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.

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