Up A Creek: Long Beach's Battle To Clean Up The LA River

A floating plastic bag travels down the Los Angeles River and enters the Long Beach Harbor, where it joins several metric tons of trash, debris, pollutants. You name it. There could be waste from an upstream sewer spill, or chemicals that found their way into the aqueduct system. All of it combines to fester off the coast of Long Beach, creating what environmental group Heal The Bay recently called a “Beach Bummer” when they ranked Long Beach the 6th worst water quality in California.

So where does this plastic bag come from? How did it get into the river? And how do we prevent it from happening again? Finding the answers to these questions is the job of the city’s Stormwater Program, and while their recent progress may surprise you, no one will deny that there is still a long way to go if we’re going to rid ourselves of the “Beach Bummer” tag.

“We have challenges that other cities just don’t,” says Tom Leary, Stormwater Program Officer. His team manages more than 180 miles of pipes and drains owned by the city of Long Beach, and was a major part of the work the City has done to keep trash out of the rivers and ocean. In their report that listed Long Beach as the state’s sixth worst water quality, Heal The Bay also commended the city for investing in their pipes and drains to prevent water quality from worsening. The report read:

Although Long Beach's overall water quality is poor because it sits at the terminus of the L.A. River, this year saw the city's best water quality in three years. The city invested more than $300,000 last year to determine sources of bacterial contamination and fix broken sewage pump lines.

Which is where Leary’s argument comes in. Long Beach will always fight an uphill battle when it comes to water quality not because the city causes so much pollution, but because more than 40 cities pollute the Los Angeles River long before it empties into the Long Beach Harbor. Leary won’t go so far to say exactly that, but shows me statistics that suggest Long Beach is responsible for 3% of the water that enters the river.

That means 97% of the water – and the muck, the bacteria, the trash – that flows down the river and pollutes the ocean is from upstream cities. The obvious reaction is to take those responsible to court, but the city has tried that route before and found it nearly impossible to prove guilt.

“It’s not feasible to sue, nor could we even prove that it’s due to the other cities,” Leary says. True, it would be difficult to determine whether the aforementioned plastic bag came from Griffith Park or Paramount. It’s those cities’ responsibility to report the amount of trash they send into the river – a compliance that the state is supposed to enforce, which leaves Long Beach up the river without a paddle. While upstream cities have seem a decrease in water pollution, that’s not the case for Long Beach.

“Seems like more every year,” Leary says.

Indeed, in the 2007-08 year, more than 230 tons of debris were removed from Long Beach-owned drains. And that was a good year. It’s worse during rainy years, and while it’s great to save more than 200 tons of pollutants from the river and ultimately the ocean, there is still a lot that bypasses all the filters and enters open water. Plus, that level of maintenance and manpower can get expensive.

But this is where that $300,000 comes in. Heal The Bay recognized the city for making the commitment last year to fixing old pipes and determining sources of pollution, but Long Beach has also recently received $14 million in maintenance grants and is eyeing about $22 million in stimulus funding for drain treatment. That may seem like a lot, because it is. But the city wouldn’t be able to keep up without it. The $14 million maintenance grant exists largely because Long Beach can’t afford to maintain the system on its own, and needed help. The $22 million in stimulus funding would enforce 23 separate spots around the city. When you consider that the city normally spends about $500,000 for manpower alone – between $800,000 and $1,000,000 during a rainy year – the numbers add up quickly.

In that scope, it may not seem like $300,000 is a particularly large sum of money. But Leary and his team have stretched it a long way. The investment that has probably made the biggest difference – and received the most attention – is the addition of 1,904 Smart Sponges, made by environmental technology firm AbTech Industries. The Smart Sponge is basically a bucket attached inside storm drains that catches flowing water. The actual sponges are inside the buckets, and literally filter out chemicals and pollutants before the now-purified water safely enters the drain system. The nearly-2,000 sponge systems are attached to more than 500 drains citywide.

Another capable and noticeable addition are the blue grates attached to the mouth of many stormdrains, preventing larger trash and debris from entering the system. These grates allow water through while keeping things like tree branches and plastic bags out, so crews can come along later and remove them by hand. It reduces the amount of junk that has to go into the Smart Sponges, and keeps drains clear from clogging. Seems so obvious, right?

“The private sector has learned to make money from this,” Leary says, noting that AbTech has done quite well after creating its Smart Sponge design. Making a profit from environmentally-conscious products is a rather new idea.

“A couple years ago, there was nothing,” he says.

But today, there is a lot. The city has begun to fill the holes in its drain infrastructure and waits on more funding in the future that will allow them to do even more. It won’t stop the pollution that comes from 40-something cities to our north, but it will send cleaner Long Beach water through our drains and keep the 3% of Los Angeles River water that we contribute from polluting. And maybe that will make the difference in the long run. Maybe it will inspire other cities to adopt the approach, or – fingers crossed – inspire the state to mandate them to do so.

Until then, Leary and his team just do what they can do, at least giving Long Beach a paddle in the fight upstream.

Nets guard Pump Station #06, catching trash and debris before it enters the station and is sent to the Los Angeles River. There are 24 such stations throughout the city, and maintenance crews collect and dispose of the nets after storms. They were installed around the city in 2004.

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