Heal the Bay Report Reveals High Bacteria Levels in Parts of LA River


Photos courtesy of Heal the Bay. 

Nearly two weeks after 1.75 million gallons of sewage spilled into the Los Angeles River, causing Long Beach ocean waters to temporarily close, the environmental nonprofit Heal the Bay released a report Wednesday claiming parts of the river had poor water quality.

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Heal the Bay scientists tracked popular L.A. River recreation spots in the Sepulveda Basin and Elysian Valley during a three-month period in summer 2015, bacteria levels among the sites were “quite high,” according to the report.

At two sites in Elysian Valley, scientists found samples for the bacteria Enterococcus exceeded federal standards 100 percent of the time, the report stated, and 50 percent of the time in the Sepulveda Basin. At Rattlesnake Park near Atwater Village, the site suffered from a 67 percent exceedance rate for E. coli, the report added.

Such high levels of these bacteria can cause risk for ear infections, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses for those who come in contact with the water, according to the report.


“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,” the report stated. “Tillman’s discharge is not considered a source of bacterial pollution, and without its flow there would likely be no kayaking of the Los Angeles River.”

The report also mentioned the river has been designated by the state as a bacteria-impaired body of water due to high bacteria counts.

Harmful bacteria to recreational zones along the river is caused by urban runoff, leaks and flows from wastewater collection systems, illicit connections and failing septic systems, according to the report, as well as bacteria sources include pets, horses and human waste.

On July 18, a ruptured sewage line in Boyle Heights spilled nearly 2.5 million gallons of sewage, sending 1.75 million gallons into the L.A. River and causing Long Beach’s coastal beaches to close for about five days.


The city is currently tracking costs related to the spill, including costs related to water testing, before it identifies the appropriate agency (such as the City of Los Angeles or an independent contractor) to foot the bill.

Long Beach City Attorney Charles Parkin said a series of meetings with the city manager and other department personnel will take place before asking for money.

The Heal the Bay report also provided the following recommendations for those who come into contact with the L.A. River.

  • Everyone should avoid swimming in the river, particularly submerging their heads under water.
  • Those kayaking and fishing should limit water contact, especially hand-to-face water contact.
  • Groups promoting recreation in the river should provide water quality information and best practices for participants.
  • Municipalities should institute weekly water quality testing for fecal indicator bacteria in the recreation zones during the open season (Memorial Day to October 1) and at other known swimming spots along the river.

While many local municipalities are taking part in efforts to revitalize the L.A. River and open up access to recreational zones, including in Long Beach, Heal the Bay urged the various entities to expand on opportunities to improve water quality and protect public health.


“Heal the Bay is thrilled about the energy and excitement around restoring the river, but it’s critical that water improvements don’t get left out of the conversation,” said Dr. Katherin Pease, Heal the Bay watershed scientist.

To see the full report, click here.

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