LOS ANGELES — On a recent Sunday, a group of urban explorers were lined up with their kayaks on the shore of the LA River preparing for a two-hour tour of the Sepulveda Basin.

They were getting a crash course in kayak safety from a tour guide with LA River Expeditions, a group that lead tours of the river regularly throughout the summer.

What You Need To Know

  • Last year the LA River was closed for recreation due to COVID-19 precautions

  • A new light system has been installed near river entry points to help people determine water quality safety

  • Kayaking groups lead tours along the river throughout the summer

  • LA Sanitation tests the water for bacteria like E. coli regularly

Peter Wells, 8, and his mother, Pat Beckmann Wells, were paying close attention. They had decided to join the kayak tour as a welcome antidote to a year of lockdown. In addition, at 8 years old, Peter still is unable to be vaccinated, which means his options for summer, social activities are limited.

“We wanted to go on an adventure, there are so few adventures available right now and this seemed safe and good for a kid, so he didn’t have to have a shot. I want him to get on the river,” Beckmann Wells said.

They had initially been looking at trips further afield, but when Beckmann Wells found out that River Expeditions conduct tours in the Sepulveda Basin, she signed up immediately.

“I’ve never thought it [kayaking] was an option here. I thought you needed to drive an hour away,” she said.

Even though she and Peter were excited about kayaking, there were still some concerns about pollution.

“I’m a little stressed and we are going to take a bath after this. It looks beautiful right now, there is more water than I am used to seeing which I am surprised by in a drought. But I’m sure it has a lot of runoff and other issues,” she said.

The group ventured into the water hopped into their kayaks and set off.

Peter took to it like, well, a duck to water. It was a perfect day for nature observation — the kayakers were delighted to spot wildlife along the bank including egrets and Great Blue herons.

However, disappointingly, unlike the tour group, not everyone has respect for the natural beauty of the environment — there was a significant amount of trash in the river. Shopping carts, mattresses and plastic bags littered the waterway.

“It’s unfortunate to see all the grocery carts in the river and I hope they can get someone to get those out,” Beckmann Wells said.

Pollution is something LA River Expeditions are constantly addressing. They hold special ‘clean-up’ kayaking tours regularly along the river, though it is difficult, they admit, to collect all the trash.

One tour leader, Gary Golding, explained that rain can cause trash and pollution to end up in the water.

“When it rains, it’s like flushing the toilet of the city, the first rains flush all the stuff that’s sitting nearby all summer. Break dust, anti-freeze, oil, whatever it is, it can all end up here,” said Golding.

To make sure the river is safe for kayaking and other recreational use like fishing, the LA City Sanitation Department regularly tests the water quality for harmful bacteria.

Mas Dojiri, assistant general manager of LA Department of Sanitation and Environment, said they test specifically for E. coli.

“We take water quality samples along the river at the input point of the kayaks and the output point of the kayaks and mid-range of the kayaking area. We do bacterial analysis to make sure they meet water quality standards, that the water actually is of good quality and is safe to recreate in,” said Dojiri.

LA Sanitation has also installed water quality beacons along the river edge to help people determine each day if the water is safe to use. The beacons light up in different colors depending on the day.

“The colors are similar to the colors of a stop sign, green meaning open, yellow means use caution, avoid or minimize water contact… red, of course means the water doesn’t meet water quality standards, so there is no recreation in the LA River at that time,” Dojiri said.

He added that the water flowing into the river from nearby treatment plants is clean. 

“The water there is so good actually and so clean that it dilutes the pollution in the LA River from storm water flow and whatnot,” said Dojiri.

Still, Dojiri said swimming in the river is prohibited, although on “green days” “if you fall out of your kayak, into the river, you will be okay.”

Luckily, Peter and Pat Beckmann Wells stayed safely in their kayaks throughout the trip. She said despite her concerns about pollution, it had still been a perfect day out in post-lockdown Los Angeles.

“It was beautiful," Beckmann Wells said. "It was a couple of hours on vacation — ten minutes from home.”

Peter summed it up, “it was an adventure!”