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Councilman Mitch O’Farrell criticizes policy to close LA River when E. coli levels get too high

A Los Angeles city councilmember says the city’s new protocol to protect the health of people recreating in the L.A. River was developed too hastily and didn’t include input from kayaking outfitters, who stand to lose business if the river is closed due to high levels of the harmful bacteria E. coli.

At a city committee meeting this week, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell rejected L.A. Sanitation’s protocol, which the department released to the public in October and had previously said was final. The protocol calls for temporary closures of the river when E. coli levels are too high. If ingested, the fecal bacteria can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

They didn't know the LA River was full of E. coli — but public officials did

The issue of water quality on the river comes as Mayor Eric Garcetti and other city leaders are trying to build support for efforts to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the river that runs through Atwater and Frogtown. 

O'Farrell told L.A. Sanitation to come back with a new version of the protocol in February after consulting with kayaking groups.

“A lot of us believe the water in the L.A. River is safe to navigate in a kayak,” he said.

O'Farrell went on to say that any city protocol to close the river due to high bacteria levels should, “stick with the facts and not overreact, which could result in a net loss of being able to access the river, which is what we all want to do.”

Last summer, levels of E. coli exceeded federal safety standards for swimming up to half of the time in certain popular kayaking areas, according to emails obtained by KPCC.

While swimming is prohibited in the river, kayaking and boating is allowed in the Sepulveda Basin and Elysian Valley areas during the summer months. Those activities can expose people to incidental contact with river water.

Developing the warning system

In September, KPCC revealed that at least five government agencies knew E.coli bacteria levels had spiked to their highest levels in years, but did little to alert the general public or close the river to recreation. 

It fell to the Santa Monica-based non-profit organization Heal the Bay, which does its own water quality monitoring in the L.A. River, to notify kayaking outfitters and the public about poor test results. In some places, those results were 100 times higher than the federal safety standard for swimming. One outfitter canceled its trips but at least two others did not.

In the ensuing weeks, L.A. Sanitation worked with the L.A. County Department of Public Health and Mayor Eric Garcetti's office to develop new protocol to establish a traffic light-type approach to closing the river due to high bacteria levels.

  • When bacteria levels are below the federal safety limit for swimming and/or other activities where ingestion of water is likely, called the “Recreation 1” standard, the river is open. Test results will be color-coded green on a new city website.
  • When bacteria levels are up to twice the limit, L.A. Sanitation will send out an advisory to kayaking groups and the general public advising users to be cautious. Test results are coded yellow.
  • And when bacteria levels are more than twice the limit, the river is closed. Results are coded red.

If the protocol had been in place over the summer, the L.A. River would have been closed four times due to high E.coli levels, according to emails obtained by KPCC.
When the protocol was finalized in October, Heather Repenning, a commissioner of the L.A.'s Department of Public Works, said it was “a good next step in making sure that people can not only interact with the river but they can do so in a way where they know someone is making sure of their safety.”

The pushback

But at Wednesday’s meeting of the Arts, Entertainment, Parks and River Committee, O’Farrell, who appears to mistakenly believe that a bacteria closure policy has existed for years, criticized city staff for developing the protocol too hastily and for caving to political pressure. He instructed L.A. Sanitation to convene a group of kayaking, recreation and environmental groups and ask them how the river closures could impact them, and report back in February.

“I think (the protocol) was an example of jumping the gun, and a little bit panicking, if you ask me,” he said.

Mas Dojiri, the assistant general manager of L.A. Sanitation, said he had been pressured by KPCC’s reporting into finalizing the policy prematurely.

“They were putting a lot of pressure on the public affairs office, to a point where the reporter was calling two to three times a week[...]  So we were under a lot of pressure to get this out,” he said at the committee meeting.

(KPCC did not call the public affairs office, but did inquire repeatedly by email.)

"They should stick with the bay."

O'Farrell also criticized Heal the Bay for publicizing September's E. coli spike, saying the group had overreacted and caused a “media frenzy.”

“They should stick with the bay,” he said.

Katherine Pease, a senior scientist with Heal the Bay, which started out advocating for a cleaner Santa Monica Bay, said the group has been monitoring the L.A. River for over 20 years.

“Of course in our name we have bay, but the bay is connected to the watershed,” she said. “I don’t know how you can have a revitalization [of the L.A. River] without thinking about the water quality. They are all related, and I hope everyone sees it like that.”