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Speak Up Results #3: Rainbow Lake

There was no question on this year’s Speak Up survey where we had more consensus than the one about Rainbow Lake. While the specific responses differed, the vast majority of respondents favored keeping it as a water feature of some kind.

Rainbow Lake Speak Up SurveyRainbow Lake faces challenges because of its depth and construction. It’s a man-made, concrete-lined pond that is meant to hold about 4 feet of water (although it’s currently not much more than 2.5 feet deep). That’s too shallow to support a fish population or any significant aquatic plant life.

Rainbow Lake and algaeThe algae blooms we see every summer are harmless, but can be unsightly and smelly. They occur because the combination of heat, sun, and that concrete lining make the water heat up. We’ve been dropping organic bacteria into the pond to attempt to out-compete the algae for nutrients. For the past few summers, we’ve added pond dye to shield the water from the sun somewhat (unfortunately, that also gives the lake that Ty-D-Bol blue look). With our Memphis summers, the algae dies back and resprouts almost immediately. If we bleached the water, it would have a harmful effect on things living downstream in Lick Creek.

One possibility is draining the lake, which has been done in the past. This buys a year or two of improved conditions, and is something we’re considering repeating in the short term. In the long term, we believe a permanent solution is the best use of effort and resources, which is why we asked you for your ideas on the future of this beloved park feature.

Rainbow Lake historic postcard
Courtesy of Memphis and Shelby County Public Library and Information Center

Although Rainbow Lake has its challenges, it has a long and storied history in the park. It takes its name from the rainbow effect created by spray fountains installed in 1929. The jets of water once served as a shield between audience and performers at outdoor theater productions, and the actors would use the area behind the fountain as their “backstage” dressing rooms. It is the only remaining water feature from landscape architect George Kessler’s original plan for Overton Park. We were pleased to read how much having that water feature in the park means to so many of you, and how many memories have been made there.

Renovating the lake is on our long-term project list. When it’s time to dive in (no pun intended…it’s way too shallow for diving!), we’ll come back to you again to talk more about the project. Until then, we’ll continue to stay on top of the algae as best we can.

Here are a few ideas you shared with us about Rainbow Lake:

Definitely water! Definitely moving water. Just something cleaner and more tied in to the Forest. A real opportunity for art and community and nature to come together. Maybe a spray park for kids and/or dogs. If one part of the lake could be for dogs to swim and then run like crazy without bothering other people or dogs or risking running off to the street, that would be great. No idea how to do that. Something beautiful and also very peaceful, a place to meditate and quiet down. Keep the paths around the new place too!”

A sparkling clean expanded lake, with small canoes for people to use. Several walking/viewing docks that your sit on and have some umbrellas for shade and enjoy the lake. Maybe a boardwalk around the lake with café tables and chairs.”

“How about leaving it a lake, but having lots of fountains in it to squirt to music or maybe even project images on sheets of water (like Disneyworld)?  Shows could change with the seasons/holidays. The students at MCA, Rhodes, and/or U of M might be great interns for this.”

Have a bridge that goes across it and activities held for kids like boat racing.”

“First, I strongly believe it should remain a lake…if it can be properly maintained. Water features can be key assets to a park. They are points for gathering, orienting and meditating. They further expand the area’s ecosystem. That said, I assume they are also expensive to maintain, if maintained properly. I would like to see the following three components added/improved upon:  A better aeration system, a new look to the waterfall system (too much ’80s concrete) on the east side and a more aesthetically pleasing drainage area at the northwest end of the lake. Dogs love the lake!  What can you do to make at least a part of it dog friendly? Can something be done in that area that also serves as a boundary line visually defining what is Greensward and what is Rainbow Lake?  Maybe a small ‘wetland’ area?”

“The lake is kinda gross. I think a super fun kids splash pad would be amazing! OR making it a doggy lake would be fun too!”

I imagine water play features replacing the lake. You are not supposed to swim in Rainbow Lake but dogs and sometimes kids do…why not turn the space into something like the new water park at the Children’s Museum or Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta? Otherwise, it might be cool to leave the lake and lower the water levels a bit, to make it a stepping-stone lake, and add some lily pads and fish. The water only needs to a little over ankle-height so it is not dangerous, and kids will love playing on the stepping stones and watching the fish. If the play water features were added around this it would make the whole area really come to life.”

“As much as I’d love a water area like Peabody Park, it would be a disaster at Overton. Need to think about a niche attraction, something not for the masses. I like keeping a water theme. Something calming.”

American snout
American snout butterfly on the rails around Rainbow Lake

Return it to a wetlands with indigenous species of plants and animals, to mitigate flooding and to rebuild a new-growth forest. It could have ramps and elevated walkways through it and a nature center for education with stuff for children and adults to do and interact with nature. It could be a place where urban children could discover nature as a source of joy in life.”

I’d love to see a skate park or a dog agility course. Or a ‘science playground,’ sound pipes, or ping pong tables.”

“Definitely needs to remain a lake.  The most important thing that can be done in this part of the park is to start maintaining the baseball and soccer fields again.  We should be having the ball games for our neighborhood here. If our fields were maintained, we could have pick up games and an organized league right here in Midtown.”

It just generally needs more. Add in swings for kids. Look at what the Botanic Garden does in their Japanese section — add in koi fish, put in a little bridge, make it more romantic. Something people will say ‘ooh! aah!’ to.”