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Bringing back the Arboretum's sludge-filled Baldwin Lake




The shoreline in the foreground used to be lake. Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
The shoreline in the foreground used to be lake. Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
The shoreline in the foreground used to be lake. Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
Eastern red-eared slider turtles, former pets, at Baldwin Lake at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
The shoreline in the foreground used to be lake. Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
KPCC's John Rabe and Baldwin descendent Margaux Viera extricate themselves from Baldwin Lake at the LA County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Aug. 23, 2016.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
The shoreline in the foreground used to be lake. Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
Richard Schulhof, CEO at the LA County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia, talking with KPCC's John Rabe on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
The shoreline in the foreground used to be lake. Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
A snowy egret at Baldwin Lake at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
The shoreline in the foreground used to be lake. Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
A sign warns visitors to avoid walking in Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
The shoreline in the foreground used to be lake. Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
At Baldwin Lake at the LA County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia: CEO Richard Schulhof; Margaux Viera, Arboretum trustee and member of the Save Baldwin Lake Task Force; and KPCC's John Rabe. Aug. 23, 2016.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC


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In its best years, the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden's Baldwin Lake was a gem. It ran 12 to 15 feet deep and served as a prime filming location for decades—if you've seen "Marathon Man," "Fantasy Island" or 1932's "Tarzan the Ape Man," you've seen the Arboretum on the silver screen. 

But if Tarzan and Jane tried to swim in Baldwin Lake today, they'd get slimed. Errol Flynn and his men in "Objective: Burma!" would lose to the Axis. And "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" would flail around for a few seconds, toppled over, and be savaged by carp. 

I put on waders and tramped out as far as I could before my feet started getting stuck in deep, non-toxic muck. It felt like I was wearing concrete overshoes.

If the lake was healthy, that would never have happened. But Schulhof says the lake is now down to an average depth of 30 inches, and suitable only for the carp that thrive there with the dozens of abandoned pet turtles.

The lake is filling up from the bottom with sediment and because of the drought, it's also drying out from the top.

It wasn't actually all that healthy before the drought - the sediment has been building since the 1950s - but as you can see in this old "Visiting with Huell Howser" video, it least it looked good when the rains kept it full.

Visiting with Huell Howser at the Arboretum

Baldwin Lake is named for EJ "Lucky" Baldwin, who owned the land - the Baldwin Ranch - the Arboretum stands on. He built the lake in the 1800s. His great great great granddaughter Margaux Viera is a member of the Arboretum board and a member of the Save Baldwin Lake Task Force, which is raising money and awareness.

"It's extremely important," she says, to restore the lake. "A lot of my family members are not alive anymore, and we feel it is our purpose to help preserve and conserve what Lucky Baldwin created here, and the lake was his crowning jewel. Without this lake being restored, the Arboretum cannot possibly be what it was meant to be."

But it's a huge task, and an expensive one. Viera won't even venture a guess at the total cost.

The Arboretum is making the case that the lake is important not just to the Arboretum, but to the health of the surrounding environment. "For this part of the San Gabriel Valley, the Raymond Basin aquifer has been an essential resource for centuries," says Schulhof, the Arboretum's CEO.

"Now, the lake is the collection basin for 155 acres of suburban Los Angeles. So this lake becomes an important part of the larger watershed."

Under one plan, storm runoff from those neighborhoods would run through a filtering wetland at the park, then - much cleaner - into the lake, which could recharge the aquifer. But first, the lake would have been dredged of its sediment.

It won't be cheap, and it'll take a while. Schulhof  he expects to fund the restoration through a combination of government funding and donations from the public. After all the studies are done, Viera says the actual physical work of restoring the lake could take five years.

The good news: Schulhof says testing shows the sludge is safe to use as a rich fertilizer on the grounds of the arboretum. "But our immediate task is to get a grant from the state water board and hire the engineers who can determine the best course of action."