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How the Silver Lake Reservoir Helped Keep LA Hydrated for Over a Century

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What’s next for the man-made lake?

When the Silver Lake Reservoir was drained last summer, most people assumed water would return to the lake after new piping was installed. Nearly a year later, the lake is still empty, and will likely continue to be for as long as Southern California remains mired in persistent drought. As the surrounding community gets used to the massive pit of dirt that is now its centerpiece, plans have emerged to turn the reservoir into a public park.

While the lake will likely be refilled eventually, its days storing drinking water are probably over thanks to new federal regulations requiring reservoirs to be covered. In light of that, KCET has taken a look back at the history of the reservoir and its extraordinary formation more than a century ago.

The reservoir was planned and constructed alongside the city-shaping aqueduct that brought water flowing into Los Angeles from the Owens Valley in 1913. Completed in 1908, Silver Lake was built to ensure the city had access to a three-week supply of water in case the aqueduct should at any point fail. The body of water was named in honor of former water commissioner Herman Silver, who had advocated for a city-owned water provider.

Engineered by William Mullholland, the lake was constructed using innovative methods that were later incorporated into the construction of the Panama Canal. These involved blasting the floor of what was at that time known as Ivanhoe Canyon with high pressure water cannons—sending 94,000 cubic yards of mud uphill to reinforce a dam made up of concrete and steel.

Interestingly, plans to turn the reservoir into a park have been proposed since shortly after its completion. Between 1911 and 1918, the parks department planted thousands of eucalyptus trees in the area around the lake. Funding for the park eventually dried up and it was never completed, but the reservoir has remained a popular recreational spot since then.

Silver Lake Reservoir was disconnected from the city’s water supply in 2013. Plans for a park conversion largely depend on finding a way to keep the lake full. One possible source of the water is the LA River, and the nonprofit group Silver Lake Forward has proposed using the reservoir to store runoff and recycled water. Whatever happens to the lake going forward, it will always stand as a testament to the ambitious engineering that allowed Los Angeles to grow into the city it is today.