From now until the beginning of August, mammoth is hosting a chapter-by-chapter reading and discussion of The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. This post is the first in that series, and discusses Owens Lake; for the full schedule of readings and an introduction to the series (and the book), click here. In addition to the discussion hopefully generated in the comments here at mammoth, other bloggers will be contributing material for various chapters. As that material is published elsewhere, mammoth will follow-up with another post indexing and linking to that related material.
[The pure geometry of desiccation, from David Maisel’s The Lake Project]
Of the myriad infrastructural life-supports which sustain (1) the city of Los Angeles, the most fundamental is surely the network of canals, tunnels, buried conduits, siphons, pumping stations, and reservoirs which exponentially magnifies the city’s watershed, along three major artificial tributaries. Traced from Los Angeles, the California Aqueduct travels north and west (though the water obviously flows in the opposite direction) to its first pumping station on the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. The Colorado River Aqueduct shoots eastward from the city, to the California-Arizona border, where it meets Lake Havasu at Parker Dam, tapping, through the Colorado River, a vast watershed that extends into Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. The third major aqueduct, which is the largest of the three and carries nearly half of the city’s water on its own, is the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which slips out of the Coast Range Province (where Los Angeles lies), through the Sierra Nevada and into the Basin and Range, where it rides north up Owens Valley, where it captures snow melt off the eastern Sierra Nevada and the flow of the Owens River.
[Mono Lake, which lies just north of Owens Lake playa, and is a reasonable approximation of what undrained Owens Lake would have looked like, though it is only two-thirds the size; image via wikipedia.]
This anthropogenic watershed does not extend itself without cost, though. One of those costs, the desiccated and drained Owens Lake playa, is the topic of the first chapter of The Infrastructural City, Barry Lehrman‘s “Reconstructing the Void”. For somewhere around eight hundred thousand years, Owens Lake held salt water continuously, fed by the Owens River. Though it had been slowly shrinking since its formation in the post-glacial period, in the late 19th century, the lake still covered over a hundred square miles, plied by a steamship which ferried goods and raw materials between the Cerro Gordo Mine and Cartago Landing. Construction on the aqueduct began in 1905, was completed in 1913, and had essentially dessicated Owens Lake, through the indirect means of the diversion of the waters which sustained the lake, by 1924.
[A distant alkali dust storm on Owens Lake playa, via wikipedia]
While the playa has never entirely dried out — even at its driest, a salty brine remains below the caked surface — and continues to sustain enormous populations of extremely hardy bacteria (salt-loving halobacteria which produce a striking red coloration) and algae (which produce green coloration), the lake and valley eco-systems were devastated: “lush meadows, sparkling lakes, and the rolling river were replace by the current basin-and-range landscape of sagebrush and sand dunes”. The dried surface of the playa, meanwhile, became a massive ecological disaster, launching polluted dust storms which intensified throughout the twentieth century, as described by Lehrman, speaking here about the state of the playa in the mid-nineties, after environmentalists had pushed for reforms in water diversions upstream:
“Wind gusts above twenty miles an hour lifted over fifty tons per second of ‘Keeler Fog’ off the lakebed. Often reaching over two miles high, these dust storms sent 130 times the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for particulate matter into the atmosphere, blwoing the dust over 250 miles from the lake. Such storms occurred two dozen or more times each year, generally in the spring and fall. Composed of microscopic particles smaller than ten microns (PM10), the dust contains significant levels of toxic metals like selenium, arsenic, and lead along with efflorescent salts. The largest single source of PM10 pollution in the country, these dust storms were a clear threat to the 40,000 people in the immediate region. Even the feds suffered: the dust reduced visibility so badly that nearby China Lake Naval Air Station to the south had to stop flight operations five to ten days each year — costing the Navy over $5 million annually. Physicians at China Lake linked the dust to significant health problems in the region, including higher rates of cancer, lung disease, and eye problems.”
Finally, in 1998, Los Angeles installed a massive (2) irrigation prosthesis in the playa, composed of “over 300 miles of pipe… more than 5000 irrigation bubblers, and hundreds of miles of fiber optic control cables and valves”, periodically watering the thirty dustiest square miles of the playa (3). Now existing in an artificially tensed state, neither truly playa nor fully lake, the lake bed has developed a strange new ecology: “brine flies and microbes” flourish in the “shallow pools” created by the irrigation works, producing a bounty which draws migratory shore birds from the Pacific Flyway.
[Bubblers on Owens Lake playa, via Metropolis]
This landscape is, of course, fascinating in-and-of itself. Within the context of The Infrastructural City, though, it tells a specific story, both about the infrastructural city (in general) and the Infrastructural City (Los Angeles, in particular).
First, as Lehrman notes, the contentious diversion of the hydrological resources of the Owens Valley away from that valley is ironically responsible for the preservation of the rural qualities of the valley, even if those qualities have been radically transformed:
“Once natural, California is now thoroughly artificial. Perversely, only in places as heavily regulated and mechanized as Owens Lake is there any semblance of what the territory might have been like before settlers arrived. In a strange gift, Los Angeles has preserved the open rural landscape of Owens Valley, re-creating the void where by all rights we shouldn’t expect to find it.”
Similarly, adjacent Inyo National Forest — an apparently fully preserved natural landscape — is also a relic of the city’s thirst for water, having been created by the federal government at the behest of the city, which petitioned for its creation and expansion so as to preserve the watersheds which supply the Owens River. While the creation of natural preserves is usually thought of as a mechanism by which to prevent the exploitation of an ecosystem, in this case the natural preserve is, functionally, as much a part of the hydrology and ecology of Los Angeles as the thoroughly channelized Los Angeles River or the LADWP aqueducts, illustrating a fascinating overlap between the economic incentives of development (which would not be possible in greater Los Angeles without water which is ultimately derived from Inyo) and the ecological imperatives of preservation.
[Rows of native salt grass, planted by the LADWP as part of remediation efforts at Owens Lake, via Metropolis.]
This functional integration between urban and rural systems indicates a second lesson, which is that it may well be worth re-learning the original definition of urbanism:
“…Whilst contemporary definitions focus heavily on the impact of built-form on cities, the original meaning [of 'urbanism'] was coined by Ildefons Cerda to describe “the science of human settlements at various scales and times, including countryside networks”. Although Cerda’s original definition referenced natural systems, the impact or understanding of these systems’ influence on built development (and vice versa) appears to have been lost in contemporary definitions.” (Christopher Gray, “Turning the field: contradictions in landscape urbanism“, in Kerb 15)
While the common tendency is to read “urban” as an adjective which is applied to territories in direct correlation to both density of settlement (thus downtown is very urban and suburbia is less urban and a farm is not urban at all) and the absence of natural ecological systems (though, of course, ‘natural’ is itself a cultural construct), the design of cities requires a continual awareness of the tentacular extension of the effects of urbanization into distant terrains. After nearly 100 years of serendipity, greed, and lawsuits, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Owens Lake playa and Inyo National Forest have evolved into a fascinating cross-section of anthropogenic landscapes, varying in degree of human influence, but all functioning in concert to support a heavily developed urban region. Much as mammoth has recently argued that the iPhone cannot be understood without understanding its participation in a diverse series of physical terrains, the infrastructural city too begins with distant landscapes, and an understanding that Owens Lake playa, with its weird, manufactured ecosystem, is as much a part of Los Angeles as Mulholland Drive is.
David Maisel’s Lake Project uses Owens Lake as the site and subject of a series of stunning photo-essays. Geoff Manaugh interviewed Maisel for Archinect, and there’s an extended interview in the BLDGBLOG Book. DPR-Barcelona posted about the Lakes Project towards the end of last week.