A search for a missing little girl last year in the murky waters of Echo Park Lake may pay off in unintended dividends with cleaner water for the popular spot.
The lake cleanup is part of an ambitious $1-million plan that will also target Machado, MacArthur Park, Debs and Reseda Park lakes. Officials said that plans were in place last summer but were accelerated, in part, by Jessica Cortez's disappearance Aug. 4 at Echo Park, just west of downtown Los Angeles.
A man-made floating island will help purify the water at the lake, which attracts joggers, paddle-boat lovers and fishermen. The biofilter will use live wetlands plants and a below-the-surface air pump to force water circulation. The island, measuring 20 feet across, would be tied down by two anchoring chains to the bottom of the 20-foot-deep lake.
"It's a very interesting concept, and it seems suitable that could be used to enhance the look of the lake and help clean up some of the bacteria and fungi in the lake," said Judy Raskin, an Echo Park resident and a member of the Echo Park Action Committee.
Mike Millen, a manager with the city's Bureau of Sanitation who designed the floating island, said it will be in place by spring.
After Cortez disappeared, police feared she had drowned and divers searched Echo Park Lake. The 4-year-old was found safe a week later, and a woman was arrested for allegedly kidnapping her. And although each summer visitors report stagnant, murky water at the lake, water quality concerns were heightened partly because of the missing-girl case.
Noting that trash could be seen and some fecal bacteria could be detected, KVEA-TV (Channel 52) hired a private lab to test the water soon after Cortez was found.
Those results showed that the water quality at the lake's north-end drain basin exceeded state standards for non-contact-water recreational use, which apply to the park.
The city tested the lake monthly September through November and concluded there were no unacceptable levels of bacteria. But city officials did not dispute the TV station's results.
Some of the lake's water comes from storm drains in neighborhoods immediately east of it. Water eventually leaves the lake by flowing through underground channels to the Los Angeles River before emptying into the ocean at Long Beach.
Other ideas, aired at recent gatherings in Echo Park, don't seem to be taken seriously.
A suggestion to get rid of the ducks at the lake, to eliminate one source of fecal bacteria, raised the ire of Raskin and Judith Hansen, who argue that the birds are a valuable part of life at the lake.
"It's a wonderful lake that should be used by the people who need it the most," said Hansen, a member of the Echo Park Support Group. "Our only hope is that the ducks aren't mistreated."
Some people visiting the lake recently noted that things could be better, especially at the lake's north drain area.
"I've seen diapers, beer cans and bird mess in there," said jogger Arturo Chavira. "This is still a pretty place, especially in the summer, when the families are here on the weekends."
Tony Almada, still puffing after a three-mile run with Chavira, added: "Sure, it could be cleaner. But it's still a great place to come and run, play with your kids, whatever."