That Massive Concrete Box You're Driving By In Burbank Is About To Hold LA's Drinking Water

The concrete columns in the reservoir will hold up the concrete roof on top. (Caleigh Wells/LAist)

If you've found yourself on the 134 just east of the 101 recently, you've probably noticed the construction taking place right next to the L.A. River.

It's pretty massive — the size of four football fields — and it's filled with 30-foot concrete columns more than 300 of them.

They'll be holding up the roof of a gigantic underwater reservoir, which, when full, will contain more than 100 million gallons of your drinking water. And, for full bragging rights, it will be the biggest underwater reservoir in the West.

The Headworks Reservoir Complex, as it's called, is L.A.'s answer to the latest drinking water regulations, which takes the old notion of using giant manmade lakes for water storage and instead puts it all underground.

They'll replace the nearby Silver Lake and Ivanhoe reservoirs which have been out of commission for use as drinking water for years. They'll stay full for recreation and backup purposes. One half of the Headworks Complex is already operating, and channeling 750 gallons of water every second to downtown L.A. The one under construction is expected to open in 2021.

LADWP COO Marty Adams says the complex will replace the Silver Lake and Ivanhoe reservoirs. (Photo by Caleigh Wells) (Caleigh Wells/LAist)

LAist was given a tour of the facility before it gets sealed over. See below to get a sense of the scale.

WHY UNDERGROUND?

Workers are pouring the concrete walls for the second half of Headworks Reservoir. After that comes the roof. (Photo by Caleigh Wells) (Caleigh Wells/LAist)

The federal rules that decide whether water is safe enough to drink are always changing. When they changed again, this time it was exposed, open-air reservoirs that were the target. And that's for two reasons:

One: reservoirs have historically received surface water runoff as part of their supply. The new rules said that's not cool.

And two: water needs to be disinfected to get rid of bacteria that can form when the water's exposed to air. However, those disinfectants can cause byproducts and some of those byproducts have been found to cause cancer.

New rules banned both disinfectant and surface water run off. Which, said Chief Operating Officer Marty Adams from LADWP, didn't leave the department with a lot of options.

"Between the disinfection byproducts rule and the surface water treatment rule, there was no realistic way that we could continue to have open water reservoirs in the system and get the level of treatment," he said.

An aerial view of the finished half. (Caleigh Wells/LAist)

So the answer was either to cover current reservoirs, or start over underground.

WHY HERE?

Adams said the department looked into covering Ivanhoe. But a community had grown around the reservoir since it was built, and he said it didn't make financial sense.

"Construction and community issues were massive so that's what caused us to look upsite," he said. "it would have cost as much or more to build in a tight community setting like Silver Lake."

LADWP already owned the property that the new underground reservoirs are sitting on. It's been there since 1905, when the site was used to collect water from the L.A. River. It had a number of advantages it wasn't being used for anything, it's close to the freeway and it was far away from neighbors who wouldn't appreciate the sound of construction.

(The freeway is on one side and a cemetery is on the other.)

The $350 million dollars for the project is primarily coming from residents and businesses. But it's not in the form of taxes, it just comes out of the water bill you already pay to LADWP.

WHAT HAPPENS IF (WHEN) THERE'S AN EARTHQUAKE ?

The system has been built to withstand and keep operating during any earthquake up to a 7.0.

And even if the big one does happen, Ivanhoe is part of the backup plan.

"When we took the large reservoirs out of service, we left the ability to put them back in service," Adams said. "We actually have enough chlorine to disinfect that water to a very high level, so that we could serve it and know that nobody's actually going to get sick from it."

In the meantime, the city hasn't decided what the Silver Lake and Ivanhoe reservoirs will be.

WHAT WILL IT LOOK LIKE FINISHED?

The concrete boxes won't be visible anymore. There's a huge pile of dirt right next to the reservoirs that will go on top of them. LADWP collected it from the cemetery across the street after it expanded. Then it will serve as park space for the city, just like it was originally intended a hundred years ago.

But Adams says while that's important, above all else, it means better water coming out of the faucet.

"This water is protected," he said. "This is really a water quality project that will meet standards that other reservoirs won't."


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