Heal the Bay and Assembly Member Richard Bloom Introduce Legislation to Protect Public Health at Freshwater Swimming and Recreation Sites in California
Twenty-four years ago, the California Legislature took an important step forward in protecting public health at ocean beaches. AB411, authored by Assembly Members Howard Wayne (San Diego) and Debra Bowen (South Bay), established statewide water quality standards, required standard monitoring protocols, and set uniform mandatory public notification procedures in place during poor water quality events. Prior to AB411, ocean-goers did not have access to water quality information leaving them vulnerable to serious illnessessuch as stomach flu, respiratory illness and debilitating ear, nose, and throat infections, which are contracted from fecal contamination in the water.
AB411 requires weekly water quality monitoring from April 1 to October 31 as well as public notification of water quality conditions for beaches where annual visitation is 50,000 or greater or that are near storm drains. Heal the Bay was the primary sponsor for this bill, and ourBeach Report Card, started in 1991, helped grow support for it. AB411 is still the guiding piece of legislation for recreational water quality monitoring in California. Unfortunately, freshwater swimming and recreation areas are not regulated or monitored consistently in the same way that ocean beaches are. California has fecal pollution standards for freshwater, but monitoring for that pollution is lacking. Many swimming holes across the State are not tested for water quality, and for those that are, the monitoring and public notification protocols are not consistent statewide.
Rivers, lakes, and streams are popular areas where people swim, fish, kayak, wade, raft, and more. And for many people who do not live near the coast or for whom the coast is not easily accessible, these are the areas where they go to cool off and enjoy time with friends and family, and have a good time. People who visit freshwater swimming holes should be provided with the same protections that ocean beachgoers are given. People deserve to know if they might be exposed to fecal pollution so that they can adequately protect themselves. We are thrilled to announce that Assembly Member Richard Bloom, in partnership with Heal the Bay, has introduced legislation to address this public health disparity, AB1066.
AB1066 is the latest effort from Heal the Bay on addressing this issue. In 2014, Heal the Bay began monitoring freshwater recreation sites and providing that information to the public. We also began aggregating freshwater monitoring data from throughout LA County starting in 2017. This grew into our River Report Card (RRC), a free and publicly accessible website with updated water quality information throughout the greater LA region. Similar to the Beach Report Card, we have been using the RRC to advocate for increased monitoring and better water quality notifications across LA County. However, we want to take this to the next step and ensure people across the whole state have access to consistent water quality information that can help keep them safe.
Establish a definition for afreshwater recreation site based on frequency of use and identifysites state-wide to be monitored;
Require weeklymonitoring from Memorial Day to Labor Day for freshwater recreation sites by the owner/operator using a standardized protocol and metrics;
Require public notification online and through signage for hazardous water quality conditions.
“I am pleased to author AB1066 to address a key public health challenge that many Californians face in outdoor recreation– ensuring there are science and health based bacterial standards, ongoing water quality monitoring, and public notification for freshwater bathing where needed.
California is a magnificent state and one that affords all our communities with opportunities to recreate outdoors. Our lakes, rivers and streams should be enjoyed by residents throughout the state, but we need to ensure that their public health is protected while doing so.”
-Assembly Member Richard Bloom
The protections in AB1066 are long overdue and were afforded to ocean beaches nearly 25 years ago. Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed on our work and ways to get involved.
Luke Ginger, Water Quality Scientist at Heal the Bay, recaps a tough summer for water quality monitoring at LA County’s freshwater recreation areas, and outlines the urgent need for equitable, climate-resilient communities in the face of a health pandemic, extreme heat, unprecedented wildfires, and beyond.
Heal the Bay concludes another summer of freshwater sampling and monitoring with the River Report Card. Over the course of the summer of 2020, we provided inland water-goers with water quality grades for 27 freshwater recreation sites across Los Angeles County, California. This included 5 sites in Malibu Creek State Park and the LA River, where Heal the Bay staff collected water quality samples. We updated grades on a weekly basis and posted them online to be viewed by the public.
Summer 2020 was filled with many challenges that impacted our program. Due to COVID-19, Heal the Bay was unable to hire local college students to monitor water quality at recreation sites and storm drains like in previousyears. Instead, Heal the Bay’s permanent staff carried out water sampling. This was a major blow to our program because one of our main goals has always been to provide knowledge, skills, and career training to emerging professionals. Additionally, without a full crew, we sampled fewer recreation sites and storm drains, leaving the public with less information on how to stay safe.
We also had to take extra precautions while sampling – wearing masks at all times, driving in separate vehicles, and sporting extra protective gear (face shields and extra-long gloves) to reduce exposure to potentially contaminated water. These were necessary precautions because the research on the risk of contracting COVID-19 from recreational waters is still ongoing.
Photo by Alice Dison
There were also major changes in accessibility and use this summer at the sites Heal the Bay monitored. Malibu Creek State Park was open all summer, but the swimming holes (Rock Pool and Las Virgenes Creek) remained closed due to concerns over the ability to maintain proper physical distancing. However, this closure was not clearly enforced as we saw many swimmers throughout the summer. The official LA River recreation zones were open from Memorial Day until the end of September, but kayaking was not allowed due to safety concerns around COVID-19.
Monitoring efforts by LA Sanitation, Council for Watershed Health, and San Gabriel Regional Watershed Monitoring Program were impacted this summer as well. There were weeks where certain recreation sites in the Upper LA River Watershed and San Gabriel River Watershed were not monitored due to park closures or overcrowding concerns. According to LA Sanitation officials, Hermit Falls was not monitored this summer because it is a particularly crowded area that posed a health risk to the water quality monitors. Worker safety is incredibly important, as is the health of all Angelenos and visitors. Unfortunately, these tough decisions resulted in critical water quality information not being available at a very popular location all summer. LA Sanitation instead sampled the Vogel Flats picnic area, which is a new addition to the River Report Card. Toward the end of the summer, monitoring in the San Gabriel River Watershed and some of the Upper LA River Watershed was cut short due to the Bobcat Fire and the subsequent closure of Angeles National Forest.
This summer, the pandemic, a record setting wildfire season, and extreme heat culminated into one even larger public health crisis. The pandemic forced people to stay local and opt for close-by areas to take a swim. Because of this, as well as the reduced risk of contracting COVID-19 outdoors, people flocked in unusually high numbers to ocean beaches and freshwater recreation sites to stay active and cool. Unfortunately, if outdoor crowds become too big and dense, there is an increased risk of COVID-19 spread. The fact that so many people sought respite outside made clear the importance of open space for physical and mental health. But, the benefits of open space are not equally experienced by all. Black and Latinx communities have been systemically denied access to parks and nature, and there is a lot of work to do to provide justice for these communities. LA City and County must work hard to meet their target of 65% of Angelenos living within half a mile of a park or open space by 2025 (and 75% by 2035).
Photo by Alice Dison
The summer’s extreme heat waves coincided with the largest wildfires in California’s history, which created harmful air quality across the entire west coast. Many people endured hazardous outdoor air quality in order to cool off at rivers, streams, and beaches. Tragically, exposure to wildfire-induced poor air quality exacerbates the harmful health effects of COVID-19. So for low-income households without air conditioning, it was impossible to escape harm; people were either subject to extreme heat at home or subject to harmful air quality outside. We must acknowledge that in the United States, the communities facing the brunt of climate change impacts like extreme heat and wildfire are disproportionately Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian people.
Summer 2020 was a tough time for many, and it underscores the need for immediate and equitable action to address the climate crisis and environmental justice.
Looking forward, Heal the Bay will continue to advocate for water quality improvements across LA County, so everyone is protected from waterborne illness. And, we will continue to push for nature-based policies that stem the impacts of climate change and make our communities climate resilient.
Summer 2020 Results
Here are the water quality results from the sites Heal the Bay monitored during summer 2020.
Malibu Creek State Park
Rock Pool – did slightly better than last year
Las Virgenes Creek – worse than last year
Los Angeles River
Sepulveda Basin at Burbank Ave. – slightly better than last year
When I first visited Los Angeles in 2015, I was not interested in seeing the Hollywood Walk of Fame or the Hollywood Sign. Instead, I asked my local friends to take me directly to the L.A. River. I wanted to see the hallmark concrete embankments where so many movie car chases happened and the thin ribbon of water I watched my favorite skateboarders jump over (with mixed success).
The L.A. River has A-List status far outside of the Los Angeles area, and is recognized by people all over the globe. Its notoriety is mostly due to its unique appearance. It doesn’t look like a typical river at all, instead it looks like – and functions as – a storm drain channel.
The L.A. River begins in Canoga Park where Bell Creek and Arroyo Calabasas converge, and it runs 51 miles through the City of Los Angeles and over 17 other cities, draining over 800 square miles of land, before it flows into the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach.
The History of the L.A. River
In pre-colonial Los Angeles County, water from rivers and streams naturally flowed and supported Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash Peoples in the area. Later, the L.A. River and its tributaries supported the colonial settlements that were violently and coercively established on local Indigenous territories.
1800’s Before Colonial Settlement. Source: Seaver Central For Western History Research / Natural History Museum Los Angeles County, riverlareports.riverla.org
A population boom in the early 1900’s meant the L.A. River and its tributaries could no longer support the water demand for the area. Cities began sourcing water from the Colorado River and Northern California, and the L.A. River gradually went from being a vital local water source to being seen as a nuisance.
From 1900-1940 there were multiple floods of the L.A. River that destroyed neighborhoods and resulted in fatalities. The colonial cities along the river failed to respect the L.A. River as the Indigenous People had, and instead built homes and buildings within the River’s floodplain.
In response to the floods, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to pour concrete over the sides and bottom of the L.A. River channel and its tributaries to create a network of concrete storm drain channels. The concretization of the river led to a reduction in flood risk because it forced water to flow much more quickly down the river and out to the ocean. But, the concrete completely decimated the river ecosystem and the services it once provided, including cultural value, habitat for wildlife, and greenspace for recreation.
After the river was concretized, Indigenous People, activists, and environmental organizations demanded the restoration of the L.A. River and its tributaries back into a functioning natural river ecosystem.
Now with the climate crisis, we can no longer afford to have a concretized river system that solely provides flood control. We need a river system that will help cool communities as temperatures rise, provide habitat for diverse wildlife, increase local water resiliency, and serve as a greenspace where communities can recreate and reconnect with nature and culture.
Government agencies have identified the need to re-establish all of the lost ecosystem services as well, and have implemented six major plans with the goal of transforming the L.A. River and its tributaries into a multi-benefit system that will serve the surrounding communities.
Here we summarize these plans and let you know how to get involved.
Los Angeles River Master Plan Update (LARMPU)
The LARMPU is a plan created by L.A. County with the goal of transforming the L.A. River. The original Master Plan was drafted in 1996, and its main goal was to beautify the river while maintaining its functionality as a stormwater conveyance system. The 2020 update of the Master Plan was set into motion to ensure the L.A. River has spaces that provide more benefits in addition to flood abatement and beautification. As stated in the plan, projects will reduce flood risk; improve parks and open space; improve river access; support the ecosystem; provide cultural and educational opportunities; address housing affordability and homelessness; improve local water resilience; and promote water quality.
Heal the Bay was selected to serve as a Steering Committee member for the update and has been attending meetings and offering feedback over the last two years. The updated Master Plan for the entire River is expected to be released to the public in the next few weeks as a draft open for public comments – stay tuned for updates on that and be ready to share your thoughts on the River and the Master Plan.
The ULART Working Group (formed by Assembly Bill 466 & Senate Bill 1126) developed this plan so low income communities with limited access to greenspace in the L.A. River Watershed have the opportunity to implement projects such as parks and paths along the river. The ULART Plan was developed to revitalize the L.A. River from Canoga Park to Vernon as well as Aliso Canyon Wash, Pacoima Wash, Tujunga Wash, Burbank Western Channel, Verdugo Wash, and the Arroyo Seco. This plan has identified areas along the L.A. River and its tributaries where multi-benefit projects will be implemented. This is the only plan discussed here that addresses tributaries, which have largely been ignored by revitalization efforts in the past.
As stated by the ULART Plan, the goals are to enhance the ecosystem; maintain and enhance flood management; increase opportunities for culture, arts, and recreation; and increase connectivity and green space along the river system. This plan has identified areas along the L.A. River and its tributaries where projects such as parks and bike paths can be designed and implemented. And, community members are encouraged to collaboratively develop project ideas and get them constructed. The plan was finalized and adopted in April 2020 and can be found on the ULART website.
Lower L.A. River Revitalization Plan
The Lower L.A. River Revitalization Plan was set forth in Assembly Bill 530, and unlike the other plans discussed, has been in the implementation phase since 2018. This plan covers revitalization efforts in the lower 19 miles of the L.A. River from Vernon to Long Beach. Communities in this section of the river have lower than average incomes in L.A. County, are predominantly People of Color, and have been historically underserved by economic, educational, and environmental services. Local residents are disproportionately exposed to pollution and have little access to green space among other environmental injustices. Therefore, it is crucial the Lower L.A. River Revitalization Plan works to create benefits that will address systemic issues. As stated by the plan, the goals are:
Create diverse, vibrant public spaces along and connected to the Lower Los Angeles River resulting in safe, inviting, healthy green spaces that support diverse local communities, allowing equitable access to nature and a variety of recreation entertainment, multi-modal transportation and socio-economic opportunities that enhances quality of life and sustains watershed health.
Conserve and restore natural river and watershed functions while managing flood risk, enhancing the long-term ecosystem services provided to surrounding communities and mitigating climate changes and environmental impacts of urbanizing on the Lower L.A. River, floodplains, and associated habitats.
Heal the Bay was on the Working Group to help develop and offer feedback on the Plan and currently attends the Implementation Advisory Group meetings, where specific projects are brought forward for discussion and feedback in context of the Master Plan.
Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan (LARRMP)
This LARRMP was approved by the Los Angeles City Council in 2005, and it aims to revitalize the 32 miles of the L.A. River within L.A. City limits. The plan is intended to serve as a blueprint for transforming the river over the next 25-50 years, and the four “core principles” of the plan are as follows:
Revitalize the river by creating a continuous stretch of riparian habitat throughout the 32 mile section of the river in the city boundaries. The plan states that concrete removal will be considered as long as flood abatement ability of the river channel is not compromised.
Creating a continuous “River Greenway” that would consist of a network of bikeways, pedestrian paths, “green connections,” and open space.
Create a river that is safe, accessible, healthy, sustainable, and celebrated. The LARRMP states that it will address environmental justice issues by redeveloping polluted areas and providing natural spaces in neighborhoods that lack them.
Create value by encouraging participation and consensus-building, creating opportunities for sustainable, economic reinvestment, and adding value and providing an equitable distribution of opportunities to underserved neighborhoods along the River.
Projects under this plan are still ongoing, but some projects like Albion Riverside Park, have already been completed. Check the LARRMP website for updates.
Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study
Adopted by the Los Angeles City Council in 2016, this proposed plan would transform 11 miles of the Elysian Valley in the Los Angeles River. The restoration would include the creation of riparian and marsh habitat, enhancing habitat connectivity to other natural areas such as the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains. The plan will also include a natural hydrologic regime with the goal of restoring historic floodplains and connections to Los Angeles River tributaries. Ecological restoration under this plan will also allow for certain passive recreation opportunities like nature walks. There are some preliminary projects that must be completed before this plan is implemented, but the project is expected to be completed by 2029.
Los Angeles River Flows Project
Historically, the water in the L.A. River came from rainfall and groundwater upwelling in the Glendale Narrows. While that remains the case today, wastewater is now the dominant source of water in the main channel of the river during dry weather. The Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys and the Los Angeles-Glendale Water Reclamation Plant near Griffith Park both discharge treated wastewater into the L.A. River on a daily basis. Although this water originated from toilets, sinks, and drains, it is relatively free of contaminants like fecal matter.
In light of the recent long-term drought conditions in California and the looming threat of climate change, wastewater managers in L.A. are rethinking the practice of discharging treated wastewater into the L.A. River. That wastewater can be recycled, which would result in improved water resilience in times of drought and sustainable local water. However, the reduction of wastewater discharges into the river poses a potential problem for the river ecosystem that has come to rely on that water source. The State Water Board and other stakeholders have created the Los Angeles River Flows Project to evaluate the environmental and recreational impacts of reducing wastewater discharge into the L.A. River. The goal is to identify a water flow regime that will support a healthy river ecosystem, allow for recreation opportunities, and recycle enough water to be drought resilient.
Right now, the L.A. River Flows Project has been conducting analyses to identify the optimal flow regime, and research and meetings are planned to continue through the end of 2020. After that, a plan will be drafted and there will ideally be an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the plan.
Heal the Bay is a member of the Technical Advisory Committee as well as part of the Stakeholder Working Group. We will keep you updated on the progress of this and if there are opportunities for the public to voice their comments.
What’s with all these plans for the L.A. River?
Revitalizing the L.A. River is a monumental task so it makes sense to break the revitalization effort into different pieces. However, the main reason for this patchwork of plans is that they are all being led by different agencies. The LARMPU was created by L.A. County and ULART and the Lower L.A. River Revitalization Plan were created by legislation at the state level. The L.A. River Flow Plan was mandated by the State Water Resource Control Board. The LARRMP and L.A. River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study are both overseen by the City of Los Angeles. Each plan states that it will work in conjunction with all the other plans; however, it is unclear what that collaboration will look like as three of the plans are not in the implementation phase yet.
What will these plans do exactly?
The L.A. River Master Plan, ULART, LARRMP, and Lower L.A. River Revitalization Plan will all identify areas along the L.A. River watershed where there is space for a project. A project can take the shape of many different things such as a park, retail space, housing, bike path, nature trail, and habitat among other things. The spaces where these projects will be placed are government owned or easily obtainable by a government agency. The Flows Project will not consist of any projects, instead, it will make recommendations on the amount of water in the river. This might change the habitat characteristics of the river as well as the recreational opportunities. We will know more as the plan continues to take shape. The L.A. River Revitalization Master Plan has already identified the locations of proposed projects.
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