Silver Lake and Los Angeles DWP at odds over pipeline project

It’s quite a beautiful house. Original marble tile in the bathrooms, circa 1926, four bedrooms, terraced lawn. But the view — the view of Silver Lake Reservoir is priceless. Well, this one is nearly $1.4 million.

Realtors Dan Ortega and Jovelle Narcise held an open house recently at the West Silver Lake Drive property. As strangers mixed with visiting neighbors, a young couple chatted about the latest question facing the community: dig or drain?

In these hills northwest of Dodger Stadium, it is a no-win situation. The outdated, open-air reservoir that helps give the town its charm no longer meets federal standards for storing drinking water. To solve that, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power in 2010 launched what is now a $60-million, 4,900-foot bypass project to re-route water from the L.A. Aqueduct to two underground reservoirs to be built in nearby Griffith Park.

As the project nears the lake, though, the dilemma is this:

Should the DWP tear up shore-hugging West Silver Lake Drive to embed the next section of the 51/2-foot-wide pipe — snarling traffic and producing debris and noise? Or would it be better to drain the reservoir and run the pipe through the lake bed, leaving the beautiful house — with its Juliet window the owners added to optimize the lake view — gazing at 96 acres of muck for 18 months?

“How horrible,” the young woman said, as she stood in the kitchen, the window just behind her.

“Yeah. I can’t believe that will ever happen,” the man said of draining the lake.

“It’s like, dig or drain?” the woman said. Then she added, half-jokingly, that any attempt to drain the reservoir would cause swarms of mothers to chain themselves and their babies to the fence around the reservoir in protest.

The DWP knows there is no easy answer.

“We want to make sure everyone understands what’s going to happen, and understands well,” said Glenn Singley, director of water engineering and technical services at the DWP. To that end, a community meeting will be held July 11, after which the agency hopes to have a decision.

Downtown L.A. is just five miles away. But this is Silver Lake, where hills rise on all sides of the reservoir to create a separate world, as if trapped in a snow globe, a place where the local liquor store has hardwood floors, oak barrel displays, and a wine, cheese and breadbasket combo in the window.

A home here can go for 25% more if it has a view of the blue-gray waters, once part of a chain of reservoirs supplying DWP customers across the L.A. Basin.

Jerome Courshon lives near where Glendale Boulevard turns into Rowena Avenue, near the initial stages of the project. He doesn’t have a lake view and endured nine months of digging. He talks of the whine of the generators, the machines crushing concrete, the trucks’ beep … beep … beep when they back up. It was unbearable, he said.

Courshon was so incensed, he created a Facebook page where he posted videos of the construction. In one he measures the noise with a decibel meter. The result: about 100 decibels, roughly equivalent to a power lawn mower.

There were health complaints, too. Marta Mathieu has lived in the area for 24 years. The 77-year-old said the debris kicked up by the digging exacerbated her bronchial problem — she coughs repeatedly on the phone, “Excuse me,” she said. “I guess that was a sample.”

“We have increased our dust control measures and believe those issues are under control,” the DWP’s Singley said in an email, noting that workers now routinely moisten the construction area to prevent dirt and particulate matter from clouding the air.

Near Waverly Drive and Glendale Boulevard, hairstylist David Hinds cursed as if it was punctuation when asked about the DWP project. Hinds said that during construction, his business dropped 30%. He opened his scheduling book, pointing to hours of blank space during construction, then to pages filled with names after construction stopped.

When asked “Dig or drain?,” Hinds said, “Let them deal with all the traffic.... Let them see what it’s like.”

Hinds said when he and others complained, the DWP lent them air cleaners, coupons for a carwash — $6.99, an “Express Wash,” according to the ticket stub — and yellow earplugs. The sight of his unopened earplugs brings a scoff from Hinds.

The community uproar over the early digging is partly why the DWP is considering draining the 800-million-gallon reservoir. The other reason is cost: The latest estimate puts the lake-bed option at nearly $20 million less.

Singley said the agency is now about “75% for going through the reservoir.”

The DWP previously had looked into draining the reservoir for the pipeline, he said, but the California Department of Public Health worried about seepage and the pressure the lake would later put on the pipe. But if the pipe does run through the reservoir, Singley assured, it would be coated in concrete, which should take care of such problems.

A supplemental environmental impact report is still needed; but if everything works out, draining could start by the end of next year.

The reservoir has been emptied before. The last time was in 2008 for about five months. The DWP needed to eliminate water contaminated by bromate, a carcinogen formed by the interaction of bright sunlight, chlorine and natural bromides that exist in groundwater. Faced with the problem again, plus an inability to control it to meet stricter federal standards, the DWP pulled the lake out of the supply system.

Draining the water again would not go down easy with residents. On most days the 2.2-mile jogging path that circles the lake is covered with clusters of people, especially mothers and their children, or as Silver Lake resident and real estate agent Gary Gershunoff puts it, the “tattoos and baby strollers” crowd.

Wearing a white straw fedora, Gershunoff drives the hilly streets and points to homes designed by John Lautner, Richard Neutra and William Kesling, while sprinkling four-letter words in the conversation about Streamline Moderne architecture.

An empty reservoir, even for 18 months, would slow the housing recovery in the area and hurt local businesses that see the lake view as a perk, Gershunoff said.

“It’s counterproductive for what’s going on in the neighborhood,” he said, noting that Southern California home sales in May were up 21%. “We just came out of the worst recession, and if you look at the May statistics.... Huge.”

Around the south end of the lake, Caren Singer raised community hell when she found out the project involved cutting down seven trees at a park dubbed the Grassy Knoll. She then learned that a portion of the park would be temporarily torn up.

Whichever way the DWP decides to proceed with the pipeline project, Singley said, the end will be a positive.

“The most likely scenario is that we would lease the entire property to the Department of Recreation and Parks,” he said.

Down the street from the beautiful house with the Juliet window is Seth Gillum’s childhood home, where as a boy he pedaled the green play-car now decorating the living room. The lake holds fond memories for him.

“I think that all the options are awful,” he said. “It’s a choice of evils.”