Will Echo Park Lake be twice dammed?

Not many people know that the south end of Echo Park Lake pushes up against an old dam built in the 1860s to create what was then called Reservoir No. 4. In fact, the old dam does not even appear on a “Listing of Dams” kept by the state agency that monitors their safety. Well, that agency is now well aware of that long forgotten dam, and that’s how all the trouble began. The situation, which threatens to blow a hole in a $64.7 million lake clean up, finds the city proposing to build a new dam across the lake to avoid possibly having to pay for costly repairs to the old dam.

The nearly 140-year-old dam lies buried somewhere between the sidewalk that runs along Bellevue Avenue and the southern edge of the lake. One legend says that the dam’s builders discovered that their voices echoed in the narrow valley where the reservoir was created, thus giving birth to the name “Echo Lake” or “Echo Park.” But apparently those builders never bothered to apply for the proper permits with the state’s Division of Safety of Dams. Of course, how could they since the structure was built long before that agency ever came into existence.

Still, without a state permit on file, the City of Los Angeles might be on the hook to prove that the old dam meets current safety standards. It might even have to make costly repairs to ensure the dam meets current codes. Or, the city could create a smaller body of water, less than 16.3 million gallons, behind the old dam, taking it out of the state’s jurisdiction.

“After studying the alternatives, we concluded this was the best alternative to pursue,” said Alfred Mata, Proposition O project manager for the city’s Bureau of Engineering, in an e-mail.

Mata wants to stress that the new dam, or berm, would be submerged below the water’s surface, keeping it out of view. “The plan is to make this change not noticeable,” said Mata. “The lake surface will look like one lake.”

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the idea of a new dam. Judy Raskin, Echo Park’s resident bird expert and defender, worries about what impact the new structure might have on wildlife.

Then there’s the cost of the new dam or berm. Mata said the cost and final plans have not been determined. But some residents who have kept tabs on the project said they hear the new dam might approach $1 million, money that would be siphoned from the lake-clean up. Still, the money and trouble of building a new dam are worth it to keep the state’s dam bureaucrats out of the picture and avoid spending even more money modernizing the old structure.

“It’s not the cost” that is the main concern, said resident Michael O’Brien, who has been following the issue. “It’s the years of frustrating battle which the [city] consultants would not win.”

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