A peek behind the Machado Lake restoration story

jc-mg-200-names.jpgMark Gold writes: The LA Times Sunday edition featured a nice story on an important environmental restoration project at Machado Lake in Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Wilmington. The 231-acre park is a badly neglected piece of Los Angeles wedged in between Harbor College, a golf course, and a refinery.

What the Times failed to mention, though, is the real catalyst for the $140 million project to clean up both the highly degraded Machado Lake and the Wilmington Drain, which carries runoff to the lake and ultimately to the LA Harbor. These water bodies are so polluted that they are listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act for eutrophication (algae caused by nutrient overloads in the water), toxic metals, and DDT and PCBs, banned organochlorines that still linger in this environment. The city of LA is required to clean up these polluted water bodies because of state and federal water quality requirements. And the project will the largest by far undertaken under Proposition O--the $500 million city water quality bond that passed with more than 76 percent of the vote in 2004.

machadolake.jpgThe reason it has taken this long for restoration efforts to get underway is that the city Department of Public Works has been working very closely with local residents and environmental groups in LA. The LA Regional Water Quality Control Board has also been heavily engaged in project discussions and technical review of the cleanup and restoration plan. One environmental biologist and educator who deserves an enormous amount of credit for community efforts is Martin Byhower, a longtime teacher at the Chadwick School who is active in Audubon and other environmental groups. Another reason for the slow pace is that the city is trying to solve a very difficult environmental problem. Creating a healthy lake and creek system from water bodies with highly polluted water and sediments is extremely difficult.

Among the questions the Department of Public Works has struggled with here are: What do you do with all of the toxic sediments? How do you clean up the lake and drain as quickly as possible? What will be the source of water for the lake during droughts like the one we're experiencing now? And what treatment devices will be constructed to ensure that the lake and drain won't get polluted again?

After a great deal of design and community engagement work, the city came up with a good design for the project. And despite the fact that the local ports refused to take the sediments for pier expansion projects because of the poor structural integrity of the sediments, the city came up with a plan to enhance the lake, dispose of contaminated sediments in a hazardous waste landfill, and not go way over budget.

This may be the most difficult polluted runoff and lake restoration effort that anyone has ever undertaken in California. A lot is at stake. The city needs to deliver a healthy lake and drain and a park in Wilmington that all the local residents can be proud of. And the water must comply with regulatory requirements to protect aquatic life.

As a founding member of the Prop O citizen oversight advisory committee, I can attest to the level of effort and creativity that has gone into the Bureau of Sanitation and Engineering plan. As an example, the Machado team is planning to use highly treated recycled water (sewage treated by microfiltration and reverse osmosis) to fill the lake when stormwater flows aren't adequate to do so.

When the Machado Lake and Wilmington Drain project is completed it will be one of the gems in the City's Prop O efforts--right up there with the Echo Park Lake project and the year round dry weather runoff diversions that have made eight Santa Monica Bay beaches a lot safer for swimmers and surfers.

Photo: A rare green heron sighting amidst the trash at polluted Machado Lake. Courtesy of Heal the Bay.

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