshwater Fails list. Taking the top spot with the worst grades overall was Hansen Dam, located in the Upper L.A. River Watershed, which had the highest public health risk (this site received Red grades in 80% of water samples taken!). Just last week, it was reported that over twenty lifeguards in L.A. developed rashes after swimming at Hansen Dam. See the full list of Freshwater Fails on page 10.
The River Report Card also includes a Top 10 Honor Roll list of the freshwater sites with the best grades overall. Six locations earned perfect Green scores in every sampling, including four sites in the San Gabriel River Watershed and two sites in the Upper L.A. River Watershed. Heal the Bay recommends that the public head to Hermit Falls and the East Fork San Gabriel River areas for freshwater swimming, based on the 2018 water quality analysis. Water quality conditions are subject to change so it’s best to check the latest available data when choosing a swimming hole. View the entire Honor Roll list on page 11.
Freshwater sites in more natural areas tended to earn better grades than freshwater sites near development. Read the report’s conclusions on page 22.
Better State and regional oversight and funding are needed for monitoring and public notice of water quality in freshwater recreation sites. (Our full recommendations starting on page 25) Monitoring protocols and public notification in L.A. County are not standardized, and government agencies only test for E. coli. Testing should also include the fecal indicator bacteria Enterococcus. Solely monitoring for E. coli might be putting the public at unnecessary risk. More on page 23.
The River Report Card includes storm drain monitoring. See which eight storm drains in the L.A. River Elysian Valley Recreation Zone need to be prioritized for runoff remediation on page 29.
Tips for enjoying and staying safe in L.A.’s rivers, streams, and creeks
Before heading to a freshwater recreation area in L.A. County check out Heal the Bay’s River Report Card at healthebay.org/riverreportcard(New data coming on Memorial Day). If water quality is poor (Yellow or Red), consider choosing a site that has good water quality.
People can also minimize their risk by limiting water contact, avoiding submerging their heads underwater, avoiding hand-to-face water contact, and washing off after contact using soap and clean water. For all water recreation, users should avoid entering the water with an open wound, if immunocompromised, or after a rainfall. Always heed official regulatory signs posted by the City or County. Swimming is always prohibited in the L.A. River main channel.
About the River Report Card
We believe the public has a right to know about the conditions of our local waterbodies, and to make informed decisions about how they want to experience them. That’s why Heal the Bay developed the River Report Card — the most comprehensive water quality report to date on freshwater recreation areas in the greater Los Angeles area.
Heal the Bay began monitoring freshwater recreation sites in 2014 and developed the River Report Card program in 2017 to provide easy-to-use water quality information to the public. Water quality grades are based on the levels of fecal indicator bacteria (E. coli and Enterococcus) and are displayed as Red, Yellow, or Green. Green means there is a low risk of illness when there is contact with the water. Yellow indicates a moderate risk, while Red signals a high risk.
Since Heal the Bay started monitoring freshwater recreation sites and making water quality data public, some positive changes have included increased bacterial monitoring and public notification signage in L.A. River recreation zones as well as increased dissemination of water quality information to the public through emails, websites, and other online means by government agencies collecting water quality information. Our annual River Report Card 2018 includes additional recommendations for water quality monitoring and public notification protocols to be the most protective of public health.
Heal the Bay also manages the Beach Report Card, available at beachreportcard.org, which provides A-to-F letter-grades for water quality at hundreds of beaches on the West Coast.
We helped lead the charge to pass Measure W in the November election, securing funds for a lattice of stormwater-capture parks throughout L.A. County. Instead of flowing uselessly to pollute the sea, 100 billion gallons of runoff will be captured and reused each year.
California Doesn’t Suck
On the heels of our “Strawless Summer” campaign, Gov. Brown signed into law a measure that requires restaurants to provide straws on a request-only basis. The move will keep tons of plastic out of our beleaguered oceans and beaches.
A River Runs Through It
In response to our ground-breaking study of polluted spots in the L.A. River’s recreational zones, the City of Los Angeles established a new monitoring and notification protocol to protect public health on the revitalized waterway.
A Clean Break for Malibu
After years of steady pressure from Heal the Bay, the city of Malibu opened its Civic Wastewater Treatment Facility. Some of the state’s most iconic — and historically polluted — beaches will be a whole lot cleaner.
Youth Is Served
Our entire staff hosted 600 students from under-served elementary schools for our annual Education Day, a care-free morning of marine exploration at our Aquarium and on the sand. Each year we inspire more than 15,000 students, many of whom have never been to the beach!
All political ads and posts are paid for by Heal the Bay and L.A. Waterkeeper.
Environmental groups face two challenges getting attention during election season – limited funds and limited attention spans.
It hasn’t been easy rallying the electorate for Measure W, the countywide initiative to raise $300 million for increased stormwater capture in greater L.A. Voters will decide on the measure on Tuesday.
Building a lattice of nature-based facilities across the Southland could reap billions of gallons of runoff for reuse each year. Engineers think they can harvest enough runoff to meet the water needs of 2.5 million Angelenos. That’s about a quarter of L.A. County’s population.
It’s a critical first step in ditching our outdated Mulholland-era system of water management, in which we import 70% of our water and then send much of it uselessly to the sea each day.
But let’s face it, most voters tune out when you mention the word stormwater. Infrastructure isn’t sexy.
And Heal the Bay can’t compete with industry lobbyists who spend millions to jam airwaves with ads for narrowly focused initiatives. (Is paying for dialysis really the most pressing issue in California today?)
So what’s an earnest nonprofit to do when it wants to cut through all the clutter?
Heal the Bay has tapped an amazing cadre of talent over the years at L.A.’s leading advertising, marketing, communications and design companies. With hat in hand, we’ve wheedled great work out of great minds. (Did you know that Chiat Day designed our now famous fishbones logo for free?)
Our strategy has been to find the surfers at an agency. It’s not hard to do – why do you think there are so many aspirational commercials these days of bearded hipsters loading their boards into their hybrid cars?
So when tasked by a coalition of L.A.’s leading environmental, labor and social justice groups to raise Measure W’s voice amid the mid-term noise, I turned to my neighbor and Bay Street surf buddy – Kevin McCarthy.
A longtime creative director, Kevin is the force behind such Heal the Bay hits as the “Drains to the Ocean” stencils spray-painted across L.A. sidewalks. He and his team also assembled the Jeremy Irons-narrated mockumentary “The Majestic Plastic Bag,” a viral hit that has been seen 2.5 million times and helped spur the statewide ban on single-use bags.
For Measure W, he assembled a creative coalition-of-the-willing to develop “sticky” public engagements, such as a “Haunted Storm Drain” tour during Halloween festivities at our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium and a makeshift “parklet” that popped-up on a busy DTLA street during lunchtime.
But he saved his best trick for last: doing some grass-roots marketing along the L.A. River.
Last month, Kevin sent me a mock-up of a stunt to use live sod to spell out SAVE THE RAIN, SAVE L.A., VOTE YES ON W along the banks of the L.A. River.
The idea is brilliant in its simplicity and audacity. The L.A. River is the poster child for how we waste water. Each day its concrete channels funnel millions of gallons of usable water into the Pacific.
The River is also the perfect canvas for L.A.’s graffiti crews, whose work gets maximum visibility from car and train traffic that goes by its banks. Instead of spray paint, we’d use Mother Nature to spread the word. With our grass graffiti, we’d embody the very spirit of Measure W – turning concrete into green space. The medium would be the message!
Last week we quietly secured the necessary permits from FilmLA, which cut red-tape among the entities that claim jurisdiction over the River.
The installation took place Monday morning near the intersections of the 110 and 5 freeways. The site afford views for morning commuters over nearby bridges, as well as for Metro and Amtrak train riders.
As dawn broke, our stunt crew drove down a hidden driveway onto the river floor and set up camp. As a landscape designer, my wife Erin had secured beds of sod at a discounted rate. Crack landscape contractor Robert Herrera and his crew measured, cut and placed the grass in stencils laid out by Kevin and a few of our staff.
After two hours of hauling the heavy sod up the steep banks, our tired team stood on the edge of the river to examine our handiwork. Passers-by on the trains waved to us, filling us with satisfaction.
While the stunt paid off in real-time, we knew the real dividends would come with media coverage and social-sharing.
Top-rated KTLA Morning News sent a news crew to cover the installation. Partner L.A. Waterkeeper organized our expert video team – Will Durland, Lindsey Jurca, Ben Dolenc and Tyler Haggstrom. They shot drone footage as well as capturing time-lapse images. An edited package is now being shared with press and social media channels.
I know I’m biased, but the videos are stunning.
We’ll also share powerful video testimonials from some Angelenos whose lives and livelihoods depend on water: celebrity chef Raphael Lunetta, Golden Road Brewing co-founder Meg Gill, and L.A. County Fire Department Capt. Greg Rachal (who moonlights as president of the Black Surfers Assn.)
Lindsey and Will — a professional and domestic couple — assembled these evocative mini-films. Lindsey works for sister org and sometimes competitor Los Angeles Waterkeeper. She twisted Will’s arm to pitch in during a break from his regular professional work (“Survivor”). It’s been fun to collaborate with such passionate and committed creatives.
One post-script: No grass was harmed in the filming of this movie! My wife found a youth center to pick up the sod letters at the end of the day. The grass has a new home and is being put to good use in a recreational area.
After all, plant-life – like water – is a terrible thing to waste.
Matthew King serves as communications director for Heal the Bay.
Political Disclosure: Heal the Bay and L.A. Waterkeeper paid for all materials and staff time for installation and filming.
photo credits — top: Will Durland; drone: Tyler Haggstrom
(Heal the Bay’s River Report Card Team – From Left to Right: John Silva, Christopher Zamora, Dr. Katherine Pease, Vanessa Granados, Yuris Delcid and Nelson Chabarria)
Revitalizing the L.A. River is one of our big goals for 2018. But what is water quality monitoring really like in this increasingly popular outdoor area? Heal the Bay’s River Report Card team, led by Dr. Katherine Pease, is responsible for bringing Angelenos the latest water quality grades from the L.A. River during the summer. The team shares their first-hand experiences below from last summer, including a behind-the-scenes video that takes YOU into the L.A. River during a monitoring trip.
River Reflections & Looking Ahead to Summer 2018
By Dr. Katherine Pease
Summer feels long over, but the memories are still fresh. This past summer marked the completion of our 3rd season of water quality monitoring at fresh water recreational areas in the Los Angeles River and our 4th season at popular swimming spots in Malibu Creek State Park.
The summer of 2017 was especially exciting because we launched our River Report Card, which grades sites based on bacterial pollution levels. We provided the public with weekly water quality information for 18 sites around L.A. County. In 2018, we will add another 9 sites in the San Gabriel River watershed as we continue to grow this program.
Another deeply satisfying aspect of this past summer was the involvement of local students. Through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban Water funding grant that we received, we were able to hire five Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC) students for the summer to conduct water quality monitoring. In addition to scientific training, the team was also trained in communications (social media, blogging and outreach).
After their summer in the river, the River Report Card team created blog articles for the public and presentations for local high school students about their L.A. River monitoring project. Our goal was to engage more people in science and the environment with real-world examples and first-hand storytelling.
The culmination of months of work happened when our LATTC students presented to two Environmental Science AP classes at Thousand Oaks High School in the fall of last year.
Many of the Thousand Oaks high school students didn’t know much about the L.A. River or that you could kayak in it. The LATTC students told personal stories about their experiences in the L.A. River and how they were surprised at the number of plants and animals that call it home, how it is actually very deep in some sections (verified through an accidental kayak spill), and that pollution, both seen and unseen, unfortunately remains a major problem. Watching them present so passionately gave me a sense of excitement for our next generation of environmental leaders and problem solvers.
This year, we will be releasing a more technical wrap-up of our water quality results from summer 2017; some of the students will continue working with us on data analysis, report writing, and giving more presentations to high school students and agencies. We are sad but thrilled that one student will be leaving us to transfer to Arizona State University in January to study Geology.
As we look back on this amazing season, we share these personal stories below, written by the LATTC students on their experiences at the L.A. River. Enjoy!
Seeing the L.A. River From A Fresh Perspective
By Yuris Delcid
As a student of nursing, one of my goals has always been to help people in a positive way. When I heard about Heal the Bay, I felt I needed to join the crew.
I began my L.A. River Monitoring internship with Heal the Bay in the summer of 2017. It has taught me so much about the environment, why we need to care for the ocean, and the importance of educating the community on how to help.
One of the coolest parts of my Heal the Bay internship was envisioning how different the L.A. River could be, compared to how it appears in Hollywood movies! The L.A. River is not only concrete; it has natural wildlife living within. It’s amazing to see the L.A. River from this fresh perspective. Seeing all the different natural plants growing, birds watching me as I’m grabbing my water samples — observing rarities like an “albino fish” — I feel so much peace and this makes me love what I do when I’m there.
Monitoring the L.A. River has changed the way I think about waterways. Testing the water quality for different types of bacteria, in example; E-coli and Enterococcus, has been eye opening. At first, it was surprising to discover which spots had the highest and lowest levels of bacteria in the river. Now I have a deeper understanding of where the water comes from and where it is discharged. And this knowledge informs how we can help keep the L.A. River clean, and how to protect marine life by keeping the oceans and water free of trash and pollution. I wish more people knew about their local watersheds in this tangible way.
This internship with HtB has given me more knowledge than I expected about water quality. I take overall precautions when I want to go to the beach or kayaking in a local creek or river. The experience has also given me tools to spread awareness of how important it is to stop water pollution.
So many people can care about the environment and take action to make a difference. We can all start making some changes in life. We can simply start by pledging not to use plastic straws, use reusable water bottles and/or stop using plastic bags.
My long term goals are to graduate as a Registered Nurse and help people by caring for them when they need me the most. This internship has taught me that you can accomplish your goals with perseverance and patience. Our work with the L.A. River has taught me that advocacy can engage more people in the community in making a difference.
Finding Purpose in the Process
By Vanessa Granados
I am inspired by nature and all that it brings. When I was seeking internships in my area of study (Chemical Technology) I found that most opportunities existed within the refinery, pharmaceutical, and food industries. I have always been inclined to the environmental side.
When I heard of the opportunity with Heal the Bay, I was excited to learn it was a non-profit environmental organization. It was the perfect route for the start of my career in order to gain environmental field experience.
After three months of working in the field, I have learned many observational and technical skills. One of the greatest things I’ve learned is how to record all the information and results. This scientific process is a big factor for anyone in the technical field. It’s a skill you have to learn. Plus, you should always be ready with the evidence to prove your results and conclusions. When you’re out in the field and lab, it’s important to follow procedures and be detail-oriented, so the final results have accurate context and information.
I had the opportunity to work in the L.A. River and see the vegetation and wildlife that thrives there. Yet many people do not know about it. I’ve seen crawfish, ducks, birds, eagles, red dragonflies, fish and rabbits. It is truly amazing to observe a flock of ducks or birds swimming down the stream with their family. It sparks a sense of initiative to do more for the L.A. River, so it can continue to flourish and eventually bring back diverse species to the river.
This internship has helped me contribute, and learn more about how to help our watersheds. By understanding what’s going on in the water, you are helping to protect our environment and health. Going out every Friday during the summer, collecting water samples to bring back to the lab, and analyzing for E-Coli is one way to monitor bacteria levels in the water. We do this to inform people about what’s going on in the L.A. River, whether they are kayaking, walking, or just enjoying the scene on a morning walk. The River Report Card from this summer is available online at Heal the Bay’s website: https://healthebay.org/riverreportcard/
My main goal when first applying was to help clean the waterways of Los Angeles. Growing up in this city I’ve seen much the streets littered with trash and smog in the air.
I was pleased to find out how much effort Heat the Bay puts into keeping the waterways of Los Angeles clean. When coming out of high school my only knowledge of Heal the Bay was that they held beach cleanups.
We were taken to sites all along the L.A. River to collect sample of the water to test for bacteria. We were given boots to wade in the water, but one site in particular was clean enough to go into bare foot. We graded the quality, based on how great of a risk if any, it presented to recreational water use.
Storm drain monitoring was something I was completely unaware of. The location of a storm drain can determine the origin of certain outflows and helps locate suspicious activity.
Although there is much work to be done, it’s a great feeling to know we are doing all we can to make the waters safe. Overall the best part of this internship was kayaking down the River. It was an experience I will remember for a lifetime and has encouraged me to get my own kayak and explore more waterways around the world.
During our outing, we were accompanied by an L.A. River guide who informed us of the flooding during the wet seasons and how trash accumulates along the riverbed near the dam. Plastic bags and trash could still be seen on treetops and lodged in bushes. Plastic was present at almost every testing site in the L.A. River, too. I wish people were more informed about how much trash and plastic end up in the water and ocean.
A long-term goal of mine would be to help inform people of the repercussions they have on the environment around them, animals and wildlife to be specific. One field of research I look forward to is Biological research, mainly human impact on surroundings. Through Heal the Bay, we can help reduce the amount of man-made waste and balance ecosystems to their natural homeostasis.
An Oasis in the City I Love
By Christopher Zamora
Growing up in Austin, TX I always found myself exploring the outdoors. The city is a green oasis in the middle of hot and dry Texas, surrounded by lakes and parted by the Colorado River. Camping was a ritual, hiking came naturally, and rock collecting became my obsession after visiting deep caverns in elementary school. I enjoyed all the natural landscapes the city and state had to offer. I was uncertain if I’d be able to keep these activities going when I moved to Los Angeles right before junior year of high school.
The sight of the concrete channel containing the Los Angeles River was strangely beautiful when I first glanced at it from the 4th Street Bridge, linking downtown to Angelenos east of the stream. Maybe because of Hollywood films and trending, record-breaking shows like Fear the Walking Dead, featuring the river in its gray concrete slabs. This famous view of the river, cemented and narrow, can be easily spotted in urban photography, music videos, and movies.
It wasn’t until my internship at Heal the Bay started that I began to venture into the Los Angeles River ecology and surround myself with places so unfamiliar and alien to the city.
Green, soft-bottomed, flora-and-fauna was thriving community in the middle of the city! It was so relieving to see the natural river zones. The great blue herons, blue damselflies, and western tiger swallowtail butterflies made the air seem “breathable” again. I had forgotten about the crowds and smog, and got lost in the tall greenery along the edges and center of the river.
The most prevalent color I noticed in the surrounding vegetation was a faint, dull green, very light in hue. The color belonged to a stalky cane-like plant. These tall plants dominated the area, grew in colonies, and varied in size from 3ft to 25ft in some areas. The team and I were informed by Dr. Pease that the plant, Arundo donax, was invasive and displacing the native plants.
We quickly realized the damage of the invasive species after seeing recently eradicated “arundo” stretched across the concrete bank next to the L.A River near Rattlesnake Park; looking back at the river with unfocused eyes, the dominance of the burgeoning plant really dramatized the scene.
It still surprises me how I manage to get startled by the random presence of arundo during our field work. It can be towering, and feel as if you and the river are being loomed-over together. Even the newly growing, short stalks can outnumber the group and myself. Any recreational kayaker, canoer, runner, walker, cyclist, fishermen/women, and near-stream park goers can catch a glimpse of these bad babies by just scanning the river briefly and looking for the contrasting stalky bamboo-type plant. It looks like a mass of unwanted neighbors disturbing and delaying the ambience of an upcoming thriving community. Learning about these types of issues made me aware that there is more to the health of the river than meets the eye, and it’s important to dig below the surface to learn about water quality and wildlife conditions.
The Time I Was In The Times
By Nelson Chabarria
We were in the school library – finishing up some data entry. The River Report Card had been released a week prior and we were about to refresh it with the latest test results. Weeks and hours and sunburns went into the grades, and to make them publicly available was simply gratifying. This moment felt pretty cool.
I was born and raised here. I’ve seen this “river” as I crossed the bridge to and from East L.A. I always thought of it as a ditch that divided the city. I am glad I was wrong about this. The river has its own ecosystem and interested groups that are invested in it.
I started classes in LATTC to come out of it working with some sort of water filtration or conservation leaning career. I want to be able to contribute in some way to making sure my city is smart in how it treats and uses the water we receive.
I never gave storm drains a second thought while driving. The few times they took my attention was during heavy storms where they flooded – the pooled water splashing unlucky pedestrians as cars passed. Sometimes I was unlucky. Now I am aware of its function, their contribution to the way water is handled here, and the importance of NOT contaminating streets with trash or toxic waste.
On a personal note it was great to come out and be featured in an LA Times newspaper article. I had explained the work to some family, but not all. I never expected to talk to a reporter about my background and the work I do in the river. Once the article was released it spread to people that were unaware of the work I was doing. The bombardment of questions, congratulations and support was one of the best feelings to come out of this program. I cannot thank Heal the Bay enough for making this possible.
My job was the same each week. I went out and collected samples. The next day they were read and the data was collected and posted. Even though it is the same every week, each time is always filled with new experiences. It can come from the people we meet at the river or the dynamics of our great team.
Heal the Bay’s internship program covered a wide range of public service opportunities in the water systems of Los Angeles. The idea, team and process meshed right in with what I am interested in. It is one of the main reasons why I decided on coming back into school during the summer!
Meet the Team
Heal the Bay has monitored water quality in Malibu Creek since 2014 and in the L.A. River since 2015. In the fall of 2016, we were awarded the U.S. EPA Urban Waters Grant. As a result, we have launched a unique freshwater monitoring program in partnership with a local college. Led by our very own watershed scientist Katherine Pease, we’re training five awesome Los Angeles Trade Technical College “LATTC” students to monitor the conditions in the L.A. River. We’re also working with two outstanding interns who support our Malibu Creek efforts.
Heal the Bay Staff
Dr. Katherine Pease Longtime Heal the Bay staffer, Katherine has extensive experience assessing the water quality and biological health of greater L.A.’s watersheds, as well as assisting stakeholder groups with policy recommendations.
Annelisa Moe Annelisa helps to keep L.A. water clean and safe by advocating for comprehensive and science-based water quality regulation and enforcement. Before joining the team at Heal the Bay, she worked with the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
L.A. River Monitors (Summer 2017)
Nelson Chabarria A native Angeleno, Nelson is obsessed with his pet pug, Goose. He is thrilled to be part of this L.A. River monitoring program.
Yuris Delcid Hailing from El Salvador, Yuris is going to LATTC to get her Associate’s Degree in Registered Nursing. Nothing is more important to her than her family (except for maybe her two cats).
Vanessa Granados Vanessa is attending LATTC for her Associate’s Degree in Chemical Technology. She plans to continue studying for a B.A. in Environmental Science or Agriculture, and to engage in activism for natural ecosystems.
John Silva Majoring in Biology, John is passionate about animal welfare. He strives to one day open a holistic care center for domesticated animals.
Christopher Zamora Christopher’s concerns are global; he aspires to participate in environmental geochemical research and to one day become an activist to improve (inter)national guidelines and policies.
Manuel Robles Manuel Robles has been the Life Sciences Laboratory Technician at LATTC since 2012. He received his Bachelor’s in Biology from Cal State Long Beach and gets to work on the coolest biology projects.
Malibu Creek Watershed Monitors (Summer 2017)
Melissa Rojas Melissa recently graduated from UC Davis with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Management. During her time there, water became a focal point for her studies in conservation and management.
Andrius Ruplenas Born and raised in Santa Monica, Andrius studied at Santa Monica College for two years before transferring to Northern Arizona University, where he’s currently majoring in Environmental Studies. He just returned from a semester abroad in Costa Rica, where he got the chance to explore while studying Spanish.
Since 1985, we’ve partnered with people like you – volunteers, donors and advocates — to make Southern California safer, healthier and cleaner. And 2018 will prove no different.
As another year closes we’ve been reflecting on all our wins in 2017. But now we look ahead to this New Year. We’ll be hosting cleanups, educating kids at our Aquarium and monitoring beaches and watersheds statewide as we do year in and year out. We’ve got bigger plans, too.
Here’s a snapshot look at our Big Three policy goals in 2018, encompassing our three impact pillars – Thriving Oceans, Healthy Watersheds and Smart Water.
1. Parting With Polystyrene
Action Item:Enact a ban on polystyrene food and drink containers in the City and County of Los Angeles.
Following the model that propelled the statewide plastic bag ban in 2014, we are fighting to rid our beaches and neighborhoods of polystyrene trash.
We don’t want to live in a nanny state, with a long list of prohibited items and activities. But sometimes enough is enough. Our volunteers have removed more than 500,000 bits of Styrofoam™ from beaches in L.A. County over the past decade1. These discarded fragments of takeout-food packaging and cups are not only unsightly – they’re also downright dangerous to marine life and our health.
Recycling isn’t the answer, as polystyrene food and drink containers suffer from low quality and value. More than 100 California cities have implemented all-out bans. But we need a statewide solution, as with plastic bags. Sacramento legislators likely won’t act until the state’s biggest city acts.
2. Saving Stormwater
Action Item: Get L.A. County voters to approve a funding measure for stormwater capture projects.
When it rains, we create terrible waste in Southern California. First, billions of gallons of polluted runoff are sent uselessly to the sea. Second, we fail to capture and reuse that water to replenish our depleted aquifers.
We import 80% of our water in L.A. – at great risk and cost. It’s simply madness not to reuse the water that nature provides. The County of L.A. already does a fairly good job of capturing stormwater – about 200,000 acre feet each year. But we need to at least double that amount.
Engineers have created detailed plans for multi-benefit, green projects throughout the county – think smart parks, green streets and the like. We can transform the region from a concrete bowl into a giant sponge. But in a time of tight government budgets, finding the funding is tough. In the November election, voters will decide whether to support a tax to reduce pollution and increase water reliability.
3. Revitalizing the River
Action Item: Advocate for strong water-quality and habitat protections in the County’s upcoming L.A. River Master Plan.
Heal the Bay recently released an eye-opening study of water quality that showed that bacterial pollution continues to plague the L.A. River. Our scientific report demonstrated that popular recreation zones suffer from poor water quality. Fecal bacteria pose health risks for the growing number of people fishing, swimming and kayaking its waters.
We’re excited about all the great things happening on the River these days, spurred by a $1 billion revitalization plan. We love that more Angelenos are getting on the water. We just want to make sure people stay safe and are informed about pollution.
Our work isn’t possible without the real passion, action and commitment from people like you. Help us spark more positive change in our region, up and down the coast, and around the world. Help us hit the ground running this year by making a donation today.
1. Source: Heal the Bay’s Marine Debris Database (12/1/2007-12/1/2017). Heal the Bay’s Marine Debris Database is an online record of trash and other debris that has been picked up by schools, companies, and other volunteers as part of Heal the Bay’s various beach cleanup programs.