Los Angeles' 15-year struggle to upgrade its water system has reached its final hurdle: negotiating the fate of two vintage reservoirs, one just north of downtown, the other in a wealthy canyon enclave on the Westside.
Facing new water regulations prohibiting open-air reservoirs of potable water, the city would prefer to cover Elysian and Upper Stone Canyon reservoirs with fabric, metal or concrete. But local residents are fighting to have the sites somehow reclaimed as parkland or open space.
Final determinations, which are expected later this year, will mark a historic juncture for Los Angeles, which has long outgrown its century-old network of 10 asphalt and cement watering holes. Some are still being used to store drinking water. Others are being maintained for emergency use only. But by 2015, all will have been removed from service, covered or replaced by tanks.
Once, they were sparkling icons of urban growth. They also were a source of municipal pride, storage grounds for an elegant, gravity-powered aqueduct system that delivered Eastern Sierra water to the expanding metropolis.
They became a liability in the early 1990s when the state and federal government began issuing laws to protect municipal water supplies from pathogens, toxic runoff and terrorist attacks. Ever since the city Department of Water and Power launched a $2.3-billion effort to comply with the new rules, anger and fear have simmered in neighborhoods that cherished their views of open water.
"Our backs are to the wall to get everything done quickly," said Martin L. Adams, the DWP's director of water quality and operations.
It's not just Los Angeles. The number of open drinking water reservoirs in the United States has shrunk from 750 in 1975 to only 115 in 2007.
Six of those are still operating in the city -- Elysian, Ivanhoe, Los Angeles, Santa Ynez Canyon, Silver Lake and Upper Stone Canyon reservoirs. Four in the city are no longer used for drinking water supplies -- Encino, Upper and Lower Hollywood, and Lower Stone Canyon, near UCLA.
It took time to develop alternate plans for eight of the city's reservoirs -- five to 10 years in some cases. It didn't help that the DWP initially failed to notify neighborhoods near reservoirs of its desire to, as one resident put it, "slap big bland covers on them."
But compromises were brokered during years of often contentious but productive meetings between DWP officials and an umbrella group of concerned citizens called the Coalition to Preserve Open Reservoirs.
Six reservoirs -- Encino, Upper and Lower Hollywood, Ivanhoe, Silver Lake and Lower Stone Canyon -- will be maintained with untreated water for emergency use and aesthetic beauty. Eventually, they will become landing pads for waterfowl and breeding grounds for bass, bluegill, mosquito fish and crawfish.
City officials hope to make adjacent open space at certain reservoirs, such as Silver Lake and nearby Ivanhoe, available for public uses.
The DWP plans to cover Santa Ynez Canyon Reservoir within three years and replace Los Angeles Reservoir with a covered facility within the next eight years.
Still to be decided is how to decommission Elysian and Upper Stone Canyon reservoirs.
Eastsiders want the 15-acre Elysian facility converted into a playground and splash park, a proposal officials call a daunting and costly engineering challenge. Stone Canyon residents want to keep their reservoir open, or buried in tanks and landscaped with native shrubs and trees, a job that city officials predict would clog Mulholland Drive's shady winding lanes for years with lumbering trucks and construction equipment.
"We're hoping the Elysian issue will be resolved by the end of the year," said Sallie Neubauer, of the Coalition to Preserve Open Reservoirs, which was created in 1988 after the DWP announced plans to cap Elysian with an aluminum roof.
"Our mission is to see those 15 acres added to adjacent Elysian Park," she said. "It's the backyard of communities such as Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights, which are crying out for more parklands."
Andrew Sears, president of a group called the Committee to Save Silver Lake's Reservoirs as well as a member of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, agreed.
"The city needs Elysian Reservoir to become a park," Sears said. "Not a big tarp bouncing sunlight back into the sky."
From a vista point in the steep hills just north of Dodger Stadium, Glenn Singley, the DWP's director of water engineering, looked out on a breathtaking view of little blue Elysian Reservoir and the downtown skyline.
"It would cost roughly $10 million to cover it," he said. "On the other hand, we could bury its water in tanks, fill it with dirt and put a playground on top of it at a cost of about $125 million. There may not be such financing available outside of a water rate hike for customers."