Troubled Waters No More: Echo Park Lake Reopens

After a two-year renovation, this 1860s reservoir in Los Angeles is back in the limelight and better than ever.

The sediment at the bottom of Echo Park Lake was so thick that construction equipment brought in to remove it kept getting stuck.

But no matter how slow and arduous the task, the sediment had to go. Citing heavy pollution, excessive algae, unpleasant odors, and significant levels of ammonia, copper, and lead—among other concerns—the state of California in 2006 declared the lake, two miles outside downtown Los Angeles, an “impaired body of water” in desperate need of rehabilitation.

It was a far cry from the lake’s earliest days. In 1868 Echo Park Lake began as a reservoir for drinking water, one of several waterworks projects completed in the late 1800s to accommodate the city’s growing population. The reservoir became a park 24 years later, and for decades people went there to picnic, fish, boat, and enjoy the annual Lotus Festival, which began in 1972 as a celebration of the city’s Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

Now a basin in the city’s storm drainage system, the lake was named a Los Angeles Cultural Historic Monument in 2006.

“We knew it was important to maintain the historic and cultural significance of the site, while also making many large-scale improvements,” says Julie Allen, the Echo Park Lake Rehabilitation’s project manager.

Shortly after the state’s designation, city officials met with community groups, and after five years of designing and planning, construction began in July 2011.

Working with a team of historic preservation consultants and Ford E.C., Inc., a local contracting company, the City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works’ project team drained the lake, removed the sediment, added a clay liner to reduce water leak­age, and installed several features to improve water quality, including new circulation and aeration systems. The iconic fountains built for the 1984 Olympic Games were restored, and the lotus beds that inhabited the lake since the 1920s were reconstructed.

Beyond the lake, the 1932 boathouse underwent a complete restoration and seismic upgrade. The Lady of the Lake statue, designed in 1934 as part of a project undertaken by the Works Progress Administration, was returned to the north side of the lake, with its cracks repaired and missing fingers replaced.

The $45 million project, funded by a voter-approved bond measure, came in well under budget, and hundreds of people celebrated the park’s re-opening in June. Pedal boats returned to the lake the following month, and a cafe opened in the boathouse in August.

“There’s a sense of community and responsibility around the lake now,” Allen says. “The hope is that people will want to keep it looking like it does now and do the right thing by the environment and keep the park healthy.”

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