Collecting the Storm
Collecting the Storm Image

When raindrops start to fall here in LA, most of us take cover. Not LASAN’s Watershed Protection Program Storm Coordination Team. Instead, they kick into high gear, prepping teams to go out into the storm to collect stormwater samples to monitor the quality of water in LA’s creeks, rivers and ocean. 


After the recent train of atmospheric river-type storms hit California, we sat down with LASAN’s Watershed Protection Program Storm Coordinator Clifford Shum to talk with him about his team’s work in January and LA’s broader stormwater quality monitoring efforts:


LA Stormwater: Tell us about the Watershed Protection Program’s Storm Coordination Team and what they do?


Clifford: When we have a storm event, our Storm Coordination teams visit storm drain channels throughout Los Angeles collecting stormwater samples, taking measurements, recording observations and documenting conditions. We do this to monitor the water quality within LA’s four major water bodies, which include the Upper LA River, Ballona Creek, Dominguez Channel, and Santa Monica Canyon Channel. 


LA Stormwater: So, walk us through the steps involved in collecting a stormwater sample.


Clifford: Our teams typically use a fishing pole or a modified extension pole with a bottle attachment to grab stormwater samples. These samples provide a snapshot of the quality of the water during a specific storm. At some locations and for certain pollutants we collect samples that are representative of the entire storm event. We typically use an autosampler for these samples. However, at sites where we do not have an autosampler installed or the autosampler has malfunctioned, a team will have to be on location to manually operate a pump or collect water using handheld equipment. And, all samples are collected at set intervals of time to try and characterize the storm as accurately as possible.


LA Stormwater: This seems like potentially dangerous work to be doing in the middle of a storm because stormwater runoff can flow really swiftly through channels.  How close to the water’s edge do the teams have to get? What precautions do your teams take to ensure their safety?


Clifford: Safety is always our number one priority, and we never ask our teams to enter the flood control channels when it is actively raining. Our team members often do need to get close to the edge of an open channel to collect a sample, but teams are instructed to choose locations where there is fencing or a guardrail. We provide our teams with the proper protective equipment and gear and training for the various locations we visit. Our teams know that it is always OK to record that samples were unobtainable because of unsafe conditions. 


LA Stormwater: You mentioned an autosampler. What is an autosampler and how does it work?


Clifford: Automated water samplers (or autosamplers) are electronic devices that can be placed in rivers, creeks or lakes and collect water samples on a pre-programmed time schedule. Autosamplers typically have a pump and tubing that reaches into a particular water body to remove stormwater runoff. These autosamplers help us to simultaneously sample at multiple sites. An added benefit is that autosamplers allow us to collect samples outside of normal working hours (e.g., samples can be collected for an entire 24-hour storm period, if needed).


LA Stormwater: How many samples do your teams typically collect during a storm event and what happens to those samples once they’re collected? 


Clifford: For each storm event, our teams collect approximately 700 liters (or 185 gallons) of stormwater samples across 40 different locations in the Upper Los Angeles River, Ballona Creek, Dominguez Channel and Santa Monica Canyon Channel and their tributaries. The collected stormwater is then distributed into approximately 550 sample bottles and delivered to the City of Los Angeles’ Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant’s lab for analysis. Samples requiring specialized testing are delivered to other laboratories across LA County. 


LA Stormwater: So, why is LA Sanitation and Environment’s Watershed Protection Program collecting samples and what are you looking for?


Clifford: We do this sampling work to monitor the pollutants that pose the highest immediate risk to human and aquatic life or have historically been the most problematic in Los Angeles’ watersheds – pollutants like fecal bacteria, metals, pesticides, and nutrients. 


We monitor for fecal bacteria because it indicates the presence of fecal matter and human pathogens, which can make us sick if we swallow it or if we are in contact with it for too long. That’s why you see beach closures for days after a storm – high bacteria levels indicate the presence of fecal material and human pathogens in stormwater runoff. Other pollutants like metals, pesticides and nutrients are more harmful to fish and aquatic plants, but, they too have the potential to be harmful to humans in the long-term when enough has made its way into the environment. 


After the labs analyze the water samples, we receive data reports that tell us how concentrated a specific pollutant is within the stormwater flow. And, once we have this information, we can determine if the water poses a risk to people or is damaging to the environment. All of this data helps to inform LASAN’s future strategies in addressing and reducing stormwater pollution.


LA Stormwater: Does the unpredictability of storms impact your work?


Clifford: Absolutely. I’ve learned that every storm event brings with it a new set of challenges or issues. I jokingly tell my friends and family that as LASAN’s Storm Coordinator, I feel like I’m planning a wedding, but I never know when the bride and groom will arrive. 


At times storms make landfall faster than forecasted. Other times, they’re slow to arrive. In early January, we saw the rapid intensification of a storm, which created a bomb cyclone-type of storm. Another challenge that we’ve dealt with in the past is the loss of electrical power, which can greatly impact our sampling and communications equipment. It all means that we have to be flexible and prepared as we deploy our teams. And, I’ve learned to always have Plan B ready to go.


LA Stormwater: Can you tell us about your team’s experience collecting samples in the recent storms. Did you encounter any problems  taking samples and how did you solve those challenges?


Clifford: The biggest challenge we encountered in the recent storms was an increased amount of sediment that we saw flowing through the creeks and rivers. This led to clogged tubing at many of our autosampler locations. Fortunately, we had team members on standby who were able to visit those sites to troubleshoot these problems and as a last resort, collect the samples manually. 


LA Stormwater: So why is the City of Los Angeles doing all this sampling? And, what does the City hope to learn or gain from this?


We do this because water quality monitoring allows us to understand the amount of specific pollutants within local rivers and creeks and LA’s environment. And, identifying what we are dealing with is the first step in finding solutions to reduce that pollutant in a waterbody. Monitoring efforts will also be increasingly important as we build more water capture and water quality improvement projects. It will allow us to measure the effectiveness of those projects. 


Although a lot of our focus is on the big storm events, we do conduct routine monitoring and reporting year round, during both wet and dry weather. Even on the driest day here in LA, 10 million gallons of urban runoff flow through LA’s storm drains. We monitor that decreased flow as well.


We’re also working on making the data we collect easily accessible to the public. If residents are interested in seeing the data, feel free to visit our website. There one can geek out on monitoring data using our “All About Water Quality” dashboard. You can search by watershed, understand the pollutants we are monitoring, even download datasets.


A coordinated and integrated monitoring program is just one element of LA Sanitation and Environment’s larger Watershed Protection Program. It’s my hope that more Angelenos understand their role in keeping our local rivers, creeks and ocean clean and the vital role captured stormwater will play in creating a sustainable LA. And, to that end, our teams will continue our monitoring efforts and that means we’ll keep on collecting the storm. 


Photo courtesy of LA Sanitation and Environment, Watershed Protection Program.

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