Photos: Gary Lai
At the moment the Silver Lake Reservoir is a large empty hole. Located 4 1/2 miles northwest of Downtown Los Angeles, Silver Lake was once a working reservoir of emergency drinking water for the city. The body of water was also the signature feature that helped create one of the hottest real estate markets in the country.
Now it’s empty.
After 9/11 – in order to protect our water infrastructure – new federal standards required all open-air reservoirs to be concrete capped or be disconnected from the water system. At the time, the decision seemed a no-brainer. But of course, the neighborhood wants to keep the lake a lake! So we’re here at an impasse, multiple parties trying to determine the future of a manmade body of water in a time of drought.
The initial proposed project was fairly simple: drain the lake, bypass the drinking water system, and then refill the reservoir. Unfortunately, by the time the project was ready to go in the summer of 2015, Los Angeles and the rest of the state were in the midst of one of the worst droughts in a millennia. Filling the reservoir back up was no longer a simple decision. Is it prudent for us to fill up an urban reservoir with potable water that is not meant as a part of the city’s water supply simply for non-essential use?
Even if we fill up the reservoir once, how would we maintain the level for following years? With more potable water? The Silver Lake Reservoir is too deep to be truly efficient for recreation and its concrete sides does not present a natural lake setting. There have been a few competing proposals to refill the lake; the most notable, one reimagines the 96 acres as a public park. There’s a consensus that the 400 to 800 million gallons of water required to maintain the Silver Lake Reservoir’s water levels annually would be a questionable use of drinkable water as a primary source.
But I still believe Silver Lake can become a great urban park. Echo Park Lake, located nearby down on Glendale Boulevard, offers a proof-of-concept of a reservoir redesigned and repurposed as a sustainable outdoor space. Echo Park Lake was once a dilapidated urban park, but with planning and funding it was reconfigured to treat urban runoff with planted integrated wetlands before entering the manmade lake.
All of the proposals for the Silver Lake Reservoir suggest some form of bio-filtration to handle urban runoff. But even so, there’s a problem…a big problem. The Silver Lake Reservoir is much larger than Echo Park Lake, and urban runoff alone would not be able to maintain the necessary volume for Silver Lake’s capacity.
However, the Silver Lake Reservoir might provide an opportunity for Los Angeles to create an Eco-District for water – or in sustainability parlance, create an area of “Net-Zero Water”. An “Eco-District of Net-Zero Water” is designed to recapture and reuse any rainfall or pumped water brought into a neighborhood (or district).
This has been particularly difficult to do because most urban neighborhoods do not have the area required to treat water from beginning to end. Silver Lake does not have this problem. As a self-sufficient water district, the neighborhood could use many of the most current technologies to create a great urban recreation area, while underneath and around the lake, a system could be designed to treat water from urban stormwater, reclaimed waste water, recycled water from treatment plants, and any additional runoff water from surrounding residential properties. Clean water from the Silver Lake Reservoir could in turn be used to irrigate expanded recreation facilities around the lake’s perimeter, and perhaps in the future, be polished to fully potable status.
In the end urban parks provide a great service to the surrounding community. Many Southern California parks use water as their centerpiece feature [see: MacArthur Park and Magic Johnson Park]. But even so, we need to remember these large artificial bodies are filled with potable water that must be maintained, serviced, and refilled. Echo Park Lake proved these bodies of water can be used to do work other than just providing a naturalistic backdrop. With a little imagination, the Silver Lake Reservoir could become more “lake” than “reservoir” for generations to come, and perhaps in time simply be known as Silver Lake.