Taking the Boo out of Bacteria

You can’t see it but it’s there, hiding out, just waiting for you in the storm drain. It’s not a ghost or a scary monster, although it is certainly frightening.

It’s bacteria.

Unlike other stormwater pollutants such as oil and litter, bacteria cannot be seen with the naked eye. While most environmental microorganisms are part of a natural healthy ecosystem, there is a small percentage of them, found in dog waste and bird droppings, that threaten the health of our environment. And, because animal waste is, unfortunately, prevalent in our cityscape and can be easily broken down by rain and picked up by excess water flowing off of yards, bacteria are often found lurking in our rivers, creeks and lakes. When these harmful microorganisms find their way to our coastline, authorities are forced to close beaches.

As you may know, we have two water drainage systems in Los Angeles, one for wastewater (sanitary sewage system) and one for stormwater (regional storm drain system). Wastewater from our homes (showers, sinks, toilets, etc.) is treated before it is released back into the environment. Harmful bacteria are removed in the process. However, this is not the case with stormwater, which travels untreated through our regional waterways to the ocean.

To reduce the amount of bacteria in our city’s urban runoff and to ensure compliance with state regulations (Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs) regarding acceptable harmful bacteria levels in Ballona Creek and Los Angeles River, the City is employing an array of projects and programs to deal with this hidden hazard. “The first step in this process is to find out where the bacteria are hiding and that means ongoing monitoring of LA’s rivers, creeks, lakes and shoreline,” says Vivian Marquez, Environmental Supervisor with the City’s Watershed Protection Program, in describing the City’s strategy to first understand the nature of bacteria, its sources (human, warm-blooded animals or avian) and their hotspots. “Once we identify the type of bacteria in a certain waterbody, then we can figure out their source and develop and implement a best management practice that will successfully reduce the level of bacteria. You must know the beast first before you can slay it,” continued Marquez.

Partnerships with other regional agencies have also been key in the fight to reduce bacteria levels along Santa Monica Bay. From Castlerock to Imperial Highway along Southern California’s coast, 19 low-flow diversions, owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles, City of Santa Monica and County of Los Angeles, divert bacteria-laden urban runoff during the dry summer months to the City’s Hyperion Wastewater Plant for treatment before discharge. Annually, these low-flow diversions redirect millions of gallons of polluted urban runoff away from our beaches and into our sanitary sewer system for treatment.

To address the bacteria challenge at the community level, the City recently implemented a pilot Take a Bag, Leave a Bag program in three communities. Working with community leaders in the Elysian Park, Ascot Hills and Sepulveda Basin areas, the City installed permanent dog waste bag dispensers in parks and on trails frequented by dogs and their owners. Partnering community groups agreed to maintain the dispensers by keeping them filled with reusable plastic bags. “We have to work together to reduce the waste and debris that carries harmful bacteria,” says Joyce Amaro, City of Los Angeles Stormwater Public Education Manager. “A big part of this is making dog waste bags accessible to dog owners so that it is convenient for them to always pick up after their dogs,” Amaro continued. It is the City’s hope to be able to expand this partnership program in future years.

There are several easy ways residents can team with the City to reduce bacteria levels in urban runoff. First, always pick up after your dog. In addition to carrying baleful bacteria which can cause illnesses in people, dog waste can also carry viruses such as Canine Distemper and Canine Parvovirus that are harmful to dogs. Second, only spot apply fertilizers (even if organic) and never use fertilizers or pesticides before a forecasted rain event. This will prevent the fertilizer from being washed off your lawn and into our creeks, rivers and lakes.

Reducing pollution in our creeks, rivers and lakes is a team effort. Utilizing evaluation, engineering and education, the City is doing its part to lower the levels of bacteria in our regional waterways to create a safer and healthier Los Angeles. Yes, bacteria may be a spooktacular pollutant, but together we can take the “Boo!” out of bacteria.

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Comments (4)

  1. Avatar for LA Stormwater
    Yvonne
    October 29th, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    While it's helpful to post articles about how to help the environment, I find that the articles are too long and contain a lot of frivolous (and uninteresting) information. I would shorten the articles and stick to the point. In this case, listing out why bacteria is harmful to the water and giving tips on how to help keep the water clean. Also, I was wondering if cat waste was also an issue. Thanks.

  2. Avatar for LA Stormwater
    minxfilms@sbcglobal.net
    October 30th, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Claudia U. /minxfilms
    Hello,
    I would like to share my thoughts, but if you click on, share this
    article, it wont open.
    We own two dogs and we are very concerned about picking up after our
    dog,
    I would say we share that with about 90% of all dog owners, there are
    always some black sheeps.
    We live on Mariposa Ave and just spent one saturday cleaning up the
    Melrose 101 Freeway onramp lot.
    It was filled with trash,
    Right next to the onramp is a water drainer. The amount of garbage in
    front of the water drainer is not funny.
    Friday is street cleaning on our street, how come there is so much
    trash just the day after???
    what do they do, when they come with their big fancy trucks, just push
    the trash around.
    They are very good of giving tickets, but the job they are supposed to
    do, cleaning up, is horrible.
    Close to our house we have a school, a lot of vendors sell chips and
    ice cream to the kids,
    where are the trash cans?????? where should the kids throw the
    garbage????

  3. Avatar for LA Stormwater
    LA Stormwater Program
    November 2nd, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Thanks so much for the feedback, Yvonne. We're glad that you enjoyed the tips about protecting water quality and we are working to make the content valuable to our readers. In regards to your cat waste question, yes it is an issue if it's left outside, gets into our stormdrain system and subsequently our waterways. There's a great web page on the connection between sea life and cat poop that you can see here: http://www.seaotterresearch.org/resources.shtml

  4. Avatar for LA Stormwater
    LA Stormwater Program
    November 2nd, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Thanks for the comments/questions, Claudia. We really appreciate folks like you who are the eyes and ears of your neighborhood. The LA Stormwater Program is actively working to keep our communities clean, and as part of the City's clean water 'team effort' there are lots of steps that residents can also do to get involved. More specifically:

    (1) the Office of Community Beautification offers grants to help beautify neighborhoods. More info & applications available at http://bpw.lacity.org/OCB/CBGrant/index.html

    (2) the Bureau of Street Services website includes the option to fill out a service request and also become a leader in their "Adopt-a-Street" program at http://www.lacity.org/boss/StreetMaintenance/index.htm

    Again, thanks for your commitment to the clean water vision!

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