River Report Card: How Safe Is The Freshwater In Los Angeles?

Water quality and public health are matters of utmost concern at Heal the Bay. We believe that nobody should get sick from a day of fishing, kayaking or swimming. Our River Report Card puts this belief into action by sampling, analyzing, and reporting on water quality in popular freshwater recreation areas within the Los Angeles River, Malibu Creek and San Gabriel River watersheds in LA County. The goal is simple: to empower you to make informed decisions and minimize your risk of getting sick.

We’re currently monitoring bacteria levels at multiple freshwater locations near popular recreation zones, in coordination with the LA County Department of Public Health, the Council for Watershed Health, the Los Angeles River Watershed Monitoring Program, the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation and the San Gabriel River Regional Watershed Monitoring Program. The LA River monitoring sites are in designated recreation zones where certain activities are allowed in the summer (kayaking and fishing, but not swimming); the other locations are all popular swimming spots.

Map of water quality at popular freshwater sites (updated weekly)
Select site markers to learn more about water quality at your favorite spot.

Use this icon (located in the top left corner of the map) for more info about the watersheds, sampling sites and a history of results. Go here to see the data in table format.

At a glance:

  • If a site has zero exceedances, it receives a GREEN mark, representing the lowest risk of illness.
  • If half or fewer of the criteria show exceedances, the sites receives a YELLOW mark.
  • If more than half of the criteria show exceedances, the site receives a RED mark, reflecting the highest risk of illness.
  •  If there has been significant rainfall in the last 72 hours, site markers will appear BLUE, and we highly advise staying out of the river channel.
  • GRAY sites have no data yet.

Download the River Report Card

Read River Report Card summary en Español

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What do these freshwater monitoring results mean?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Regional Water Quality Control Board have set maximum limits for acceptable amounts of bacteria in waterbodies. Each week during the summer months, the map above is refreshed with the latest test results, including the number of times bacteria thresholds are exceeded at specific sampling sites within our watersheds. The greater the number of exceedances, the greater the risk of getting sick at that location. So GREEN represents the lowest risk of illness and RED reflects the highest risk of illness.

You can get more water quality information about specific locations from the City of LA Make sure you check out our Annual River Report Card for a full analysis of last season.

COVID-19 Update

Our tests do not detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus in the water, but they do detect fecal indicator bacteria (FIB). The COVID-19 virus has been detected in sewage, indicating that fecal matter from infected individuals can contain the virus. We do not know how long the virus survives in sewage or in water, and we do not know if someone can contract the COVID-19 disease from coming into contact with water. Experts have stated that the transmission risk in water is likely very low because the virus mainly spreads through person-to-person contact. Since COVID-19 and FIB both enter our waterways through sewage, measuring FIB concentrations can help keep people safe from both.

About the River Report Card

Heal the Bay believes people have a right to know about the conditions of local waterbodies, and to make informed decisions about how they want to experience them. Heal the Bay began monitoring freshwater recreation sites in 2014 and developed the River Report Card program in 2017 to provide easy-to-understand water quality information to the public.

Water quality grades are based on the levels of fecal indicator bacteria (E. coli and/or 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 notifying the public in L.A. River recreation zones as well as public outreach through emails, websites, and other online means by government agencies collecting water quality information. The annual River Report Card includes additional recommendations for water quality monitoring and public notification protocols to protect public health. 

Heal the Bay also manages the Beach Report Card and NowCast, available at beachreportcard.org, which provides A-to-F letter-grades for water quality at hundreds of beaches on the West Coast.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a watershed?
From Summit to Sea, our watersheds in Los Angeles County and Southern California are a critical part to a healthy environment. A healthy watershed provides services such as water purification, water storage and supply, habitat for plants and animals, natural flood control, as well as wonderful places for the public to enjoy recreational activities like biking, kayaking, or picnics in the park. Urbanization and people’s behaviors affect our watersheds and unfortunately many of our watersheds face major challenges from pollution, loss of open space, and alteration through channelization and being encased in concrete. It is important to monitor the health of our watersheds (e.g. through water quality testing, habitat assessments, access to open space) so that we can identify areas that need to be protected or improved and work towards making our watersheds healthy for all. Check out this video on YouTube for a quick explanation on watersheds.

What kind of bacteria is being tested in the water?
At freshwater sites within L.A. County watersheds, Heal the Bay tests for two types of bacteria: E. coli and Enterococcus. For both of these, we look at single-sample bacteria levels (our results from one day of testing) as well as the geometric mean (an average of all test results within the last month, which isn’t heavily affected by outliers that can occur during a single-sample test). So in total there are four criteria that we assess.

What illnesses are associated with these bacteria?
E. coli and Enterococcus are fecal indicator bacteria (FIB). FIB, while not necessarily harmful themselves, indicate the possible presence of pathogenic bacteria. These in turn are known to cause ear infections, skin rashes, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses. High levels of FIB are particularly concerning in areas where people come in direct contact with water through activities like swimming, fishing and kayaking.

Will I get sick if I kayak or swim?
The likelihood that you will get sick depends on a number of factors – the water quality that day as well as your own behaviors, which can minimize your risk. When bacteria levels are high in the water, your chance of getting sick increases. The bacteria thresholds set forth by the U.S. EPA and the Regional Water Quality Control Board are based on epidemiological studies (the study of public health, which informs policy decisions and preventive healthcare practices) and risk levels. Recreating in waters that are over accepted bacteria limits means that there may be an increased risk of illness when you come in contact with water, but an increased risk is not a guarantee that you will get sick. Certain activities are riskier than others; for instance, swimming and submerging your head is riskier than wading or kayaking, which is riskier than hiking or biking nearby (at least with regards to picking up a waterborne illness). It all depends on how likely you are to ingest or contact water. But whether we realize it or not, we all make decisions every day based on risk, such as driving a car, eating questionable leftovers or playing a sport. Deciding what to do with this water quality information depends on the level of risk you are comfortable with.

How can I keep safe if I do go?
Check the most recent water quality results through Heal the Bay. And follow these best practices to minimize your risk of getting sick: limit water contact, particularly avoiding hand-to-face water contact and water ingestion, entering the water with an open wound, if immunocompromised or after a rainfall. After water contact, rinse off with soap and water. We also encourage you to learn more about local water quality issues and engage with local government and non profit organizations when you have questions by reaching out to them via phone, email and social media.

How does water become polluted?
Bacteria can enter a waterbody in a number of ways: urban runoff, leaks and flows from wastewater collection systems, illicit connections and failing septic systems. Sources for bacteria also include pets, horses, wildlife and human waste.

Does Heal the Bay support kayaking or other recreational uses along waterbodies?
Heal the Bay has long advocated for public access and use of open spaces and waterways, whether it is in Compton Creek, Malibu Creek State Park, Ballona Wetlands, L.A. River or the Santa Monica Bay. Benefits from utilizing these open spaces are clear in terms of individual, business and community health as well as fostering environmental stewardship and engagement. We believe that the public has a right to know about the conditions of local waterbodies, and to make informed decisions about how they want to experience them.

Why are there no sites in the Lower L.A. River?
The Lower L.A. River (south of downtown L.A.) does not currently have any designated zones where water recreation is allowed, besides in the estuary or where the River meets the ocean. Most of the River in the lower portion of the watershed is completely concrete, compared to the soft-bottom (non-concrete bottom) areas in the Sepulveda Basin and Elysian Valley. The lower, concreted portion of the Los Angeles River is mostly inaccessible and uninviting, or even dangerous, for people. However, a revitalization plan for the Lower L.A. River is being formulated through the Lower L.A. River Revitalization Plan Working Group. As a member of this working group, Heal the Bay is fighting for better access and improved water quality and habitat, so that recreational uses could be allowed in the Lower L.A. River in the future, as they are now in the upper parts of the River.

Where can I find more information about the water quality at my favorite beach?
We have just the app for you: Beach Report Card. In there you’ll find weekly water quality grades for hundreds of beaches up and down the California coast.

Additional Resources