10 Sep Trash Sort during Covid – A Snapshot of our River in 2020
You don’t need us to tell you the world has changed in dramatic and challenging ways. The impacts of COVID-19 have touched all of us as, and have impacted Black, Latino/a and Indigenous communities overwhelmingly harder than white communities. As all communities focus on the health and safety of their loved ones, we’ve all limited our social interactions and public events. It bears repeating: wear a mask, wash your hands, and maintain social distance.
FoLAR postponed our annual April CleanUp, and even now we are devising safe ways for our volunteers to do their part in tending to the LA River. With social distancing requirements in place for the foreseeable future, we’re on our own, yet in this together for some time further.
We have all learned a few things in these past months – one that stands out, is the importance of open space to physical and mental well-being and the fabric of our communities. With half of all Angelenos incapable of walking to a park (and not all parks being open, due to coronavirus), the LA River remains a crucial open space with the capacity for people to gather and maintain their distances.
The current moment of reduced social activities – even on the River – creates a unique opportunity to examine our urban ecosystem within the context of changes in human behavior throughout our watershed. We got to wondering… what have been the effects of the pandemic and resulting shutdown on the LA River?
Our longtime supporter and Trash Sort collaborator Tom Knox of Environmental Resource Planning conducted a survey in late May. Our Trash Sort is an on-going study of what types of trash we collect from the River, you can learn more on our website. Knox reports the following from his survey:
On one hand, foot and vehicle traffic has been greatly reduced since shutdowns started in mid-March. Human activity around the river has been historically low, especially prior to Labor Day. While we have seen obvious improvements in local air quality related to this reduction in traffic, has there been a corresponding effect on water quality and the river ecosystem? Has this reduction in human activity produced a corresponding reduction in trash and litter that makes it into the river?
On the other hand, this is the first year in two decades that La Gran Limpeza, the Great LA River Cleanup, did not gather a volunteer army in April to remove literal tons of trash from the River. Many smaller cleanups have also had to be postponed, which can lead to trash on our streets making their way to storm drains and into the River on their way out to the ocean. Has this led to an increase in the amount of visible trash in the river?
To see how this has all played out, I conducted an informal survey along with FoLAR staff ( of the river immediately prior to Memorial Day, while observing health precautions and social distance requirements.The purpose of this survey was to get snapshot of what was happening in the river, and whether we could see any obvious differences. We also wanted to see whether we could learn anything that could guide planning for potential cleanups and trash assessments in the summer and fall.
Starting upstream, following is our qualitative, admittedly unscientific observations of five sites, which also serve as trash characterization sites over the past ten years as part of La Gran Limpeza:
Sepulveda Basin (LA River at Balboa Blvd):
This is traditionally the furthest upstream site for our annual cleanup. From a trash perspective, this site has several challenges:
+The site with located within a heavily-used recreation area.
+This is downstream from many square miles of dense residential neighborhoods.
+The river channel transitions to a soft bottom with heavy vegetation on the banks, which serves to catch a lot of the waterborne trash.
+The Sepulveda Basin has hosted homeless encampments for decades, and that population has increased dramatically in recent years. Since there is no formal trash collection service for these residents, much of this trash unfortunately ends up alongside or in the river channel
That said, our team was surprised to see less trash than we expected in and around the river channel. It seems like this improvement could be related to several factors, such as greatly reduced foot and vehicle traffic, and no visible encampments of unsheltered persons within 100 yards of the observation site.
We did see accumulations of trash in the river channel, much of which appeared to from abandoned encampments or had been carried downstream by recent storm events. Again, this is a snapshot in time, in a limited area, but we were surprised to see less trash than expected.
Bette Davis Park:
Moving downstream, this section of river is adjacent to a popular park and immediately upstream from the Glendale Narrows. We focused on the hard-bottom section at the middle of the park.
While there was visible trash, it did not seem like there was more than usual. Since we were looking at the hard-bottom portion, this could be attributable to the recent storm events sweeping the trash farther downriver.
The adjacent park had less than a dozen visitors, and low levels of visible litter.
Los Feliz Boulevard:
This is one of two sites that we visited that are not part of the annual trash composition assessment studies. This site is adjacent to Griffith Park on the west bank and a relatively high-traffic commercial corridor on the east bank. This is roughly in the middle of the Glendale Narrows, where the river has a soft bottom with heavy vegetation.
This site clearly had significant amounts of trash throughout the river bottom as well as litter along the concrete sides and top of the channel. It appeared as if this site had approximately as much trash as we would expect to see during the annual cleanup in April.
This makes sense when you consider that this soft-bottom section tends to snag much of the trash that travels through this section. Our team left this site very motivated to get back here soon and pull this trash out of the river.
This site is at the downstream end of the soft-bottom section, and has much less human activity from the adjacent neighborhoods. The main activity here is traffic on the bike path located on the west bank of the river.
We surveyed approximately 100 yards along the bike path, centered on Lewis McAdams Park. We observed relatively low amounts of visible trash in this section. It seems reasonable to assume that much of the trash that washed down from the upper section of the river is caught in the first mile of soft-bottom, and does not wash this far down.
Arroyo Seco Confluence
This section is not normally included in our annual trash cleanups, but has been noted as an area that is particularly impacted by trash. A quick visual survey confirmed that this section had a high rate of trash within the LA River channel, which appeared to have entered from the Arroyo Seco channel. We recommend that planners consider additional structural controls to reduce this trash.
This site had the clearest link between reduced human activity and reduced trash. This site is adjacent to a popular Blue Line stop, and at past cleanups we have observed a very high rate of trash that appeared to be litter from local foot traffic.
This year we have a double whammy – the Blue Line stop has been closed throughout 2020, and foot traffic is way down. The change in visible trash within the Compton Creek channel has been dramatic. It appears that trash has been reduced by 75% or more. This is an unusual combination of events, but clearly shows the trash impacts of foot and vehicle traffic on adjacent river sites.
Willow Street Estuary
Located at the area where the river returns to soft bottom and the downstream current meets the tidal influence, this is typically one of the most impacted sites on the river. However, we were surprised to see that the site was much cleaner than normal. This could be attributable to recent storm events, but it was remarkable to see so little trash.
It was great to visit the length of the river, and see some bright spots and some challenges. We are now considering these results and planning ahead for a series of cleanups .