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If we want a real river in L.A., we should start by cleaning up the water

Nelson Chabarria says his love of chemistry began in a classroom at Los Angeles High, but he didn’t get to pursue a career right away. His Koreatown family needed help paying bills, so he went to work in the garment district and put the dream on hold for years.

But he never lost the bug, and at 34, he’s about to begin his second year of studying chemical technology at L.A. Trade Tech. And his summer job has made him all the more convinced about a career in environmental science.

One day last week, Chabarria stood in the middle of the Los Angeles River near Frogtown with water up to the tops of his boots. He wore rubber gloves, carried a small glass container, and stepped carefully over slippery rocks.

“Right here?” he called back to Katherine Pease, a watershed scientist with Heal the Bay.

Chabarria filled the bottle with river water, retreated back to shore and put the sample on ice to prepare it for testing back at the lab.

Big plans but big problems

Los Angeles has big, big plans for revitalizing an 11-mile stretch of the river over the next several years, at a price tag that began at $1 billion and soon bumped up to an estimated $1.6 billion.

But is the water clean enough for recreational use, or to be a draw for people to live or work along the banks of what amounts to a drainage ditch for urban storm runoff and treated sewage?

Heal the Bay is best known as one of the forces behind improving ocean water quality in Santa Monica Bay, issuing A-B-C-D-F grades for beaches. But for three years, the nonprofit has been grabbing samples from the Sepulveda Basin and three Elysian Valley river locations where there’s kayaking, fishing and even swimming. Using a green, yellow and red grading system, with red indicating the highest amounts of harmful bacteria, the results have varied from week to week.

Pease said water quality is somewhat better this year, but not everywhere, and not with any consistency. The Sepulveda Basin has had several reds this summer, and Elysian Valley readings at Frog Spot and Rattlesnake Park have had several yellows. Pease, in a report last year, said that high counts “indicate risk for ear infections, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses for people who come in contact with the water.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t kayak the river — I did it last year, and highly recommend it. And it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t walk the banks of the river and take in the animal and plant life. But if you come into contact with the water, said Pease, you should wash your hands.

“I would definitely go kayaking,” said James Alamillo, who helps manage Heal the Bay’s river monitoring operation. “But I would not go swimming or wading in the water.”

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