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How Poisonous Is the LA River?

Finding out about an ostensibly navigable river in the middle of Los Angeles was like discovering an awesome place for carne asada tacos in China—so counterintuitive it must be true. You can even fish in the LA River, though I don't know about eating...

The author, hanging out in the probably-safe-to-stand-in LA River. Photos by Nate Miller

A few days after the LA River got reopened for recreation on Memorial Day, people in LA started RSVPing to an event getting advertised on Facebook called the “LA River Regatta Club’s Maiden Voyage!” It was a confusing week. Finding out about an ostensibly navigable river in the middle of Los Angeles was like discovering an awesome place for carne asada tacos in China—so counterintuitive it must be true. Damned if anyone had any clue how to get to the river, or whether the storm channel from Terminator 2: Judgement Day even qualified as a river, but if there was going to be a party on a riverboat in LA, that wasn’t as shocking as there simply being a river in the first place.


When I saw the boat on the ad, and noticed that “RIVER REVELRY” was one of the listed activities, my mind filled with tantalizing possibilities. Would there be a big Huck Finn–style log raft? Would I be cruising down the river drinking a mint julep from the open bar while looking up at the US Bank Tower? Would gambling be legal on the river? Damn the cost! A $20 donation to something called the LA River Revitalization Corporation (whatever that is) is a pittance on the historic night of LA’s first party barge.

As it happened, getting people to make their $20 donation in advance was a pretty shrewd move, and one that would help me understand what “revitalizing” the Los Angeles River actually involves.

The Party

I must have looked like Chevy Chase in Vacation finding out Walley World was closed when I drove by the event and saw people kind of milling around a warehouse nowhere near any rivers. I was a little too on time, so it was empty. It can’t feel good for a party’s hosts when one of the first paying guests shows up with a facial expression that says, “My mistake. I thought something fun was supposed to be happening.” Still, the “lite bites,” "Berlin ping-pong," and “open bar” parts of the flyer weren’t lies.

Over the course of the night, the party got crowded at least. I talked to a group of young women who turned out to all be lawyers, you know, educated folk, but their questions were the same as mine: “What does LA want with a river?” “What’s an LA River Revitalization Corporation?” “Where are the boats?” The lawyers didn’t actually want me to mention that they thought there were going to be boats, but what are they going to do, sue me?


Four lawyers who thought this was supposed to be a boat party

But what about the actual river?

Near a projector screen showing old-timey footage of the river when it was more river-ish, Miranda Rodriguez, the corporation’s events coordinator, explained that the name of the party wasn’t a lie but an inside joke. “Of course there isn’t actually going to be a rowing competition,” she said. There actually was a rowing competition in 1990, and it was called the LA River Regatta.

When the LA Times wrote about the regatta back then, the paper asked, “Who's responsible if [the racers] drown or become sick by accidentally ingesting the water? The answer is somewhat murky, although it will probably become clearer as studies are done and hearings are held.” There apparently have been enough studies and hearings in the past 23 years, because part of the river is now open to the public.

Omar Brownson, the head of the four-year-old LA River Revitalization Corporation was also at the party, and he made a mercifully short appeal for donations to his organization shortly after our hosts played a commercial for the brewery whose beer everyone was drinking.

Afterward, I elbowed my way over and bugged him with my dumb questions. He had just been in Washington, DC, he said, going over schematics with the Army Corp of Engineers. They were going to start building a bridge in July, and the federal government was allocating $1 billion to the project, he said. Omar didn’t seem eager to answer my questions about water quality, but he was excited about improvements along the banks that would bring in businesses and investements.


“They’re going to get rid of the concrete on the sides?” I asked.

“They’ll never get rid of the concrete,” he said.

I guess the bridge is always going to look like a storm channel, but at least there will be one more bridge.

Is it safe?

Earlier this month a volunteer group conducted its annual clean-up-the-river event, which takes care of what debris can be lifted out by hand. You’d still have to dodge the odd shopping cart if you brought a boat in and started rowing around, which would look like this:

Debris aside, those who enter the river should know that at the river’s start, there’s a public works facility in Van Nuys called the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant that pumps 60 million gallons of former sewage into the river every day. You should also know about the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a few miles from the Tillman sewage plant. In 2007 the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board found that the SSFL was letting “chromium, dioxin, lead, mercury and other pollutants,” flow right into an LA river tributary. Cleaning up that particular problem is expected to take until 2017.

The safety page of the city’s official river recreation site is all about vests, helmets, and the buddy system, which suggests to me that they’re not worried about someone getting sick from the water. If they’re not worried, then I’m not either.

I went down to the river a few days after the Regatta Club’s “Maiden Voyage,” and legally splashed around in the questionable water. You can too. Just find your way to a bike path that runs along the river and look for a break in the railing with "RIVER ACCESS” painted under it, mind the red lines that demarcate where on the embankment you’re allowed to stand, then climb down and enjoy the city’s natural beauty.


The water’s warm, almost piss warm, but still refreshing on a summer’s day, and it flows pretty fast. It’s no wonder they only encourage people to launch kayaks and rafts. An inner tube would be great, but I doubt the city would like seeing you floating in their river with a beer resting on your belly.

As I was drying off, there were some guys setting up fishing gear. They said it was the first time they’d fished down there.

“If you catch anything, are you going to eat it?” I asked.

“You’re allowed to. We probably won’t though, because…” and then he just kind of trailed off and made a face.


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