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Fade from green to brown

Times Staff Writer

A wealth of wildlife was stirring in Echo Park on this first evening of spring. The squawking of geese and gulls drifted across the lake, mingling with children’s calls from the little playground. Palms barely swayed in the cool air.

But in the lake’s famous lotus beds, only dry orange-brown stalks protruded from the murky water, most bent over like weary elders.

They stand as a stark reminder of last year’s lotus troubles and, for some strollers, a hint that change is coming to one of Los Angeles’ most iconic parks. Only a fraction of lotus plants bloomed for last year’s Lotus Festival. And although old-timers know well that lotus leaves and flowers don’t emerge until later in the year, some don’t remember seeing a stand of dead stalks in spring.

“It looks plain, sort of empty,” said Mirna Rodriguez, 14, of Echo Park, who was walking alongside Echo Park Lake at dusk.

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“They’re all dry and ugly,” said Heidi Mondragon, 12, also of Echo Park.

In a park this popular, the most incremental change draws the notice of walkers, runners and cyclists.

So, where did the dead stalks come from? What about all those turtles found dead last year? Or the rumors that the lake’s concrete walls are failing? Is it true that the city wants to drain the lake, just as it emptied Silver Lake Reservoir this winter?

Although city workers normally clear out fading leaves and stems after lotus season, the stems were left alone last fall, noted “The stems have been there, been there, been there. Not that they’re bothering anyone, but I wonder about the departure from policy -- were there just too few to bother with this year?”

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That question is easily answered, say officials at the city Department of Recreation and Parks. Because of the lotuses’ poor performance last summer, they said, workers skipped the trimming and let the lotus plants go dormant naturally.

Only 30 blossoms appeared in 2007, down from hundreds the year before. Park employees blamed cold weather and drought. When the lotuses bloomed too late for the 2006 festival, cool winter and an extra-hot June were considered the culprits. When the 2004 blooms came early, some cited an extra-hot May.

The lotuses’ recent strange behavior remains a mystery, park staff told the Echo Park Advisory Board at its regular meeting Tuesday.

“No one can give you a rational scientific explanation,” said board member Isa-Kae Meksin. And their condition this year? “It’s too early to tell,” Meksin said. The underwater plants don’t send up new green shoots until late April or May.

The lotus problem is unrelated to the 13 turtles found dead at the park last year, said Stephen Moe, the park department’s water manager.

“They picked up a naturally occurring bacterial infection last year, and some of them passed away,” Moe said. He confirmed rumors of crumbling concrete lake banks.

“Some of the lake edge is deteriorating, and it’s slipping down into the water,” he said.

Starting in 2010, the city will empty the lake, remove sediment buildup, add screens to reduce urban runoff and rebuild the lake edges, said Jimmy Tokeshi, a spokesman at the city’s Department of Public Works. The $60-million project will be funded by a 2004 bond measure, he said.

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“It’s going to address pollutants and stressors found by the state in its studies. Algae. Ammonia. Copper, lead, PCBs. Trash,” Tokeshi said. Cleaner water may lead to healthier lotus plants, some park staff members said. Draft plans call for removing the lotus tubers temporarily and replanting them in cleaner sediment when the project is finished in an estimated 12 to 14 months.

Musician Jeffrey Davies, 38, and photographer Nanci Sarrouf, 28, whose hillside home overlooks the lake, wondered how other wildlife would survive the project.

“There’s turtle, crayfish, frogs,” Davies said.

Sarrouf isn’t relishing a drained lake. “It’s going to stink,” she said.

Some residents walking by the dried stalks said they want their lotuses back -- and sooner than 2012.

Jennifer Olson, 32, of Echo Park accompanied her son Liam, 2, who has never seen a normal lotus year.

“It’s so beautiful when the leaves come up,” Olson said. She curved her arms forward as if to embrace a large ball. “They’re as big as a seat on a tractor. They form a big sea . . . and the flowers are as big as a child-sized head.”

If the lotuses don’t bloom this year so that Liam can see them, it won’t be for lack of guardians in the neighborhood.

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deborah.schoch@latimes.com


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