When kayaks and contaminants collide

I spent about two months, on and off, reporting out my recent Long Beach Register story about the Los Angeles River.

I could have easily spent another couple months on it.

The story started simply enough: the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board had released its RECUR study (as government agencies are wont to do), this one about recreational uses on the River.

Initially, I was just going to use the study as a news hook to do a story on the L.A. River, which I’d been gunning to do for a while. I thought I’d see what kinds of recreation people could do upstream from Long Beach, and what limited opportunities Long Beach itself had. I’d look at kayaks vs. bike paths, and see if anything additional was coming to Long Beach.

It got so much more complicated than that.

I should have seen it coming. My first interview was with the agency that authored the RECUR study. At one point, the woman who spearheaded the study told me, “There was no ulterior motive there.” I passed over the quote, and didn’t think about it again until I was going through my notes a final time and saw it sitting there.

Because others, mostly in the environmental community, think there was an ulterior motive.

The agencies — such as sanitation districts and city governments in the floodplain — that originally asked for the study to be done are the same agencies that discharge water into the L.A. River. As the river currently stands, in-water recreation use is allowed, meaning water quality standards theoretically have to meet higher standards.

Environmental advocates worried that if the study found people weren’t actually doing in-water recreation, that use would be removed, and water quality standards could possibly be lowered.

This is all extrapolating. What might happen isn’t really a sure thing. Lowering water quality standards isn’t something anyone talks about. That’s part of the reason I could have reported this story out for another two months. Sure, environmental advocates are worried, but need they be? Sure, recreational uses and water quality standards are related, but to what degree?

And this doesn’t even touch on the engineering debacle that removing some of the L.A. River’s concrete would be. But that’s an almost unrelated issue.

As happens with these stories, at some point you just have to stop.

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