River Report Card: How Safe Is L.A.’s Freshwater?

Water quality and public health are matters of utmost concern at Heal the Bay. We believe that you have the right to know – before you go – about the local water quality at freshwater spots, especially if you are planning on fishing, kayaking, swimming, hiking, bicycling, or picnicking.

Our new summer program puts this belief into action by sampling, analyzing and reporting on the freshwater quality within the Los Angeles River, Malibu Creek and San Gabriel River watersheds in L.A. 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 L.A. County Department of Public Health, the Council for Watershed Health, the Los Angeles River Watershed Monitoring Program, the City of Los Angeles Department of Sanitation and the San Gabriel River Regional Watershed Monitoring Program. The L.A. 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.

Check out our map of water quality at popular freshwater sites (Last updated: September 29, 2017):
Select site markers to learn more.

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. Click here to see the data in table format.

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 and RED reflects the highest risk.

Quick breakdown:

  • If a site has zero exceedances, it receives a GREEN mark, representing the lowest risk.
  • 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.
  • GRAY sites have no data yet.

Go Behind the Scenes

View a quick video of what it’s like to monitor water quality in the L.A. River.

Meet the Team

Heal the Bay has monitored water quality in Malibu Creek since 2014 and in the L.A. River since 2015. In the fall of 2016, we were awarded the U.S. EPA Urban Waters Grant. As a result, we have launched a unique freshwater monitoring program in partnership with a local college. Led by our very own watershed scientist Katherine Pease, we’re training five awesome Los Angeles Trade Technical College “LATTC” students to monitor the conditions in the L.A. River. We’re also working with two outstanding interns who support our Malibu Creek efforts.

Heal the Bay Staff

Katherine Pease
Longtime Heal the Bay staffer, Katherine has extensive experience assessing the water quality and biological health of greater L.A.’s watersheds, as well as assisting stakeholder groups with policy recommendations.
James Alamillo
James focuses on water quality issues in urbanized watersheds, and manages Heal the Bay’s Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Environment Initiative and the WAYS Park project.
Alys Arenas
Alys’s academic experience enabled her to develop a passion for riparian and estuarine ecosystems, which was fostered working with the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, Friends of the Colorado Lagoon and Los Cerritos Wetlands.

L.A. River Monitors

Nelson Chabarria
A native Angeleno, Nelson is obsessed with his pet pug, Goose. He is thrilled to be part of this L.A. River monitoring program.
Yuris Delcid
Hailing from El Salvador, Yuris is going to LATTC to get her Associate’s Degree in Registered Nursing. Nothing is more important to her than her family (except for maybe her two cats).
Vanessa Granados
Vanessa is attending LATTC for her Associate’s Degree in Chemical Technology. She plans to continue studying for a B.A. in Environmental Science or Agriculture, and to engage in activism for natural ecosystems.
John Silva
Majoring in Biology, John is passionate about animal welfare. He strives to one day open a holistic care center for domesticated animals.
Christopher Zamora
Christopher’s concerns are global; he aspires to participate in environmental geochemical research and to one day become an activist to improve (inter)national guidelines and policies.


Manuel Robles
Manuel Robles has been the Life Sciences Laboratory Technician at LATTC since 2012. He received his Bachelor’s in Biology from Cal State Long Beach and gets to work on the coolest biology projects.

Malibu Creek Watershed Monitors

Melissa Rojas
Melissa recently graduated from UC Davis with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Management. During her time there, water became a focal point for her studies in conservation and management.
Andrius Ruplenas
Born and raised in Santa Monica, Andrius studied at Santa Monica College for two years before transferring to Northern Arizona University, where he’s currently majoring in Environmental Studies. He just returned from a semester abroad in Costa Rica, where he got the chance to explore while studying Spanish.

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