With Maria/Mario the goose/gander in the headlines, it’s not news that Echo Park Lake is about to be closed, drained, changed and rearranged.
Headed by the Los Angeles Department of Public Works’ Bureaus of Engineering and Sanitation, the Echo Park Lake transformation is part of a citywide group of projects focused on cleaning up pollution in city waterways, beaches and oceans in order to meet requirements of the Federal Clean Water Act.
Supported by $500 million in released bond funds provided by the 2004 voter-passed Proposition O, Echo Park Lake is one of nine major projects citywide, including improvements to the Los Angeles Zoo parking lot and a wetlands park in South Los Angeles.
Headed by the city’s Department of Public Works’ Bureaus of Engineering and Sanitation, the project at Echo Park Lake--like all Prop O projects--is specified for city use to purchase or improve properties that protect beaches, waterways, and lakes, protect and conserve municipal drinking water, and control run-off and flooding.
Echo Park Lake was chosen due to its use as a flood control basin, as well as its poor water health. Originally built in the 1860s as a water supply reservoir, the lake has since become a storm drainage basin. Housed in two large concrete structures, city storm drain outlets discharge into the lake during flood and heavy rain events.
Water is then discharged into the Los Angeles River. After the clean up and rehabilitation, the lake will continue to function in this way, but with wetlands, filtration devices, and a lined lake bed to help control pollution, contaminants, and erosion.
According to Michelle Vargas, Public Information Officer for the Department of Public Works, to meet Prop O funding requirements, a body of water has to be “deemed impaired on amounts of contaminants in it.”
Neighbors may not be surprised to learn of the lake’s poor health with its familiar odor, dying fish, and decimated lotus population. According to the Environmental Impact Report for the project, Echo Park Lake is impaired by toxins including lead, copper, ammonia, and PCBs. Additionally, a low oxygen level, pH imbalance, and influx of algae add to the lake’s poor health. And of course, there’s trash.
“We’ve heard that,” Vargas commented when asked about local residents betting on what objects would be found in the lake. “We know for a fact there are shopping carts in there, but we can’t jump to conclusions until we get to the bottom of it.”
And getting to the bottom of the lake is only a part of the projected two-year timeline scheduled to begin this summer. The lake will be drained, but the removal of water will be done in phases to lessen impact and will be pumped into the city sewer system to be treated as wastewater.
According to Vargas, the water will be streamed to a sewer diversion pipe running beneath Alvarado Street, “cutting in to it from the curb so Alvarado will not be affected.” Vargas notes that it is “anticipated that sidewalks and street parking will be unaffected.”
“Sludge, mud, dirt needs to be removed.” Vargas explained. “Lime will be mixed in to the sludge to neutralize pH and odor and dry the material faster.”
Air quality at the site has to meet certain standards and regulations, and the project will shut down when “the odor is too much.” Vargas added that huge piles will not be sitting around the lake, but rather, the process will work from the bottom of the lake. The sludge, once dried, will be transported to a landfill.
Vargas noted that the Department of Public Works and all involved parties are sensitive to community needs and would be diligent in moving the project along according to schedule. She also explained that a wildlife relocation plan is part of the project.
“The California Department of Fish and Game have ceased stocking the lake with fish,” she explained. The department will be responsible for removing and caring for the lake’s stocked channel catfish and rainbow trout while the project is underway. The lake will then be restocked.
While native turtle species are protected and will be relocated, the lake also hosts a number of turtles that have been re-homed or dumped there and are not part of the natural ecosystem.
“Non-natives cannot be put back,” Vargas said. Therefore, the city is “working with the Southern California Turtle and Tortoise Club to take turtles.” The club will determine the health of the turtles and will “find foster homes or relocate” the animals. In addition, some turtles will be put up for adoption.
Many of the birds seen at the lake, including gulls and Cooper’s hawks, are not likely to be nesting at the site and are anticipated to adapt by visiting nearby water bodies instead, however, bird populations and nesting will be monitored throughout the duration of the project.
Non-native invertebrates and amphibians cannot, per Fish and Game regulations, be released into other waterways, and will be, according to the EIR, “salvaged and disposed of humanely.”
Potable water will be used to refill the lake, as well as natural storm water run off. The lake refilling will not happen overnight, Vargas explained, as the importance of allowing the lotus, no absent for many years, to become established is a high priority.
“We’re bringing back the lotus–the exact species,” Vargas noted. To reach water capacity requirements, the refilling process will halt to “let the lotus thrive and then refill” accordingly. Contractors and engineers will “have to decide as we go,” Vargas said. “It will probably take weeks."
In the end, the iconic lake will still be recognizable but cleaner, more modern in function, and bit different in appearance. The island will remain in place, the fountain will stay, and the Lady of the Lake statue will “be put back at the tip of the peninsula” according to Vargas, where it was originally set in 1935. The bronze bust of Jose Marti will remain in its current location.
Approximately 4.2 acres of wetlands will be added to provide natural filtration and water level management, as well as additional habitat for returning birds and water creatures.
While Prop O funds are specifically designated for water quality, City Council President Eric Garcetti is looking for funds to bring back the lake’s paddleboats. Vargas noted that just recently, Garcetti and Field Deputy Mitch O’Farrell found funding to rehab the lake’s boathouse.
City Council President Eric Garcetti commented through email, "We are excited for a cleaner, greener and restored Echo Park that's brought back to its original grandeur. We have worked so hard on this project because we want this historic jewel of our city to shine as brightly as it possibly can. In a city as dense as Los Angeles, we must ensure our precious open spaces can be enjoyed to their fullest potential."
Garcetti is also planning a community meeting, to be held this summer, regarding the lake project and its progress. Angelenos are encouraged to stay informed and involved by signing up for email notifications and news by visiting the project website, www.lapropo.org, where plans, pictures, and materials can also be viewed.
The 33rd annual Lotus Festival will take place July 9-10, just before the lake is drained. Go to www.lotusfestival.org for more information. Register to be part of the infamous Dragon Boat Races by Friday, June 10 at the site.
Special thanks to Mitch O'Farrell for his help on this article.