Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

A couple months ago a friend, and storyteller, who lives in an apartment overlooking the Silver Lake Reservoir gazed out his window and then quipped on social media: “It’s like the DMZ.” As joggers ran circles around the lake, backhoes performed a mysterious choreography in the dry lake. The fence that separates pedestrians from what used to be drinking water never looked so ominous.

The empty basin triggers fears as some homeowners worry about how it might impact property values and other neighbors simply miss the view. And for everyone who enjoys walking or driving around the reservoir complex, one big question arises: When will it be refilled?

Although anxiety provoking, the open question is also a chance to rethink how we see Silver Lake as a resource for the city and as a model for other reservoir sites around the Los Angeles area. Located in a city short on parkland and on a site that could use additional amenities, it may not be enough to simply ask for water. What if the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) and city officials took a holistic approach that addresses public space as part of an overall system in the city?

In late 2015, the DWP drained the reservoirs in order to install a bypass pipeline — a 4,600-foot long, 66-inch diameter welded steel pipe — along the bottom of the basin and a new regulator station. The construction is necessary to comply with federal drinking water quality regulations. According to the DWP, open reservoirs in Los Angeles such as Silver Lake and Ivanhoe, are subject to environmental contamination for any number of causes: algae, surface run off, birds, insects, and animals. With the pipeline bypass, drinking water will now be stored in the covered and compliant Headworks Reservoir in Griffith Park.

This past June, the DWP held a community meeting to update the public and address mounting concerns. Martin Adams, director of the department’s water operations, sketched out a timeline for construction of the bypass installation and restoration plans for landscapes surrounding the complex. Still, this meeting wasn’t conclusive on how and when the DWP would fulfill its promise of returning water to the two reservoirs — a promise, seemingly scuttled by the ongoing drought. The initial plan to use potable water was deemed untenable given current water shortages. It would be a folly to pump water from Northern California and the Colorado River only to have it become undrinkable once it flowed into the basin. An alternative might be to use captured storm water runoff or recycled water from the L.A. Glendale Wastewater Treatment Plant, but the few million dollars in plumbing doesn’t yet exist.

When asked about the future of Silver Lake, Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell of the 13th District offered few clues. “We are holding the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to its commitment in restoring the reservoir with water. The Department will be able to share detailed information on the project at the upcoming meeting on September 20th,” he said in an email.

For urbanist Mia Lehrer, there’s potential to create green infrastructure and to knit outmoded reservoirs back into L.A.’s urban ecology. “The reservoir has the opportunity to be habitat, recreation, and water storage that can slow release into Elysian Park, into street trees, or even into the yards of some of the people who live in the neighborhood,” she says.

Lehrer’s history with the site dates back more than 15 years to when she created a master plan for the Silver Lake and Ivanhoe reservoirs, one that would eventually lead to the development of the jogging path and Silver Lake meadow. While the reservoirs cover 97 acres, the overall complex also includes 31 acres of adjacent open space. Any new plan for the park would need to address both wet and dry areas. Lehrer envisions removing the fence and replacing the asphalt around the edges with wetlands. Rather than assuming that the lake will be refilled to its full 45-foot depth, she proposes the possibility of a shallower lake at 20 or 30-feet deep.

Her vision addresses amenities like bathrooms since currently there are no public facilities, issues of connectivity and transportation such as bike lanes and trails, and habitat — this past year, bypass construction staging in the eucalyptus grove interrupted heron nesting season. Additionally, there’s an opportunity to see the reservoir as connected to the nearby bike paths along the L.A. River in nearby Frogtown.

Silver Lake Forward is a non-profit organization advocating on behalf of a holistic and sustainable approach to the reservoirs. Members include a whos-who of Silver Lake creatives: Lehrer, architect Barbara Bestor, Moby, and Beats Electronics’ Luke Woods. Co-founder and president Robert Soderstrom is a Silver Lake resident who stresses that only focusing on water and refilling the basin misses the bigger picture. Instead, Soderstrom sketches out a future that has three components: lake, land, and city. “Twenty-five percent of the reservoir complex is land. What happens with that land and how do we make it beautiful and useful for the community?” he asks. “If we focus only on the water and filling up Silver Lake like a bathtub, we make a water tomb — a place where water goes to die, since it stagnates without oxygen. Instead, we should consider modifying the embankments to support plant life to bio-remediate the water and send it back into the city for other uses.”

One of the biggest challenges facing any new vision, however, is political will. Both Lehrer and Soderstrom note that the future of the complex lies in leadership and stewardship. They are asking for more transparency as the DWP transfers management of the site over to the Bureau of Sanitation or Department of Recreations and Parks.

The reservoir complex, however, is a relatively modest project in a well-heeled neighborhood. Critics might argue that other neighborhoods in our park-poor city deserve more civic attention than a popular jogging path. And a worldwide outlook might reason that policymakers, planners, and landscape architects need to focus on areas devastated by the effects of climate change. Lehrer defends a localized approach. “You can talk platitudes about global conditions but [Silver Lake] is a case study for the future,” she says.

Indeed, Silver Lake and Ivanhoe are not the first DWP reservoirs to be taken off-line or adapted. Bellevue Park, a recreation area on the south side of Sunset Boulevard just off Lucille Avenue, was once the Bellevue Reservoir, built by William Mulholland in the late 1860s. Fed by a spur of the Los Angeles Aqueduct that ran down Hyperion, the reservoir struggled with runoff contamination from surrounding yards and algae blooms. Today, its ballfields, basketball court, picnic areas, playground, and rec center are teeming with people.

The Chatsworth reservoir in the San Fernando Valley was taken offline in 1972 and is now a 1,325-acre nature preserve. Opened in 1919, it closed after an assessment report in the wake of the San Fernando earthquake recommended reconstruction in order to meet seismic requirements. More than four decades later, the DWP still owns and manages the site, which is a rich ecological resource, but only open to the public once a year on Earth Day. The Chatsworth Nature Preserve Coalition acts defender and champion of the native oaks, bobcats, and salamanders that live in the wildlife habitat. Still, longer-term sustainability of the preserve comes under question. Last year, the group lobbied the DWP to refill an ecology pond that had stopped being replenished due to drought regulations. The action raised concerns about the use of tens of thousands of gallons potable water to fill the pond and sparked debate between environmental activists and scientists about how continued refilling unwittingly creates artificial landscapes and supports invasive species. As with Silver Lake, there’s an opportunity here to radically reconsider how Los Angeles manages its water assets.

The DWP reports that nine out of 15 open reservoirs have now been covered, replaced, or bypassed. These include the upper and lower Hollywood reservoirs, as well as sites in Encino and Eagle Rock. In the late 1990s, Rowena Reservoir was decommissioned as an open-air basin and a storage tank was installed underground. Neighborhood groups concerned about aesthetics, such as the Los Feliz Improvement Association and the Rowena Water Committee, fought for years with the DWP for the 5.7-acres to be camouflaged with landscape and water features. While palm trees give the site a Fantasy Island appeal, the area remains off-limits and surrounded by a tall fence. Periodically articles or online petitions champion public access, but continued worries such as parking or swimming ensure that there are no plans to make it open to the larger community.

This past spring, landscape architect Andrew O. Wilcox and fellow faculty member James Becerra led a 10-week design studio at Cal Poly Pomona on the future of the Silver Lake reservoirs. They titled the assignment “Silver Corpse and the Exquisite Lake”, a play on the surrealist games of the early twentieth century and also a way to address the site as a what Wilcox calls “dead infrastructure that has outlived its initial function.” They chose to work on the site because it required the design students to address contemporary issues of community, ecology, infrastructure, and equity.

Rather than feeling anxious about the unknowns facing the site, he and the students relished the fact that there is little in the way of a restoration agenda. Their proposals embraced concepts about wildness in urban areas and suggested adventurous ways to access the water and places to camp. Other designs looked at how to reconnect the edges of the green space to the street. “This sets up a really open discussion on the future of the urban landscape in Los Angeles, a chance to explore a future Los Angeles ecology of transplants and migrant species that might give rise to alternate uses and agendas; a truly L.A. ecology,” he explains.

The idea that parks and transportation (pedestrians, bikes, and transit) are linked goes back to 1930 and the Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew’s report on Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region. The master plan developed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s sons proposes a network of green spaces across the basin knit together by the Los Angeles River. In 2016, as plans for redeveloping the river heat up, it’s possible to rethink L.A.’s reservoirs and infrastructure as parkland and perhaps make the old dream of a nature-filled city a reality.