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Nov. 30, 2016 — After nearly 30 years guiding the influential Friends of the Los Angeles River, Lewis MacAdams has decided to hand over the reins. Here, longtime ally James Alamillo, Heal the Bay’s urban programs manager, reflects on our shared history.

Heal the Bay and the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR) both got their start in 1986, upstart nonprofits focused on grassroots change. The organizations have since matured and have shaped the Los Angeles environmental scene for the past 30 years. As though they were cut from the same fabric, Heal the Bay founding president Dorothy Green and FOLAR co-founder Lewis MacAdams both made it their life’s work to protect two iconic landscapes of Los Angeles — the Santa Monica Bay and the Los Angeles River. Mobilizing everyday people, they developed a successful formula to rehabilitate, protect, preserve, and share special places with current and future generations.

The two Los Angeles environmental giants, and their respective organizations, began crossing paths in the early 1990s when the Los Angeles County Flood Control Department and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed raising the walls on the Los Angeles River – an effort known as the Los Angeles County Drainage Area Project, or LACDA.

Both Dorothy and Lewis were so adamant about instituting comprehensive watershed management planning principles to the Los Angeles River and other watersheds, that they formed the Coalition to Restore our Watershed, also known as Un-Pave LA. Over the next six years, they fought the LACDA project to ensure that watershed principals were incorporated into the project’s Environmental Impact Report. Although the LACDA project was eventually built, the process gave birth to yet another organization – the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, a group intent on bringing watershed management principals to public agencies.

Since then, FOLAR and Heal the Bay have collectively worked together to improve the Los Angeles River and its tributaries. Through it all, Lewis has always been part of the process, whether it was supporting volunteer clean-up programs, talking to media, testifying before the Regional Water Quality Control Board on a 401-water quality certifications or a total maximum daily load for trash, reviewing data collection on fishing or swimming, promoting the river’s restoration, or supporting the ARBOR Study.

While the partnership between Heal the Bay and FOLAR will continue, Lewis’ passion for the river will be greatly missed. Heal the Bay is honored to have traveled the Los Angeles River journey with Lewis. We wish him well as moves on to his next endeavor.



Nov. 21, 2016 — Amid all the uncertainty in Washington D.C., Heal the Bay promises to keep a sharp eye on what a new administration means for our local environment, writes Dr. Rita Kampalath, Heal the Bay’s science and policy director.

While we’re still celebrating the tremendous wins that the California environment scored in the recent elections, we have been hearing voices of concerns from many Heal the Bay supporters about changes afoot on the national level. After months of campaign rhetoric, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the real-world policies and appointments rolling out from a new leader in the White House.

Given our 31-year role as a staunch defender of our local seas and watersheds, we’ve been paying particular attention to discussions about such topics as the purpose of the EPA and ongoing climate change policy. In my role of heading policy for an organization always guided by the best science, I’ve frankly been dismayed to hear opinions expressed by the new administration on some issues related to our core work. These initial reactions range from mildly concerning to truly alarming, given that some pronouncements are simply at odds with established scientific consensus. As a result, we’re going to be watching what goes on at the federal level closer than ever.

Below are topics our policy team will be keeping an eye on in the coming months as the new administration formalizes its course of action:

Climate change: Despite the consensus of the vast majority of the scientific community that man-made climate change is very real, the issue remains a contentious topic for federal legislators, and a key policy area to watch going forward. The choice of a well-known climate change skeptic as leader of the EPA transition team has been disheartening, especially as Myron Ebell is also mentioned as potentially heading up the agency long-term.

The past few years have seen tremendous progress in the U.S. accepting our responsibility to take action for warming temperatures, highlighted by our ratification of the Paris Agreement last year. The incoming administration has expressed a clear stance on withdrawing the U.S. from this landmark agreement. This is obviously a global issue to be grappled with, but we have been working on climate resiliency with local municipalities for years. Rising seas, erosion, and flooding are very real possibilities on our shorelines in the not-too-distant future. But to fix the problem, we need to admit there is a problem.

Energy: Strongly tied to U.S. actions on climate change are our energy policies in general, which may have additional impacts on natural resources and air and water pollution. Here on the California coast in particular, we’ll be watching out for any policies or actions that may open up our lands, in particular those offshore, to additional oil drilling and fracking. We’ll also look out for actions on recently adopted or still in the works policies such as the Clean Power Plan and mercury standards that seek to tighten standards on a range of air and water pollutants. These obviously have enormous potential impacts on the health of our local waterways and neighborhoods.

Clean Water Act: Last year, the EPA issued the Clean Water Rule (“Waters of the U.S.” rule), which clarified the definition of waters that are protected by the Clean Water Act. Thankfully, this definition recognizes the interconnectedness of waterbodies, and the impact that upstream waterbodies can have on navigable waters, and thus formalized protections for precious water resources such as certain wetlands and tributaries that previously may have been subject to debate. The new administration has made it clear that this rule will be a prime target for elimination.

Funding: Although it may be difficult to abolish entire agencies or programs completely, the power of the purse is no joke. We will be watching to see how funding of agencies, research, and grant programs related to the environment changes under the new administration. Certainly, the billion-dollar restoration plan of the L.A. River put forth by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will now be viewed through a new prism, leaving lingering questions about how the long-gestating project will now move forward.

New regulations: While we’re lucky to live in a state that is pretty consistently a leader in the nation on environmental laws, we’ll be vigilant for any federal regulations put forward that may seek to preempt state laws. While this approach may be beneficial in some instances where the federal law is more protective or establishes consistency among states, we’ll be wary of any attempts to limit the protections we as a state can ensure for our treasured natural resources.

Infrastructure spending: Given the current degraded state of our infrastructure, Heal the Bay supports infrastructure spending and improvements. At the same time, we cannot set up a zero sum game between infrastructure and climate change as the new administration’s 100-day plan suggests. And infrastructure spending must be invested in projects that lead to more sustainable communities and incorporate best management practices in terms of energy and water use.

Heal the Bay was founded on the belief that, like the rights to free speech, equal treatment, to practice whatever religion you choose, and to love whomever you choose, we have a right to an environment that doesn’t pose a risk to our health and well-being. These rights and values are what make America great now! While we, as always, are rooting wholeheartedly for the success and forward progress of our nation, we believe that erosion of any of these rights is absolutely incompatible with any definition of success, and certainly any definition of progress.

Feeling like you want to take action in these uncertain times? We’ve got dozens of volunteer opportunities for you and your family.



UPDATE: 4:14 p.m., Nov. 10, 2016:

While California waits for the last 3 million mail-in votes to be counted, it is projected by a number of influential media outlets that Proposition 67 will PASS! Once the Secretary of State declares the results official, the plastic bag ban will go into effect immediately. This makes California the first state to pass a comprehensive ban on single use plastic bags. As the nation looks to California as a progressive environmental leader, we hope that our hard-fought, grassroots-led victory inspires other states to enact a bag ban of their own.

We’re grateful for the passionate, powerful coalition of environmental groups, community leaders, and dedicated volunteers, without whom this victory simply wouldn’t have been possible. 

For the latest Prop 67 results coverage, check out the Sacramento Bee and New York Times.

Nov. 9, 2016 — Tova Handelman, Heal the Bay’s Coastal Resources Coordinator, dives into the election results and finds some treasures worth celebrating.

So much has happened in the last 24 hours. The dust has yet to settle from the presidential and state elections. Through the haze, it can be hard to see the long, grueling path that led us here. Even more uncertain is what the road ahead looks like for the country, and its environmental progress.  

Well before the primaries and up until yesterday, Heal the Bay – alongside our incredible partner organizations, and fueled by dedicated members like you – led efforts to enact some real environmental change locally and across California during this election season. We advocated for several propositions and city measures before, and are truly proud to see the results of our efforts this time. This campaign season has given us a lot of firsts–some good and some downright puzzling. But we are proud to say that this is the first time we’ve seen such across-the-board success for the environmental measures we worked so hard to endorse.  

Let’s take a look at some key environmental measures on the ballot–and what will happen next:

Election 2016 results

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Measure A: PASSED!

A big victory with a huge margin, Measure A passed with 73.5% of the Los Angeles vote. This means that an annual parcel tax of 1.5 cents per square foot of development will generate approximately $94 million per year. This money will go directly to local communities to protect, enhance, and maintain our local parks, beaches, and open spaces.

Measure M: PASSED!

Sick and tired of traffic and its effect on air quality in Los Angeles? You’re not alone: Measure M passed overwhelmingly with nearly 70% of the vote – well over the two-thirds share it needed to pass. Measure M adds a half-cent sales tax and extends the existing half-cent increase passed in 2008 with Measure R. This tax will generate $120 billion over 40 years to fund major extensions to subway lines, including a line under the Sepulveda Pass to connect the San Fernando Valley to West Los Angeles.

Measure CW: PASSED!

Residents of Culver City voted to create a dedicated funding source in the form of a parcel tax to pay for water quality programs that will prevent pollution in our waterways, beaches, and the Ballona Creek Estuary. The tax is expected to generate $2 million per year, and all money will be used in Culver City to reduce water pollution. This will ultimately help to improve water quality in Santa Monica Bay!

Proposition 65: FAILED!

Try as they might, the plastic bag manufacturing companies behind Prop 65 couldn’t trick us into undoing California’s plastic bag ban. This proposition was intentionally vague to confuse voters by thinking they were voting for an environmental fund, when the fine print actually said the bag ban would be overturned should Prop 65 pass. Thanks to our tireless volunteers and incredible efforts from partner organizations, we were able to get the word out and educate voters on the issue. Looks like Californians do their homework, because we are now one step closer to banning plastic bags from grocery stores statewide.

Proposition 67: NOT FINAL YET, BUT IT’S LOOKING GOOD!

Heal the Bay has been working for years to eliminate plastic pollution from our waterways and beaches. Two years ago, we rejoiced when SB270 passed, making California the first state to ban plastic grocery bags. The plastic bag manufacturers didn’t take the news well, however, and spent over $6 million to get the bill back on the ballot as a referendum in the form of Prop 67. Our volunteers spent long days at tabling events and long nights phone banking to encourage voters to uphold our statewide plastic bag ban, and it seems like their efforts paid off. The polls are too close to call just yet, but the projections are promising. Once the final verdict is called, the plastic bag ban will go into effect immediately at grocery stores, pharmacies, and liquor stores across the state. Paper bags will still be available for 10 cents. Over 660 ocean species have been found to ingest or become entangled in plastic pollution, so a statewide ban is a HUGE victory for the environment–and ocean animals.   

Though it is unclear what will play out nationally, there is one thing you can certainly count on: Heal the Bay will continue to fight to protect what you love. Supported by thousands of ocean-loving Angelenos and guided by sound science, we will press on to advance local, regional, and statewide environmental policies and educate the next generation of ocean advocates.    

Thanks to you, we won so much yesterday. And with your help, we will continue fighting, stronger than ever, for a cleaner, healthier, bluer Los Angeles.



Oct. 6, 2016 — Manufacturers are trying to overturn the state’s effective bag ban at the ballot box this November. 

Did you know that all that hard work we did together to get California’s plastic bag ban passed in the state legislature years ago is now under threat? Out-of-state and out-of-touch Big Plastic is pushing bags on us once again by funding an initiative to overturn the statewide ban.

So please come out Nov. 8 during the presidential election to vote YES to uphold the sensible ban. Bag bans work! Why go back? We know you get it, but here’s info to share with your network.

 

 Reason #1: Plastic bags kill wildlife1.      Bags kill wildlife.

Plastic bag pollution poses a deadly threat to 663 species of marine and land animals. Each year, thousands of animals become entangled in plastic bags and drown, or ingest them and starve.

 Reason #2: Plastic bags poison the food chain2.      They poison the food chain.

In the ocean, plastic bags break down into tiny pieces, which absorb large amounts of pollutants. These toxic pellets are then eaten by small fish and animals that are in turn eaten by larger fish… ultimately passing those toxins on to us. Do you want to eat plastic-filled fish?

 Reason #3: Plastic bags are used for <12 minutes3.      They’re used for just a few minutes, but last a few lifetimes.

A shopper will typically use a single-use plastic bag for fewer than 12 minutes. However, that bag will remain in our environment for up to 1,000 years and will never fully biodegrade.

 Reason #4: <5% of plastic bags are recycled4.      Less than 5% of plastic bags are recycled in California.

The plastic bag industry may say recycling is the answer, but that’s simply not the case. The tiny fraction of bags that do make it to recycling plants yield very little usable material.

 Reason #5: Plastics in the ocean could outweigh fish by 20505.      Plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050.

If we don’t take immediate action to reduce our appetite for plastic products, you’ll soon be more likely to reel in a food wrapper than a rockfish. 

 Reason #6: Cleaning up plastic bags costs taxpayers millions.6.      They cost taxpayers millions every year to clean up.

NRDC estimates that California spends up to $100 million each year dealing with plastic bag litter. We can think of a few million better ways to spend taxpayer dollars.

 Reason #7: Plastic bags aren't free7.      They make shopping more expensive.

Think you’ve been getting all those plastic grocery bags on the house? Think again. The real cost of those “freebies” is built into the price of consumer goods.

 Reason #8: Plastic bags are an eyesore8.      They’re an eyesore in our neighborhoods.

Chances are you’ve seen a few of these “urban tumbleweeds” blighting your block. Banned bags mean cleaner communities.

 Reason #9: The plastic bag industry profits off pollution9.      The plastic bag industry profits off pollution.

Plastic bags are big business in California, racking up nearly $200 million in 2012 alone. But who’s raking it in? Not the Golden State: 98% of contributions to keep plastic bags were from companies outside of California.

Reason #10: A statewide bag ban would make things simpler10.     A statewide ban would streamline existing bag laws.

Over 1/3 of Californians enjoy living in 148 communities where bags are already banned. A statewide solution would simplify this regulatory jumble for retailers and shoppers alike.

 

 Download this fact sheet.

Learn more about Prop 67.


Top 10 Reasons to vote YES on Prop 67!



Sept. 17, 2016 — There are 8 million stories in the trashy city on Coastal Cleanup Day. Here is one of them from Heal the Bay’s communications director, Matthew King.

Heading down PCH to infamous Lunada Bay this morning, I really didn’t know what to expect.

To Southern California surfers, this idyllic cove in Palos Verdes Estates is infamous for being home to the Bay Boys, a group of largely middle-aged locals accused of using vigilante-like tactics to scare away visitors. These self-appointed regulators sit on the bluffs and regularly block access to the beach, according to a recently filed federal class-action lawsuit, all in the name of keeping some of L.A.’s best waves to themselves.

After years of hosting cleanups up and down the Palos Verdes Estates, Heal the Bay decided to host a site at Lunada Bay in concert with city staff for this year’s Coastal Cleanup Day. Leading up to the cleanup, I hadn’t given the site much thought. Then I received a few media enquiries asking about the Bay Boys and if we expected any trouble or were taking any safety precautions.

It all seemed a bit alarmist to me. But I do have some family history at Lunada Bay that gave me some pause. Last fall, my high school son and his friends – unbeknownst to me – decided to hike down to the cove to watch the sunset. They came back to find the tires slashed on their car.

Channeling the sage words of my colleague Meredith McCarthy, I assured the journalists that cleanups tend to bring out the best in people. We didn’t expect any trouble, I said (and hoped).

As usual, Meredith was right.

Volunteers climbing down to Lunada BayI spent a beautiful morning with about two dozen volunteers at Lunada. The only intimidation I felt this day was figuring out how to navigate the twisting, semi-treacherous path to the beach without falling on my butt. And the only locals I crossed paths with were an adorable group of girls volunteering from Lunada Bay Elementary School across the street. They weren’t too menacing.

The rocky shoreline is thankfully free of the micro-trash that plagues most Southland beaches: cigarette butts and whatnot. The biggest haul came from beer cans and plastic water bottles chucked carelessly from the bluffs. An intrepid group of Palos Verdes High students scurried up the cliffs like billy goats to retrieve trash, while their proud mothers beamed on the beach. The group was part of the Los Hermanos Black club, which organizes volunteer opportunities for mothers and their teen-aged sons.

Including the Lunada volunteers, the Cleanup Day crew in L.A. County totaled 9,556 people at 48 inland and coastal sites. Participants hauled in 29,635 pounds of ocean-bound debris. This year’s group collected nearly 30% more trash in L.A. County than last year’s volunteers. (You can view that as either a positive or negative, I suppose!) Among the items found: a switchblade knife, a flight-deck crew vest from an aircraft carrier, two old TVs, three syringes, nine shopping carts and one human-sized teddy bear on the sands of Long Beach.

A couple of volunteers at Compton CreekOn my way home, I detoured to another one of my favorite sites — Compton Creek, a largely forgotten gem in the necklace of green spaces along the L.A. River.

This tributary is one of the few soft-bottomed portions of the largely channelized L.A. River. A half-mile stretch of lush vegetation sits hard against the Crystal Hotel and Casino, surrounded by concrete and the 91 Freeway. The creek is choked with trash and polluted runoff fouls its waters, but life miraculously thrives here. Turtles scour the muddy bottom, while herons alight in the brush, looking for tiny morsels.

Nearly 100 volunteers donned gloves and trudged through the boggy waters, hauling out a depressing mix of fast-food wrappers, plastic bags and food packaging. To be honest, if I were a volunteer I would view collecting all that trash as a Sisyphean task. I’d wonder if I had made a dent. We could’ve sent 1,000 people to that spot today and we still wouldn’t have been able to remove all the annoying bits of chip bags and Styrofoam containers ground into the creek bank.

Yet participants remain so optimistic. A Filipino service fraternity called Alpha Phi Omega sent a squadron of volunteers to Compton this morning. One gentlemen, with a full bag of trash, smiled broadly as I approached him. Seeing my Heal the Bay T-shirt, he thanked me.

After participating in dozens of cleanups in my tenure here, it’s easy to get blasé sometimes. I wonder what in the world motivates people to get up on their Saturday off and pick up trash for nothing. I know we absolutely cannot function without our volunteers, but his smile reminded me that we give as much as we get by organizing Coastal Cleanup Day. Volunteers leave feeling hopeful, feeling good about themselves and their communities.

Meredith was right … again.

Check out the photos of Coastal Cleanup Day sites all over L.A. on our Flickr album.

And a special thanks to this year’s sponsors: Cancer Treatment Centers of America, City of Culver City, City of Santa Monica, California Coastal Conservancy, Disney, KTLA 5, L.A. County Public Works, and Union Bank!



Aug. 15, 2016 — Longtime board member takes reins from Alix Hobbs, who is departing for new job running the Crystal Cove Alliance in Orange County.

Heal the Bay’s board of directors has announced that Stephanie Medina will serve as interim president and CEO following the recent departure of  Alix Hobbs as chief of the environmental nonprofit.

Medina, a longtime board member and past chairman, will assume responsibility for financial, operational and strategic oversight of the organization.

She will share management duties with vice president Sarah Sikich, who oversees science and policy initiatives. In the coming months, the board will pursue a leadership search that includes both internal and external candidates.

The move follows the board of directors’ adoption of comprehensive 10-year strategic plan spearheaded by Hobbs, as well as a highly successful fundraising campaign to solidify the group’s financial foundation amid a slowly recovering regional economy.

Hobbs, a nearly 20-veteran of the Santa Monica-based nonprofit, has accepted a job as president of the Crystal Cove Alliance in Newport Beach. She will remain connected to Heal the Bay, and has accepted a voting position on our board of directors.

“The Heal the Bay family is exactly that — a family of devoted, passionate, capable and smart people,” said Hobbs. “So stepping away after all these years is emotional. But I depart knowing that we have left the next generation with something much better than what we inherited.”

A San Fernando Valley resident, Medina has held several management positions in the nonprofit and media sectors. She most recently served as a senior vice president of community relations for the Special Olympics’ World Games 2015, following positions directing Public Affairs at broadcast stations KTLA and KCAL/KCBS. She also served on the city of Los Angeles’ Transportation Commission.

“Having served on the board for so many years, I got to see the good work that our staff and volunteers do,” said Medina. “But now I get to come into our office every day! I couldn’t be more honored to lead the team in our next phase of growth.”

As part of its new strategic plan, the staff and board of Heal the Bay is focusing on three key directional goals in the coming decade:

  • To better protect public health, we will work to ensure that people can swim and fish at every beach in L.A. County without risk of getting sick.
  • To ensure a more sustainable water future, we will work to ensure that L.A. County sources 60% of its water locally through conservation and reuse by 2025.
  • To restore the vibrancy of our local oceans and watersheds, we will work to ensure that all greater L.A. coastal and river habitats are healthy.


Aug. 2, 2016 — A day at the beach shouldn’t make you sick, writes Ryan Searcy, our new beach water quality modeler. He’s totally stoked about NowCasting — our new method for predicting pollution levels at popular beaches.

Curious what the weather in Big Bear will be like this weekend? Whether there will be good surf at Malibu this evening? How bad traffic will be on the 405 during your morning commute? It’s easy to get answers to these questions, thanks to your trusty mobile device.

Well ocean-lovers, we have some good news to share: you can now add water quality at beaches across the state to the list of on-demand forecasts that are easily accessible from your phone!

Heal the Bay, in partnership with Stanford University and UCLA, has officially rolled out its NowCast tool in California, a new water-quality forecasting system that promises a whole new way of keeping swimmers safe at their favorite beaches. Thinking of hanging out at the beach near Santa Monica Pier this weekend? Now you can find out that same day if it’s safe to swim or not before making the long drive (or Metro trip) out west.

NowCast Excel SpreadsheetNowCasting is a technique that uses predictive statistical models to forecast water quality at a beach based on observed environmental conditions — such as rainfall, waves, tides and past bacteria concentrations. Just as the weatherman on the 11 p.m. news predicts if it will be sunny for your birthday tomorrow, Heal the Bay’s staff scientists are able to predict if it is safe to swim at a given beach on any given morning.

Under the current monitoring protocol, health officials determine if a beach is safe or not by sampling for indicator bacteria (organisms whose presence suggests that other, more harmful bacteria and viruses are also present). Unfortunately, monitoring results do not come back from the lab for 24-48 hours.

In that time, beach conditions may very well have changed from when the sample was taken, potentially exposing ocean users to bacterial pollution. Additionally, most beaches in California are only sampled for bacteria once a week, leaving it to the public to decide whether to recreate or not based on days-old information.

Our new NowCast program fills these gaps.

Using years of environmental and bacteria sampling data, our team has developed complex models to predict the concentration of indicator bacteria on a daily basis. If the bacteria level is predicted by the NowCast system to be above the acceptable standards set by the state, then water quality is assumed to be poor, and a beach posting is recommended. A new prediction will then be made the following day. And the day after that…

Arroyo Burro Beach, courtesy of Damian Gadal, FlickrThese models are also more accurate than the current method of waiting 24 hours for results to come back from the lab. We launched a pilot program last summer as a proof-of-concept test, and the results were very positive. While we don’t (yet) have the telekinetic powers to predict sewage or oil spills, our models still do a pretty good job of notifying the public each day about local beach conditions.

Over the last few decades, water quality in the Santa Monica Bay (and across the state) has improved dramatically. However, there is still much work to be done to clean up our beaches and reduce the number of swimmers, surfers, divers and other ocean users that get sick.

Predictions are made every morning during the summer based on current environmental conditions. Local health agencies can then use these predictions to notify the public of water conditions before most people arrive to the beach. For the remainder of this summer, you can find NowCast predictions for the following five beaches:

  • Arroyo Burro (Hendry’s) in Santa Barbara
  • East Beach (near Mission Creek) in Santa Barbara
  • Santa Monica Pier
  • Belmont Pier in Long Beach
  • Doheny State Beach in Orange County

Arroyo Burro, Santa Monica Pier, and Doheny State Beach were on our radar last year, and all had models that performed well. East Beach and Belmont Pier were added on this year because of good data availability and plenty of willingness from the local health agencies to help implement the program. Over the next three years, we plan to add an additional 15-20 beaches and expand the program across California — from the breezy beaches of San Francisco to the classic surf spots of San Diego.

Ryan Searcy - Beach Water Quality ModelerOur philosophy at Heal the Bay is that no one should get sick from a day at the beach. To make a decision about which beach is best for them and their family, people should be armed with the most accurate and timely water quality information available. Think of the water quality NowCast just as you do sunscreen – protect yourself from poor water conditions before you get in the water. You should be catching waves, not bugs!

Download our beach report card app on your mobile device or head to beachreportcard.org to find daily predictions for all of the NowCast beaches mentioned above. You can also access the lastest grades for our full complement of beaches that we monitor each week statewide — more than 400 beaches up and down the coast!

Download the Beach Report Card App from the App StoreDownload the Beach Report Card App from Google Play


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

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

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

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

The L.A. River Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Heal the Bay and the L.A. River

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

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

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



July 22, 2016 — Science and policy director Rita Kampalath gets to the bottom of the massive sewage spill that made a mess of the L.A. River.

Perfect blue sky, 95 degrees outside … and the beaches are closed??

After years of hard work, Heal the Bay is thankful that the days of sewage fouling our waterways are largely behind us. But we got a bad flashback to the old days this week when an estimated 1.75 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the L.A. River late Monday and early Tuesday. The spill itself was estimated at 2.5 million gallons, roughly 800,000 gallons of which were captured before they reached the river. A rupture in an aging sewer pipe in the Boyle Heights area had been identified as the likely culprit.

We’ve heard a lot about our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and L.A. isn’t immune to these issues. But the City of Los Angeles’ decision to invest in sewer upgrades over the past few years has largely paid off.

An estimated investment of $200M per year has resulted in an 85% reduction of sanitary sewer overflows (i.e., sewage spills) since 2000. But when popular shorelines in Long Beach and Seal Beach are closed for days because of a spill, you know a major amount of waste must have been discharged and something had seriously gone wrong.

I wanted to find out more about what could have caused such a catastrophic failure of a major sewer line and what was being done to fix it. So Thursday morning, the City of L.A. Bureau of Sanitation staff graciously offered to give me an up-close-and-personal view of the rupture area.

Site of the bridge demolitionWe pulled up to the site, located where active construction is already going on – the highly publicized demolition of the 6th Street Bridge in Boyle Heights. The immediate rupture area was now cleared of the heavy machinery ever-present during the months-long razing of the iconic bridge, but I could still hear demolition crews working nearby. I couldn’t help but wonder if all this heavy construction nearby might have played a role in the failure of the sewer line.

As we surveyed the damage, City staff explained that the spill was detected following sinkholes that had recently formed in the road, roughly at the intersection of Mission Road and 6th Street. These collapses and the associated debris ruptured and then clogged the massive 60-inch trunk line known as the North Outfall Sewer (NOS), causing a back-up of waste, which, given the volume flowing through the enormous pipe, quickly and unfortunately made it into the river.

With crews working around the clock, a diversion was ultimately put into place to direct sewage around the damaged pipe. Cleanup quickly commenced and is still ongoing.

In the early days after a troubling incident like this, we have at least as many questions as answers. We are urging the City to continue investigating the causes and impacts of the spill. What conditions underground led to the sinkholes? Did the months of construction and associated heavy machinery and demolition play a role? What safeguards were put into place to protect the relatively shallow sewer lines during the demolition? The top of the NOS is only 16 feet below ground.

What sort of controls will be put into place to avoid future spills along our key waterways? And, who will be held accountable for this spill? It is also a keen reminder that we need to continue to invest in our aging infrastructure to avoid incidents like this in the future.

When our region’s famously perfect weather starts to veer towards scorching, people want to take advantage of another enviable asset – our recreational waters. But they need to know a day at the beach isn’t going to make them sick.

Barry Berggren, Rita Kampalath, Brian McCormick, and Adel Hagekhalil
Left to right: Barry Berggren, Rita Kampalath, Brian McCormick, and Adel Hagekhalil

So we commend and thank the authorities in Long Beach and Orange County for making the wise decision to prioritize public health and close the beaches as soon as news of the sewage spill came out. But it’s a shame that on this hot weekend some of our best avenues for relief may be out of commission. As a watchdog of our local waterways, Heal the Bay will continue to track the investigation and follow-up on this massive spill, advocating for appropriate accountability measures and preventative actions to protect our vital rivers and beaches.

Spills are fortunately rare occurrences on the river. But chronic bacterial pollution still plagues some of its popular recreational zones. That’s not good news for the increasing number of people who are now kayaking, swimming and angling in its waters.

My colleague Katherine Pease and her team have been collecting and analyzing water samples along the river for harmful bacteria. Next week she will release the results of her study. Let’s just say that if you care about public health, you will be very interested in its findings. Stay tuned.



July 20, 2016 — UPDATE: L.A. Sanitation estimates that 2,853,200 gallons of sewage was released from the broken sewer during Monday’s spill. Of this amount, 829,100 gallons were contained and returned to the sewer system, while 1,754,100 gallons ultimately reached the Los Angeles River. Emergency sewer repair crews are constructing a permanent bypass system to divert sewage flow around the portion of the pipe that collapsed.

We are still awaiting more complete water quality data from Long Beach and Seal Beach.

July 19, 2016 — BREAKING NEWS: Yesterday afternoon around 2 p.m., a large sewage pipe ruptured near Boyle Heights, spilling 2.4 million gallons of sewage into the L.A. River. The river empties out in Long Beach, so, as a precautionary measure, all beaches in the city of Long Beach are currently closed until further notice. Beaches in Seal Beach from the mouth of the San Gabriel River to Anaheim Bay are also closed.

It’s too early to pinpoint the exact cause of the spill, but aging water and sewage infrastructure is likely to blame: The pipe that collapsed was built in 1929.

While no sewage has been seen on the beach yet, ocean water samples are currently being tested for bacteria that could make swimmers sick. Results should be available on Wednesday, and beaches could reopen as early as Thursday.

Heal the Bay water quality scientists are in touch with public health officials and will keep this blog updated as the situation develops.

For the latest updates, follow us on Twitter at @healthebay and @beachreportcard.

Long Beach closed due to sewage spill (Image by Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Patch.com