I moved to a rented cottage in Silver Lake in 1980, a transplanted New Yorker who was charmed by the neighborhood. The lake was an oasis from urban congestion, a surprising, tiny sea of calm close to downtown. In those days, there was no walking path as there is now, not even a sidewalk, and it took more than one hit and run death, and many years of work, to mobilize the community and City Council members and create a safe walking path around the lake's 2.2 mile perimeter. Since then, the reservoir has become a destination for walkers and joggers from the neighborhood and beyond. I have met people here on home exchanges from foreign countries who traveled many miles to live in Silver Lake for a few weeks. Mornings, afternoons and evenings the reservoir path is bustling with activity as people seek some respite from urban development and hipster gentrification. The tiny enclave has a worldwide reputation as an urban gem of Los Angeles.
When the water in Silver Lake was part of the city's drinking water supply, it was DWP's job to protect it. But since 2013, new state and federal regulations were enacted that do not allow drinking water to come from open reservoirs. This change ultimately turned Silver Lake into what many are calling Silver Hole, a dusty lake bed that looks more like a strip mine than an urban oasis. And the story of why it may stay that way has left residents and visitors alike shaking their heads in disappointment and disbelief.
In response to those state regulations, a covered reservoir, called the Headworks, had to be constructed by the LA Department of Water and Power in Griffith Park. As part of that project, piping had to be installed to connect that water with the rest of the city water supply that flows through a pipe under the Silver Lake reservoir. DWP told the community a few years ago that some construction would take place under West Silver Lake Boulevard. But in a move that DWP said would cut their costs and also shorten the roadway construction time considerably, they proposed draining the lake and laying the final section of pipes under the lake bed. The proposal was presented as a fait accompli, never up for discussion, and residents were told that as soon as construction was done, the lake would quickly be refilled. Many in the neighborhood feel especially gullible now and wish, with 20/20 hindsight, that they had fought harder to keep the water and opt for street construction. But we had faith in DWP's promises.
The pipeline project is about to be completed by the end of 2016 and it has become painfully obvious that while promises were made, no real planning for restoring water to the reservoir was done. DWP is now unsure where the water to refill Silver Lake will actually come from. They say they were surprised that a drought intervened, even though drought conditions were apparent at the time the final EIR for the project was filed in 2006. Apparently, they were counting on El Nino to rain down and somehow provide 400 million gallons of water, and a place to store it until construction was completed. This would have required a flood of Biblical proportions, and, Donald Trump notwithstanding, I just don't think the Almighty is that angry.
Several community meetings have accomplished nothing beyond rehashing construction progress reports, revealing that using drinking water would not be an ideal option, and indicating that even though pipeline construction is due to end in December, DWP is still exploring an appropriate source of water to refill the lake. The community meetings give residents an opportunity to vent or present wild ideas that would take years and millions of dollars to execute if people could ever agree to them. There are two more such meetings on the docket, the next one tonight, on Tuesday September 20.
On the DWP website, progress reports and promises continue: "LADWP is considering and planning for water sources other than drinking water such as the Los Angeles River, recycled water and or stormwater, all of which require some amount of additional offsite infrastructure to be designed and built," states the latest report.
So there is still no defined water source, no real timeline, no cost estimate, no assurance that Silver Hole will not be the new normal for years to come, and no acceptable explanation for how we are at this standstill.
Their lack of planning and leadership--along with a deafening silence from the Mayor's office and nothing but waffling from Mitch O'Farrell and David Ryu, the two council members whose districts divide the lake in half--has caused alarmed residents to take action.
Silver Lake Forward, a non-profit whose objective is to get the water back in the lake using an eco-friendly water source but also create additional greenspace and landscaping, has posted a formal website with renderings that its president, Robert Soderstrom, admits "will take years" to bring to fruition, given the environmental impact reports and design, planning and fundraising that will be required. Soderstrom points out that Los Angeles is "park poor" and that we should think about reinventing the reservoir space. (On their board is Mia Lehrer, whose design firm won the bid to create a blueprint for the renovation and redesign of the grounds surrounding the reservoir in 1998. The fact that Lehrer is involved in the current efforts of Silver Lake Forward 19 years later, and that over those years not much has changed at the space besides the addition of a grassy meadow for picnics, speaks volumes about how quickly projects like these get completed). And aren't there many other neighborhoods that could benefit so much more from additional world-class green space, like Watts and South LA to name just two?
While a reinvention of Silver Lake may win national and international awards for its design, how many of LA's residents from not only park poor but just plain poor neighborhoods will be able to avail themselves of those benefits? For some kids in South LA, Silver Lake might as well be an international destination.They will never get here and may not even know it exists.
Refill Silver Lake Now, an upstart non-profit whose only objective is to urge DWP to keep its promise and refill the lake as quickly as possible, has circulated online and hard copy petitions that have gathered over 2,000 signatures, 30% from residents not in the Silver Lake zip code.
So far, the two organizations have not joined forces. As long as DWP senses that the community is not united in its desire to first and foremost refill the lake, I feel it will be more than happy to just sit back and wait. That will make their lack of a real plan a non-issue. DWP indicated in an emailed response to my questions that they would not want to refill the lake if they felt that a future plan for development would require that it be drained again to make way for landscaping, removal of the concrete walls or some other construction project. Some of the plans thrown out at community meetings range from the ridiculous to the sublime, from a swimming hole to an amphitheater, to a boat basin to a Zen meditation garden to a replica of the Chicago waterfront. Removing the concrete walls to "beautify" and add greenery to the space, for instance, would take thousands of truck trips over a period of years to accomplish and could not be done if water was in the reservoir.
Silver Lake is more than a name, it's almost a state of mind. There are nearly as many Priuses parked in our driveways as there are on a Toyota sales lot. We recycle, we love our coyotes and the blue herons that nest in the eucalyptus trees that surround the lake. We are concerned people who want to do the right thing. But at some point doesn't it just make sense to restore this neighborhood and community resource with the water that is easily available--even if that means potable water--as soon as possible, without spending the additional millions it would take in time and money to find a perfect solution? Work can be done on the landscaping if resources are raised down the line.
Some residents, like Maryann Kuk, a longtime member of the Silver Lake Reservoir Conservancy, have had experience with DWP's lack of planning. "Over 5 years ago, the Reservoir Conservancy asked DWP to begin to make a plan for the adaptable reuse of Silver Lake to solve the regulatory issue that the city and county must comply with...We want to be part of the overall solution...To our knowledge, nothing was done."
And Kuk is worried about the problems that might occur in the future by using an untested water source like recycled or treated water for such a large enclosure with no filtration system. She recalls that DWP engineer Marty Adams was not convinced at the viability of that solution. "I love Marty Adams. He is a great guy. A few years ago he said he did not want to put recycled water into the lake because he was not convinced how it would perform. Potable water will naturalize. If he has the data that convinces him that (using reclaimed water) is the right thing to do, show us the data," she says.
Would the water need to be treated? With what? Would it encourage algae growth? Would it create an unpleasant odor? Would it harm the waterfowl that used to swim in Silver Lake? And would there be enough of it to refill the lake to its previous height? These are questions that should be answered before going ahead with a reclaimed water refill. And the latest information that residents are worried about points to DWP using contaminated water that would come through an 8-inch pipe. That would take 1-2 years to refill the reservoir, as opposed to the 65-inch pipe with potable water that would refill the space in 25 days.
There is no shortage of passion and opinions on what should be done about the Silver Lake reservoir. But at this point, through broken promises and lack of planning, we are left facing the one thing that no one wants: many more months or years of an empty reservoir, and the destruction of an iconic Los Angeles landmark.