Now that the 2019 summer season is officially on, Heal the Bay—the environmental group known for monitoring California beaches for pollution and bacteria levels—has just released a report card on Los Angeles County health risks at freshwater sites. Two popular freshwater recreation areas in Malibu Creek State Park were studied in Heal the Bay’s River Report Card—the rock pool and Las Virgenes Creek. Of those, Las Virgenes Creek was placed on the “Freshwater Fails” list.

The report, based on water samples taken last summer in 2018, measured for bacterial pollution at popular swimming holes and other inland freshwater recreation areas. Samples were tested for E.coli and other potentially dangerous materials. Colored grades were issued based on potential health risks from coming into contact with the local waterbodies. A green grade signifies an insignificant risk. A yellow grade means there’s a cause for concern and red indicates a moderate to high public health risk.

The grades at Las Virgenes Creek were “not very good,” according to Luke Ginger, environmental scientist with Heal the Bay. Twenty-one percent of the samples there were issued a red grade, meaning there is a high risk of contracting an illness by coming into contact with that water.

“The water was bad. The water was potentially containing some sort of nasty virus or other bacteria that can cause illness,” the scientist described, noting that 57 percent of the time the creek received yellow grades, meaning there was some risk of illness.

The popular rock pool fared better. Seventy-nine percent of its grades were green and it did not receive any red grades throughout last summer. However, the remaining 21 percent were yellow grades. 

Since the river report was based off samples taken before the Woolsey Fire, Ginger was unsure of the fire’s effects on water quality.

“We’re not sure what we’re going to see this year,” he said. “The fire may have had an effect.”

Heal the Bay has released beach report cards over the last three decades that issue water quality marks for beaches up and down the California coast. Many beaches are required by the state to be monitored. But recreational freshwater sites are often overlooked due to a lack of funds on the state level and therefore often go unchecked for pollution and bacteria levels.

“Monitoring is required, but there’s no funding for it so a lot of freshwater recreation falls through the cracks. However, the state is working on that,” according to Ginger. Heal the Bay was able to issue a report on lakes, rivers and streams often enjoyed by Southern Californians and other visitors. Unlike beaches, many sites are not formal recreation areas.

“These recreation zones are not necessarily designated. They kind of just happened through word of mouth and internet. In the Angeles National Forest, for instance, some swimming spots are just found over time and don’t have a regulatory designation so there are a lot of sites out there we might not be aware of,” Ginger explained.

If you’ve discovered a little-known natural swimming spot, it can be difficult to discern what the water quality is just by looking at it. Ginger has some tips on what to look for before jumping in. “You can have a nice clear-crystal clear stream or lake that has a lot of bacteria in it. So, you can’t do it based off of sight, necessarily,” he said. “What I would do if I’m about to jump in a stream, river or lake—I would look around, maybe upstream-downstream around the banks or shores and see if there are any storm drains running into it. See if there are creeks running into it. I would also see what the land use is around there. So, if there’s a golf course or agricultural field adjacent to that body of water, I might avoid it. If there’s a storm drain I would avoid it. You want a natural landscape. You want a lot of trees and shrubs around the whole area. You also don’t want a lot of urban development. Runoff into the water is the main source of pollution.” 

The top worst designated spot on the River Report Card goes to Hansen Dam, located in eastern LA County. Eighty percent of grades at this City of LA swimming site were red. 

Six locations earned perfect green grades every time. They include four sites in the San Gabriel River Watershed and two sites in the upper LA River Watershed. Heal the Bay recommends heading to Hermit Falls and the East Fork San Gabriel River areas for the cleanest freshwater swimming, but warns conditions are always subject to change.

The entire report can be found at healthebay.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/River-Report-Card-2018_final.pdf.

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