The dirty details of Echo Park Lake’s last clean up

1984 lake photo courtesy Gloria Sohacki

By Rory Mitchell

The pictures that accompany this series are from the last time Echo Park Lake was drained in 1984. In some of the pictures, tiny figures dot the background.  Old men sit on benches, youngsters watch bulldozers work, treasure hunters dig in the muck of the lake bed.   There were no fences, and the public still had the use of the park while it was being drained and cleaned. It seems that the current Echo Park Lake cleaning and draining is the first time in its 115 year history that the public has been denied the use of the park.

There were other notable differences between the current clean up, a far more ambitious project than previous clean ups, and the one that began in 1984: The current clean up will cost $65 million using Prop 0 water clean up funds; The 1984 clean up cost $941,000 using a state grant; The current project calls for treating the lake’s water in the city’s sewer system; in 1984, the lake was drained directly into the L.A. River.

As the lake began to drain in January 1984,  hundreds of fishermen descended on the south end of the lake, where the last remaining pool of water teemed with fish. A few months later, “firefighters were called to rescue the two young, would be treasure hunters who were stuck in the knee-deep, odorous slime” on the exposed lake bed, the L.A. Times reported.

The 1984 cleanup of lake coincided with the general beautification of the city for the 1984 Olympics. But it also took place amid citywide concerns about the contamination of water in urban lakes.   It begins with an article in the L.A. Times in March of 1983  about the proliferation of subsistence fishing in the various urban lakes in Los Angeles. In regards to Echo Park Lake, a Recreation & Parks Department spokesman said: “Here at Echo Park the Vietnamese and Koreans use it heavily.”

Soon after, the paper followed up with a story headlined “Fishing for food increases, but so does Toxic Danger”  that was followed up by the news that State of California, which stocks the urban lakes with fish, had not only found unsafe levels of mercury in fish at Hansen Dam Lake in the San Fernando Valley but that Wilmington Lake in South Los Angeles had high levels of DDT, PCBs, and a restricted insecticide, Chlordane.  Echo Park Lake was scheduled to be tested for contaminants the following month but before that could happen, the lake was drained and the cleanup began in January 1984.

By the fall,  however, the fish and fisherman were back in a newly cleaned and refilled Echo Park Lake.

Related Posts:

  • When wetlands grew like weeds across Echo Park Lake. The Eastsider
    Echo Park Lake prepares to go down the drain yet again. The Eastsider

The closure of Echo Park Lake for an upcoming $65 million clean up is far from the first time the lake’s waters have been drained for much needed maintenance. The Eastsider asked Echo Park writer and historical consultant  Rory Mitchell to find out what happened when the lake had been emptied during previous clean ups. After diving into the historic archives of the Los Angeles Times and the City of Los Angeles, Mitchell came back not only with stories of previous improvement projects but tales of the social life, animals, dangers and even smells of Echo Park Lake past. The Eastsider will present those stories in upcoming days beginning with today’s post.


  1. I know that Prop O funds are being used but I noticed on the new white signs from the City state at the bottoms of the sign–Prop O and children’s something or other. What exactly does this mean?

  2. So all the urban legends I have heard about dead bodies and syringes covering the bottom of Echo Park lake during the 1984 drain must be totally false? Seems like it should have been mentioned somewhere by now.

    • A few old pistols and revolvers, several lawn chairs, a refrigerator, chicken bones and hundreds of bottles, many of them 1890s-1920s pop, beer and medicinal bottles. My bud found a rare Coke bottle which he sold on Ebay for $500. I found two Laudanum vials.

  3. 2 years and 65 million dollars to drain and refill what is basically a large wading pond!!!

    Please tell me that this project includes construction of an underground city for 1,500 new residents to take up occupancy before they open the hose and refill the 2 1/2 ft. depth of water in Echo Park Lake.

    The project will include pouring a new concrete slab covering approx. 1/4 the area of an average Trader Joe’s parking lot. The project also involves carefully sifting out and relocating the turtles to an approved interim turtle habitat.

    So that would be $20 million divided by eight deformed diseased common turticus echoparchus. Basically $ 2.5 million per turtle rescue.

    Remember, when the project is finished and the eight $2.5 million dollar turtles are released back into the new Echo Park Lake which has been refilled entirely using half-liter bottles of FIJI Water – that will be mighty heartbreaking for the 12 water turtles who had waited so patiently for someone with a good home to answer their desperate listing in the FREE Section of Craigslist.

    Well I shouldn’t be upset because they will be restoring the small section dedicated to the water lotus plants. I am sure that the little old man from Taiwan living in the house on the corner with all of the lotus plants bursting from plastic tubs crowded onto his driveway – can’t possibly be cultivating a lotus equivalent to the select hybrid which the City has contracted to be harvested from Mars and transported back with the help of JPL and the international space station for replanting in the new Echo Park Lotus bed at a bargain rate of $ 22.6 million.

    I am no expert on what it costs to complete a project of this scope. If I was guessing what kind of numbers would come back if this project were let out for competitive bidding – then at least 3 bidders chomping at the bit to get this thing done for $4 -$5 million from day one to ribbon cutting in 90 days. Thats what I would guess. But what do I know?

    Why risk allowing just anybody to be entrusted the responsibility of a civic project so critical and monumental as the routine every decade or so draining, patching and refilling of the historic old Echo Park casting pond.

    We must be extremely fortunate in our good timing. The seasoned experts of the LAUSD construction bureaucracy are winding down their 10 year mandate to spend several billion dollars of bond funds for new schools we don’t need. If this Echo Park project had waited any longer who knows what other municipality might have lured them away from us.

    There must be a very scarce and special skill required to undertake management of a project of this duration (2 yrs.) and enormous expense ($65 million taxpayers money) as the project now started at Echo Park Lake and also at the same time manage to keep a straight face.

  4. Would you like to also grouse about the weather, earthquakes, traffic and drivebys? Decaf or yoga will help.

    Echo Park Lake may be a glorified and costly “wading pond” in your view, not mine. Happen to have two views — one, from my youth, when the lake was a haven for kids and their families, aquatic and avian wildlife.

    And what it can be in a few years: what it once was, and possibly better.

  5. @DarrellKuni
    Maybe my comment was a little esoteric. I respect your connection of Echo Park Lake to your childhood. I think it is a lovely and special historic gem. I mean no insult to the park or the lake.
    My satire and hyperbole is directed at this project. If you truly care about Echo Park Lake and the City of Los Angeles in whole, then you would start screaming and demand some answers.
    The previous clean-up project cost $941,000 in 1984. This will cost $65 million. 17 years have passed and the costs have risen approx 6,700%? That is lunacy! This time the water will drain into the sewer instead of the storm drain. The new plan includes rescuing some frogs, so what? Please take a look at the project renderings. I don’t see much extra there. I am sure they will do a very nice job and Echo Park Lake will look fantastic when it re-opens.

    Does that mean we should all just go to sleep and wait until the project is finished – and permit Mayor Villaraigosa to use Echo Park Lake clean-up project as a front to drain $35 -$50 million off and siphon it into their hidden accounts?

  6. You yipsters are kooks. All the fish, the turtles, swans, ducks, grasses and trees in Echo Park from the very beginning are “non-natives”. The only natives are the white western crawdads. Come to think of it, the paddle boats and lotus beds are non-native. As are the new clueless yipsters.

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