Fall 2013

Fall 2013 Editor’s Statement

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This issue of ARID is inspired and supported by the Metabolic Studio, led by Los Angeles artist Lauren Bon. In November 2012, the Metabolic Studio launched a process designed to nurture public debate about our relationship to water, land, energy, and neighbors.  In anticipation of the November 2013 centenary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Studio engaged a wide constellation of organizations and institutions, charging each to critically reevaluate one hundred years of LA’s hydraulic history and to creatively reimagine the next one hundred.

Leading the way, Metabolic Studio has spent 2013 hosting 100 Conversations About Water up and down the length of the aqueduct, from the northern Owens Valley to downtown Los Angeles; building a giant water wheel, sixty feet in diameter, on the banks of the LA River; and planning an Aqueduct birthday party like no other. In November 2013, Metabolic Studio will stage “One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct,” a “performative parade traversing 240 miles of pipelines and canals passing through three counties and nearly 50 communities along the way.”

Joining their own artistic practice to a larger public conversation, the Studio has provided funding, forums and focus to a host of organizations large and small; from esteemed libraries such as the Huntington and Special Collections at Loyola Marymount, to small-scale environmental education initiatives, such as the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s First Bloom and the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation.  The Studio’s support extends to the sciences (UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences), policy (Climate Resolve), history (the Autry National Center of the American West and the Eastern California Museum), the humanities (Boom: A Journal of California), and the arts (ASU’s Desert Initiative for ARID: A Journal of Desert Art, Design and Ecology).  The studio also provides support to design educators at Cal Poly Pomona (Aqueduct Futures), USC (Landscape Morphologies Lab), and the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University.

What role do the arts and design play in helping to shape an equitable and abundant water future in arid environments?  In the face of the epic social, legal, economic, and environmental struggles John Walton and Emily Green outline, what do filmmakers, photographers, and media artists have to contribute? This collection of voices makes a case for fabrication: yes, the re-fabrication of landscape itself, but also the re-fabrication of the dominant doctrines that have constructed this worn territory and the cynicism and apathy that have crusted over it.  Film, fiction, folklore; myths, legends, and lost histories; gross distortions, excavated truths, and disrupted perceptions:  all form fertile ground for shaping new narratives that might give rise to new relationships—tangible and abstract; transactional and spatial; instrumental and symbolic—between pipe and people, economies and species, history and future.

This issue of ARID departs from earlier issues in that it offers up a heavier dose of pedagogical reflections. Cal Poly Pomona’s emphasis on evidence-based instruction methods is elaborated in contributions by Pomona’s Landscape Chair Lee-Anne Milburn, Aqueduct Futures leader Barry Lehrman and their colleagues.  USC’s Alex Robinson outlines hybrid methods for integrating effective technical solutions with qualitative place-making in the design studio. These are the voices of educators working to devise a new interface between student and landscape, engineering and place-making, public perception and accountable function.  While these pieces diverge from some of the visual emphasis of earlier ARID issues, they form an important part of the historical record, a view from the trenches as educators work to retool the design professions to meet the complex large-scale challenges of life in dry lands.

The editors—and many of the contributors—gratefully acknowledge Metabolic Studio and Lauren Bon for the generous spirit and critical ethos that this work requires.

Fall 2013 Editors’ Statement

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013 | Comments Off on Fall 2013 Editors’ Statement

This issue of ARID is inspired and supported by the Metabolic Studio, led by Los Angeles artist and philanthropist Lauren Bon. In November 2012, the Metabolic Studio launched a process designed to nurture public debate about our relationship to water, land, energy, and neighbors.  In anticipation of the November 2013 centenary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Studio engaged a wide constellation of organizations and institutions, charging each to critically reevaluate one hundred years of LA’s hydraulic history and to creatively reimagine the next one hundred.

Leading the way, Metabolic Studio has spent 2013 hosting 100 Conversations About Water up and down the length of the aqueduct, from the northern Owens Valley to downtown Los Angeles; designing a giant water wheel, sixty feet in diameter, for the banks of the LA River; and planning an Aqueduct birthday party like no other. In November 2013, Metabolic Studio will stage “One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct,” a “performative parade traversing 240 miles of pipelines and canals passing through three counties and nearly 50 communities along the way.”

Joining their own artistic practice to a larger public conversation, the Studio has provided funding, forums and focus to a host of organizations large and small; from esteemed libraries such as the Huntington and Special Collections at Loyola Marymount, to small-scale environmental education initiatives, such as the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s First Bloom and the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation.  The Studio’s support extends to the sciences (UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences), policy (Climate Resolve), history (the Autry National Center of the American West and the Eastern California Museum), the humanities (Boom: A Journal of California), and the arts (ASU’s Desert Initiative for ARID: A Journal of Desert Art, Design and Ecology).  The studio also provides support to design educators at Cal Poly Pomona (Aqueduct Futures), USC (Landscape Morphologies Lab), and the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University.

What role do the arts and design play in helping to shape an equitable and abundant water future in arid environments?  In the face of the epic social, legal, economic, and environmental struggles John Walton and Emily Green outline, what do filmmakers, photographers, and media artists have to contribute? This collection of voices makes a case for fabrication: yes, the re-fabrication of landscape itself, but also the re-fabrication of the dominant stories and doctrines that have constructed this worn territory and the cynicism and apathy that have crusted over it.  Film, fiction, folklore; myths, legends, and lost histories; gross distortions, excavated truths, and disrupted perceptions:  all form fertile ground for shaping new narratives that might give rise to new relationships—tangible and abstract; transactional and spatial; instrumental and symbolic—between pipe and people, economies and species, history and future.

This issue of ARID departs from earlier issues in that it offers up a heavier dose of pedagogical reflections. Cal Poly Pomona’s emphasis on evidence-based instruction methods is elaborated in contributions by Pomona’s Landscape Chair Lee-Anne Milburn, Aqueduct Futures leader Barry Lehrman and their colleagues.  USC’s Alex Robinson outlines hybrid methods for integrating effective technical solutions with qualitative place-making in the design studio. These are the voices of educators working to devise a new interface between student and landscape, engineering and place-making, public perception and accountable function.  While these pieces diverge from some of the visual emphasis of earlier ARID issues, they form an important part of the historical record, a view from the trenches as educators work to retool the design professions to meet the complex large-scale challenges of life in dry lands.

The editors—and many of the contributors—gratefully acknowledge Metabolic Studio and Lauren Bon for the generous spirit and critical ethos that this work requires.

Aqueduct as Muse: Educating Designers for Multifunctional Landscapes | Barry J. Lehrman, Douglas Delgado and Mary E. Alm, Ph.D.

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Pedagogies | Comments Off on Aqueduct as Muse: Educating Designers for Multifunctional Landscapes | Barry J. Lehrman, Douglas Delgado and Mary E. Alm, Ph.D.

Aqueduct Futures students at the LA Aqueduct Intake in Owens Valley, CA. © Barry Lehrman 2013.

The ARID editors regret to share that Mary Alm, co-author of this article has passed from complications arising from breast cancer on Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013. Her husband and co-author, Barry Lehrman has dedicated this essay to her memory. ARID Journal offers our thoughts and condolences to the Lehrman/Alm family during this difficult time.


The 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct and its 4,800-square-mile watershed on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range have been critical for the growth and vitality of Southern California.[1] However, forecasted reductions to the Sierra snowpack as a result of climate change will decrease runoff into the Owen’s Valley,[2] potentially jeopardizing the future of Los Angeles’s water supply. An exemplar of early twentieth-century single-purpose engineering, the Aqueduct raises important questions about infrastructural adaptability, resilience, and multi-functional landscapes in the face of twenty-first-century social and environmental changes.

Adaptation to water scarcity requires action on both the supply and demand side. Supply-side innovations, led by engineers and technocrats, have focused primarily on optimizing the efficiency of the existing water system and identifying new sources. On the demand side, education and outreach are proven methods for influencing individual behaviors and societal norms about water. Substantive ongoing efforts promoting conservation have delivered significant reductions to per capita water use in Southern California (from a per capita use of 173 gallons per day in 1990 before basic conservation programs were implemented, to just 117 gallons per day in 2010), so that total water use in Los Angeles has leveled off even as the population continues growing.[3]

What is design’s role in achieving adaptation? The Los Angeles Aqueduct is a potent site for landscape students to engage the performance and function of large-scale technical and ecological systems. Large-scale multifunctional infrastructure and landscape projects constitute an emerging practice area for landscape architecture.[4, 5, 6] In the twenty-first century, multifunctional landscapes are augmenting or replacing single-function engineered urban systems (i.e. oyster reefs and wetlands are replacing levees for flood prevention) with complimentary cultural and ecological uses. Beyond enhanced functionality of supply, the Aqueduct invites us to reconsider design’s role in shaping demand. Evidence suggests that people are more likely to change behavior to reduce consumption when they (and their communities) assign value and meaning to that resource,[7, 8] especially when they hold strong human-exception paradigm beliefs (as did the Aqueduct’s engineer, William Mulholland),[9] or when there is a crisis.

Could reframing the meaning of the Aqueduct with poetic and interpretive landscapes serve as an essential next step in the adaptation process? And if so, how can design education best serve its students to be effective agents of this process?

The Aqueduct Futures project at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly), challenged design students to look carefully at Southern California’s addiction to imported water, propose resilience and adaptability measures to the existing water supply system, and address lingering social and environmental justice issues related to the Aqueduct. Aqueduct Futures required students to build cross-disciplinary collaborations, and to generate proposals that inform the public and policy makers. This article lays out the challenges and opportunities of an innovative curriculum, and assesses the learning outcomes resulting from particular instructional methods.

Aqueduct Futures:  Curricular Overview

“Learn by doing” is Cal Poly’s motto. With support from Metabolic Studio, Aqueduct Futures leadership developed a one-year course sequence with a culminating exhibit and supporting website to shape a new a narrative about the past, present, and future conditions of the Aqueduct. In all, 130 students from Landscape Architecture, Computer Science, Graphic Arts, Urban and Regional Planning, and Regenerative Studies participated in the project in 2012-2013. Creating an interdisciplinary experience for students was both a tactical and strategic choice: tactical in providing complementary skills needed to pull off the complex project, strategic in preparing students for real-world practice collaborating with other disciplines.

In the fall of 2012, third-year undergraduates focused on key topics and practices related to large-scale multifunctional landscapes and designing interpretive features for the Aqueduct, while fourth-year undergraduates focused on enhancing the eco-technical performance of the Aqueduct and the landscape it inhabits. Both studios followed a typical structure of research, analysis, and a final team project synthesizing their research and analysis into a comprehensive design proposal. An elective seminar delved into the Aqueduct’s history and its surrounding cultures. In the following term, landscape architecture students created the preliminary exhibit and web content in collaboration with exhibition design teams from the Art Department and interactive media teams from the Computer Science Department. Parallel to these undergraduate courses, a team of Master of Landscape candidates successfully crafted a graduate capstone project that resulted in a planning framework for the entire Owens River and Mono Basin Watersheds. Coursework was enriched by assigned readings, group discussions, case study research, site analysis, journaling, and fieldwork, including a community design workshop in Bishop.

Aqueduct Futures students at the Cascades (LA Aqueduct terminus) in Sylmar, CA.  © Jonathan Linkus 2013.

Pedagogical Goals and Innovations

Aqueduct Futures leaders identified five key approaches to forming a balance between the pragmatic and the poetic.


The fourth-year landscape architecture studio divided into four groups, each tasked with mapping the linkages between water and energy.

Field Work

A four-day field trip (held in the fourth week of fall quarter) enabled students to conduct fieldwork along the length of the Aqueduct, from the San Fernando Valley and the Coso Range to the northern Owens Valley and Mono Basin. Travels were enriched by discussions with local tour guides, Big Pine Paiute’s Environmental Office, and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) facilities managers.

In a community engagement exercise unusual for undergraduates, fourth-year students, assisted by third-year students, designed and implemented a community workshop in Bishop. Graduate Landscape Architecture chair Professor Lee-Anne Milburn provided instruction on facilitation goals and techniques; undergraduates then generated the workshop’s agenda as a group and implemented it in teams of three, each student team hosting a table with four to eight Owens Valley residents.

Reflective thinking, including intensive journaling

Reflective thinking promoted by writing journal entries is closely aligned with design thinking,[10] and has previously been deployed in landscape architecture studios that are engaged in service-learning or projects aimed at social and environmental justice. Aqueduct Futures leadership first encountered them in 2010 as a co-instructor with Dr. Kristine Miller in the Remix/Streetlife studio project, with Juxtaposition Arts, at the University of Minnesota (first offered in 2005). Xie et al. (2008) make the link between reflective thinking promoted by journals and transformative learning.[11]

For Aqueduct Futures, reflective “experience” journals served as a catalyst for students to engage in metacognition about their design process, about their experiences on the field trip, and about the instructional process itself. Through writing, sketches, and photographs, student journals grappled with the systems, landscapes, projects, people, and places they encountered throughout the research and design process. In addition to enhanced critical inquiry informing student design outcomes, journals also prompted reflection by the instructors, allowing for real-time recalibration of assignments and activities to strengthen learning outcomes.

Quantitative design evaluation

Evidence-based design requires improved numeracy, and the ability to communicate complex systems to the public in fledgling landscape architects. Most Aqueduct Futures students had only performed basic hydrologic calculations for irrigation design and drainage prior to this course sequence. However, as part of their final presentations, students were required to quantify projected impacts suggested by their proposals. Measures included economic costs and benefits (including construction, operating budgets, and potential revenue); technological efficiencies (amounts of energy created, or water conserved/infiltrated); and ecological functioning (carbon sequestration, water purification, biodiversity, and habitat quality indicators).

Interdisciplinary collaboration

The second semester integrated landscape students with computer science and graphic arts collaborators, led by Professor Crystal Lee of the Art Department and Dr. Robert Kerbs of Computer Science. The collaboration was focused on how to best communicate complex graphic analysis to the public, with cross-disciplinary student teams generating custom Google Maps from graphics designed in Adobe Illustrator, by exporting .SVG (scalable vector graphics) files and ArcGIS via .KMZ (keyhole markup language) files. Blogging was used to provide public writing experience in preparation for the final exhibit, and to explore the limits of online media. Computer Science students produced a Critical Stage Analysis as part of a final submittal that may have relevant qualitative data for future evaluation.

Aqueduct Futures students at the Jawbone Siphon in the Mojave Desert. © Barry Lehrman 2013.

Analyzing Results:  Measuring the Effectiveness of Instructional Methods

Even with the yearlong focus on where water for Southern California comes from, final design proposals suggested that students remain locked into the popular cultural habit of treating water as an unlimited resource in their design. Students created projects that for the most part (even with extensive encouragement), did not engage directly with the LAA or use naturally occurring water (precipitation, surface, and ground) in innovative methods for California, compared to the case studies presented from elsewhere in class. It is also worth noting that most of the programming of amenities and landscape features were limited to the students’ own preferences for sorts of places and activities they personally like—the few exceptions were generated by the compelling interactions they had with residents of the Owens Valley.

Beyond the individual, or even collective, value of the resulting student design proposals, the Aqueduct Futures project offered an opportunity for educators to look carefully at instructional methods. What approaches were most effective in producing a transformative learning experience? The Aqueduct Futures leadership team chose to focus on the reflective journaling method in particular, analyzing 317 journal entries generated by the 64 students in the fall landscape architecture studios, in an attempt to measure the method’s impact on the learning experience. The analysis was centered around two main research questions:

  1. To what extent did journaling support landscape architecture students in grasping the interrelated connections between water, energy, and ecology associated with supplying water to Los Angeles through the Aqueduct?
  2. To what extent did journaling support innovative design ideas to address resilience, adaptation, and social and environmental justice?

Qualitative analysis software called Computer Aided Textual Markup and Analysis (CATMA 4.0) was used to assess themes in the students’ reflection journal entries.[12] Themes were analyzed for individual research questions and between the two research questions mentioned above. The software was used to help minimize personal biases when coding and analyzing the entries.

In assessing the first question—to what extent did journaling support comprehension of the water, energy, and ecology of the Aqueduct—four main themes emerged .

1. Evidence indicated student comprehension of the structure and function of the Aqueduct linking the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.

The intake site was one of the most influential sites visited during the field trip. We got the chance to walk over the starting gates of the LA Aqueduct.

Seeing the size of the pipes gave me an idea how much water is being transferred to LA daily.

2. Evidence indicated new awareness of the origins of Los Angeles’ water supply. Students speculated that most residents of Los Angeles are ignorant of where their water comes from, and these comments seemed to originate from personal experiences.

Before this class, I had little or no knowledge of this area as a water source to Los Angeles County.

I think everyone has seen the water come down this slide-like pipe that is off the 5 freeway, but little may know that this is our drinking water that we use everyday in our everyday lives.

3. Evidence suggested that students grasped the impact of the aqueduct system on the source landscape, including noting lower water levels of Owens Lake and Mono Lake from direct observation of the site.

Owens Lake was once a naturally appealing place full of life, but now it is a barren, dried up lakebed with barely any life left to give.

Seeing the water level change with the marks engraved on the edges of the rocks and considering all the salt left behind was a miserable site.

4. Evidence suggested that students were aware of conflict between residents of the Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and that they were aware of the multiple viewpoints in that conflict

We heard water war stories from the native Indians that inhabited the land, the community that lived and experienced the pumping of Owens Lake, the environmentalists, ecologists, and from LA DWP themselves.

This community seems to be active and aware of the situation they are in but for the most part the 100,000 residents of the valley can’t seem to have the impact that the millions of Los Angeles residents can have.

The second research question—to what extent did journaling inspire innovative design ideas for improving the water supply for Los Angeles and restoring the Owens Valley—yielded three main themes.

1.  The first theme concerned the need to inform Los Angeles residents about water supply issues and the impacts the students observed. In comments that appear to originate from personal experience, and from hearing the concerns of Owens Valley residents and Paiute Indians, students focused on the need to create an interpretive spatial experience for the two million visitors per year who pass through Owens Valley. Students focused, in particular, on opportunities to introduce recreational and educational activities, such as hiking trails in the Owens Valley with educational signs along the path about the Aqueduct and the area’s history, or tourism facilities in the Antelope or San Fernando Valleys.

The trail system can contain educational information about the Aqueduct as you walk the trail.

A visitor’s center could contain tribal history of the Paiute people and tie into the history of the land. We would also incorporate the history of the Aqueduct.

2. The second theme concerned making the Owens Valley more environmentally appealing by restoring the natural habitat, thereby improving its appeal as a tourist destination. More visitors (with most coming from Southern California), students reasoned, would increase the opportunities to inform people about the issues in the Owens Valley, the role of the LA Aqueduct in the development of Los Angeles, and the importance of even greater water conservation. Some students proposed setting aside land for wildlife to flourish and creating gardens of local plants. Others suggested developing recreational activities that give visitors fun and adventure without harming the natural environment. Students also proposed developing eco-communities, promoting sustainable agricultural practices to improve use of renewable energy sources, and a range of habitat restoration practices. While most of the projects focused on appealing to urban visitors to the Owens Valley, many of the projects included specific amenities and features for residents of Eastern California

Gardens could be developed, featuring native landscapes of the valley, which will also serve as buffers between the spaces.

The purpose of having an ATV park is to control the rampant off-roading that occurs in the region but goes unchecked. This damages the surrounding environment and damages habitat. Our thought was that if we wrangled the use of ATV and designated an area for them that was not only close but very fun they would go to the park instead of roaming all over the place.

3. The third theme involved changing Los Angeles’ water policy so there is less reliance on water from sources such as the Owens Valley. Students seemed to comment about this after thinking about the dwindling water supply and the need to conserve water. Some students commented that restoring water levels and the habitat of the Owens Valley might be a complicated and impossible undertaking, so other methods may be more practical. Some of the changes students suggested include water collecting, grey water use, and conservation.

Some of these shifts will include practices such as: permeable surface paving for catching water on site, natural filtration, and restoration of our depleting aquifers; the use of drought tolerant natives which decreases the amount of maintenance (less water and less pollution!); redirecting our storm water to catch basins (in addition to the permeable surfaces); and educating our youth about the importance of conserving the limited resources we have.

Can we honestly say that LA County preserves water? We can’t even capture our rainwater and reuse it. We disregard the fact that our population is increasing and our water is decreasing.

Results of this qualitative investigation suggest that journaling allowed students to integrate new knowledge about the LA Aqueduct and Los Angeles’ water supply gained through mapping, fieldwork, and community dialog, and to use these experiences to generate ideas for improving Los Angeles’ water supply and the Owens Valley region.

Sketch of the Cascades (LA Aqueduct terminus) in student notebook. © Barry Lehrman 2013.


What are the implications of this close examination of our students’ experience? In what way might it inform how design educators approach preparing students to engage large-scale multifunctional landscapes? And in what way does our instructional experience mirror the larger-scale challenges of creating awareness and engagement between the citizens of Los Angeles and their water supply?

The results of this qualitative investigation illustrate the power of direct observation and community participation as transformative learning tools, and how infrastructure like the Los Angeles Aqueduct can serve as a muse for the creative process.  They also illustrate the magnitude of the challenges ahead in creating a new relationship—both functional and poetic—with our infrastructural landscape.

Short of escorting every Angeleno up to the Owens Valley for an audience with Owens Valley residents and Paiute elders, and a first-hand tour of wind-eroded soil and the desiccated Owens Lake bed, our work with students suggests a need to identify local stories about water and conditions around the Los Angeles metropolitan region, that might have a similar transformative impact on an exponentially wider audience.

Beyond the local, the Aqueduct is a significant part of our American heritage worthy of designation as a National Park—like the Erie Canal and other significant transportation corridor. There are precedents for maintaining working infrastructure within an interpretive context – the headwaters of Walker Creek in the Mono Basin are just on the other side of the Blacktop Peak (elevation 12,500’) from the streams feeding Hetch Hetchy (and San Francisco) within Yosemite National Park.

Politically and administratively, there is an inherent conflict of interest in the LADWP’s responsibility for providing as much water and power to Los Angeles as they can, and managing the natural resources of the Owens Valley floor and their urban property holdings. This conflict is a key source of the continued distrust and tension among Owens Valley residents towards Los Angeles.  It is also true that Los Angeles is the largest property tax payer in Inyo County, so any transfers of LADWP property to other agencies or land trusts must safeguard comparable revenue to the County.

The process of repositioning the Aqueduct’s meaning and cultural status is just a beginning.  It is a critical step in creating an informed citizenry and an effective design culture, advocating for a multifunctional future—one where urban needs are balanced with those of local communities and the natural systems that are being exploited.

Course syllabi, additional examples of student work, and the 606 Project report are available at www.AqueductFutures.com.

[1] Lehrman, Barry. “Reconstructing the Void: Owens Lake.” The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Kazys Varnelis editor. Barcelona: Los Angeles Forum for Architecture/Columbia Networked Urbanism Lab/ACTAR Press, 2007. 20–33.
[2] Costa-Cabral, Mariza, et al. (2013). Snowpack and Runoff Response to Climate Change in Owens Valley and Mono Lake Watersheds. Climatic Change. Volume 116, Issue 1, pp 97-109.
[3] Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. (2010). Urban Water Management Plan. retrieved from https://www.ladwp.com/cs/idcplg?IdcService=GET_FILE&dDocName=QOELLADWP005416&RevisionSelectionMethod=LatestReleased. Web. 16 July 2013
[4] Bélanger, Pierre. “Landscape As Infrastructure.” Landscape Journal 28.1 (2009), 79 –95. Print.
[5] Strang, Gary. “Infrastructure as Landscape (1996).” Theory in Landscape Architecture. Ed. Simon Swaffield. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 220–226.
[6] Wall, Alex. “Programming the Urban Surface.” Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary    Landscape Architecture. Ed. James Corner. Princeton Architectural Press, 1999. 232–249.
[7] McKenzie-Mohr, Doug. “New Ways to Promote Proenvironmental Behavior: Promoting Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing.” Journal of Social Issues 56.3 (2000): 543–554. Wiley Online Library. Web. 16 July 2013.
[8] Vaske, Jerry J., and Katherine C. Kobrin. “Place Attachment and Environmentally Responsible Behavior.” The Journal of Environmental Education 32.4 (2001): 16–21. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web. 16 July 2013.
[9] Cook, Stuart W., and Joy L. Berrenberg. “Approaches to Encouraging Conservation Behavior: A Review and Conceptual Framework.” Journal of Social Issues 37.2 (1981): 73–107. Wiley Online Library. Web. 16 July 2013.
[10] Cross, Nigel. “Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline Versus Design Science.” Design Issues 17.3 (2011): 49–55. MIT Press Journals. Web. 29 Sept. 2011.
[11] Xie, Ying, Fengfeng Ke, and Priya Sharma. “The Effect of Peer Feedback for Blogging on College Students’ Reflective Learning Processes.” The Internet and Higher Education 11.1 (2008): 18–25. ScienceDirect. Web. 16 July 2013.
[12] University of Hamburg. (2013). Computer Aided Textual Markup and Analysis (CATMA 4.0). Retrieved from http://www.catma.de/versions.

Mary E. Alm, PhD (1969-2013) is an expert in clinical health psychology, with a focus on behavior change.  She is a part-time member of the Walden University faculty.

Douglas Delgado, adjunct Assistant Professor at Cal Poly Pomona, has been teaching watershed planning since 2001. He has worked extensively on watershed plans in the Los Angeles, Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River watersheds.

Barry Lehrman is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, where he leads the Aqueduct Futures program.  He is the author of “Reconstructing the Void: Owens Lake” in The Infrastructural City, Kazys Varnelis, editor (ACTAR, 2008).

Particulate Matters: Settling the Dust on the Owens Dry Lakebed | Emily Green

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LADWP gravel operation for dust suppression on Owens Lakebed. © Emily Green 2013.

On January 28, 2013 the Owens Lake Master Plan Committee gathered in the Tallman Pavilion at the Bishop fairgrounds in Inyo County, California. Its roughly three-dozen members—representatives from a smattering of agencies, environmental non-profits, tribes, and local activist groups—were there to see schematic renderings of habitat restoration proposals for the Owens  Dry Lakebed.  They’d spent the last two years sweating the details of how strategically managed wetlands, boardwalks, and other amenities might be incorporated into more than 40 square miles of dust control work being done by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Three of the most respected landscape architecture firms in Southern California had been brought in to consult on the plans.

However, walking in hopeful was no guarantee of walking out that way. Martin Adams, the LADWP’s Director of Water Operations, had an announcement from his board of commissioners. The Master Plan Committee was to understand that there would be some quid pro quo involved in the habitat value integration. Enumerated in an accompanying memo, soon known as the “must have list,” were the following:

  • • At least half of the estimated 92,000 to 95,000 acre-feet of fresh Owens River water currently being used for dust suppression on the dry lake must be returned to the aqueduct for export to Los Angeles. In increasingly dry times, the water going to dust suppression was more than a third of the aqueduct supply, which Los Angeles had to make up with water pumped from the stressed Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Northern California.
  • • Los Angeles must be allowed to extract brackish groundwater from beneath the Owens Dry Lakebed to augment freshwater used for dust suppression. Adams estimated that the aquifer beneath Owens dry lake could sustain annual pumping of 10,000 to 15,000 acre-feet annually, or enough to cover 10,000 to 15,000 acres under a foot of water. Inyo County is warily considering allowing 7,000 acre-feet to be pumped.
  • • Local and state authorities must approve “waterless” dust control methods such as tilling the ground and chemical stabilizers to replace shallow flooding.
  • • Los Angeles must be given sole control of the lakebed instead of having to seek leases and permissions from its owner, the California State Lands Commission.
  • • After Los Angeles finishes treating 45-square-miles of the lakebed for dust, its obligation must be capped. Whatever else might blow off the 110-square-mile lakebed would be someone else’s problem.
  • • The Master Plan’s habitat elements must be restricted to areas currently being treated.
  • • LA must be allowed to violate air pollution regulations without facing fines when transitioning from wet to dry dust control methods. Construction is dusty.

Owens Lake Master Project by LADWP & Nuvis Landscape Architecture and Planning, April 2013.

None of the points were new. All had come up in meetings and formal comments of a draft plan in the previous year. However, in planning committees, there are no “must haves” only “would likes.” Moreover, no one in the room had the power to oblige the demands of Los Angeles.

What the list did do was segregate a member of the Master Plan committee, a local air quality regulator named Ted Schade, and identified him as the biggest obstacle between the group and what it wanted.

In 23 years with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, the 56-year-old civil engineer has forced the LADWP into an estimated $1.2 billion worth of dust suppression work. His office’s recent issuance of yet more mitigation orders for Los Angeles is likely, by Adams’ estimate, to drive that number up to $1.6 billion. Schade is so resented by Los Angeles that Adams and others name Schade personally when telling consumers that 15% of what they pay in their water bill is diverted by a “runaway regulator.” In October 2012, in a law suit filed in federal court, the LADWP expressly demanded that the Great Basin’s air pollution control officer covering Owens Valley be taken off any business involving the city.

And so, this, the centenary year of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, began with the LADWP making its underwriting of artful treatment of the Owens Dry Lakebed contingent on it being let off the hook for further dust control work.


LADWP shallow flooding dust suppression method on Owens Lakebed. © Emily Green 2013.

For the first 50 years that it diverted Owens River water to Los Angeles, the LADWP denied that dust was a problem on the river’s former lakebed. When in 1976 scientists at China Lake Naval Weapons Center in Ridgecrest, California, photographed clouds carrying an estimated 40,000 metric tons of fine alkali grit billowing out of the Sierra into the neighboring Mojave Desert foothills of Kern County, the LADWP claimed that Inyo County had some of the best air in the country and that, “there has been no substantiation of adverse health effects of alkali dust.” In 1987 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed the severity of the fine-grain pollution issuing from Owens dry lake as the worst in the country, outside of forest fire smoke, as often as 24 days a year.  LADWP was on record that the land impacted by its water exports was “such a small area we think it is insignificant.

Los Angeles only accepted the problem and responsibility for its part in it after 1997, when then Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan appointed the no-nonsense Tennessean S. David Freeman as general manager of LADWP. By the following year, under the former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Los Angeles began working in earnest on an Owens Valley dust control plan for submission to the regional, state, and federal air quality regulators.

As mitigation terms were hammered out, Schade’s office faced a fundamental question. Just how much of the lakebed showed because of LA’s pumping? How much ground should its dust suppression work cover? To find the answer, in 1997, the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District hired a hydrologist from the Desert Research Institute in Reno, NV. “We asked him to create a model of what Owens Lake would look like if DWP never came,” Schade says. “Luckily, the DWP keeps really good records, so the Desert Research Institute created a mathematical model using rainfall data, temperature data, diversion data and it concluded that the lake would have been at about 3,600 feet above sea level. So we said, ‘Everything below that is DWP’s responsibility. That is the regulatory shoreline’.”

Not all, or even most, of the 110 square miles within the regulatory shoreline would need treating. A roughly 30-square-mile brine pool in the northeastern quadrant of the original terminal, saline lake had turned into a wind-resistant gel without any help. But the eastern border of the lakebed was volatile ground. According to retired UC Davis physicist Thomas Cahill, part of the problem was that the Lone Pine earthquake of 1872 had tilted the floor of Owens Valley. “The entire lake was tipped down in the west 30 feet,” explains Cahill, “The result was an area about one mile wide on the eastern shore that was exposed to the wind.”

And the winds in Owens Valley, says Cahill, are notorious. “The natural situation is extraordinarily bad,” he says. “Owens Lake lies in an enormous, deep valley, which funnels the wind across the lakebed, where you can have a wind of 70 miles per hour at chest height and zero at your feet. It tends to take sand and move it, abrading the crust that’s there. Look at old wood phone poles, and you can see the bottom has been chewed away.”

More than a dozen suppression methods were considered in the lead-up to the first mitigation projects, including covering the lakebed in used automobile tires, but only three were eventually approved for widespread use: gravel cover, plants, and shallow flooding. Gravel, at $33 million per square mile to install, was deemed prohibitively expensive. Plant cover, most of which had to be salt grass, cost $15 million per square mile to install, then it needed irrigating. By far the cheapest immediate fix for a water company was to install bubblers to provide shallow flooding. LADWP estimates that the up-front cost of this was more like $12.9 million per square mile.

Observers such as Schade expected LA to opt for the once-over-and-it’s-all-over approach. “The old lake was a lifeless place,” he says. “We assumed that the DWP would focus on gravel.” But, as work steadily progressed, of the roughly 40 square miles now treated, 36.25 square-miles were treated with shallow flooding.


LADWP salt grass plant cover dust suppression method on Owens Lakebed. © Emily Green 2013.

It was 2006 when Mike Prather of Eastern Sierra Audubon began seeing and getting reports of a renaissance on the old lakebed. “We had people who for years had been birding remnant wetlands around the shores,” he says. “We had seen a lot of bird use on [a] postage stamp-sized habitat back them. So we knew that once this project was coming about, that if water was going to be spread out there, there were going to be a lot of birds. That’s what came to pass.”

Prather began leading tours. There were snowy plovers, teal, wigeons, egrets, stilts, sandpipers, gadwall, mallards, geese and more. Stilt-legged elk appeared prancing through rippling new shallows. Worried that the oasis might dry up if the LADWP switched to “waterless” dust control methods, Prather and Andrea Jones, director of the California Important Bird Area program, approached wildlife agencies, Inyo County, and the LADWP to see if there wasn’t some way that areas treated with shallow flooding might also be managed as official bird habitats. They also wanted to work with LADWP on a sensitive way that it could drawdown aqueduct export water used for shallow flooding while not vampirizing valuable new habitats that had been created on the lakebed.

“We started a Conservation Action Plan,” recalls Jones. “We worked for a couple of years, but we never really had the buy-in of LADWP. Then, in 2009, one of the general managers, David Freeman, saw there was a real benefit to the CAP progress. We’d managed to bring all the parties together. He said, ‘Let’s take this process and formalize it.’ They had a facilitator; they had every stakeholder, the agencies, the miners, and the grazers. So that’s the process we’ve been in for the last couple of years writing the Master Plan.”

Freeman, who had brokered the dust deal back in the 1990s for then Mayor Richard Riordan, had in 2009 been dragooned back to his old job by then-embattled Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Less than a year later, after being caught in the crossfire between Mayor Villaraigosa’s office and city council over rate increases needed to cover the cost of renewable energy, conservation, and solar programs, Freeman left the LADWP.


Almost 200 sensors have been placed across the Owens dry lakebed to monitor the frequency, severity, and density of autumn dust storms. As Schade got steadily better at monitoring, and the most emissive parts of the lakebed were pinpointed, Los Angeles was sent remediation notices and the LADWP treated the areas, mainly with shallow flooding by freshwater from the Owens River.  Dust storms that used to push fine-grained air pollution particles more than 100 times the federal standard, dropped to levels closer to 10 times the federal standard.

As the mitigation notices kept coming, however, the LADWP began to cry foul. “The first plan in 1998 had about 16.5 miles plus some wiggle room for dust controls,” says Adams. “In 2003, a new plan had 29 square miles. The 2008 plan had 43 square miles!” According to Adams, the amount of water now diverted from the aqueduct to dust control in Owens Valley is 95,000 acre-feet, or enough to cover those many acres in a foot deep of water, or, as the LADWP describes it, roughly what residents of San Francisco use in a year.

This would be a lot of water even in good times, and these are not good times. Southern California’s imports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta are shrinking while the cost of the water is rising and, over on the Colorado River, member states are preparing for drought-caused shortage declarations.


LADWP test plot for tillage dust suppression method. © Emily Green 2013.

As Seattle energy executive Ron Nichols assumed general manager-ship of LADWP in early 2011, the bill for Owens Valley dust control had exceeded a billion dollars and the choice of shallow flooding had resulted in a third of LA’s fresh water supply being diverted from the aqueduct system for Los Angeles to the dust suppression bubblers out on the lakebed. When a new dust abatement notice for 2.93 additional square miles arrived that summer, Nichols called in the lawyers in what has proved a sustained assault on the 1998 dust deal. Schade and Great Basin also went to the courthouse, filing suit against LA for non-compliance on an outstanding order.  By October 2012, over in federal court, LADWP was suing Schade’s department, naming him personally as a capricious and rogue regulator, and also naming the California Air Resources Board, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the California State Lands Commission, and the federal Bureau of Land Management as colluders. As the Los Angeles Times covered the suit, Nichol’s predecessor at LADWP, David Freeman, asked reporter Louis Sahagun, “Ever heard of a polluter who didn’t claim a regulator was biased?”

The recurring theme of the lawsuits is that Schade mis-drew the regulatory shoreline at an all-time-high elevation. Adams argues that it should be re-set at the elevation measured in 1905, the year William Mulholland returned to LA with Owens Valley leases and also the year that the lake was at a near record low after a decade-long drought. The switch to a 1905 contour would mean that not only would Los Angeles be off the hook for more work, but it would have also controlled 25 square miles of playa outside of the adjusted regulatory shoreline.


Last April, Adams was back in front of the now somewhat diminished Owens Lake Master Plan committee. He’d come to show an impressive set of new drawings by the Orange County landscape architecture firm Nuvis. Working with Nuvis (one of three firms that had been collaborating with the Master Plan committee), LADWP took the habitat and viewshed elements of the Master Plan and combined those ideas with its “must have” list. This new hybrid, Adams told the group, was now called “The Owens Valley Master Project.”

According to Adams, the reception was warm. “We got some very good reactions,” he says. “Most people said, ‘It’s like the Master Plan.’ We said, ‘Exactly.’ It has some decisions, but those decisions weren’t going to be made by the planning committee.”

Those decisions include widespread use of an as yet un-validated waterless dust control method called “tillage,” which will have to be approved by regulators including Schade before the meandering furrows shown in the Nuvis schematics could be plowed into the lakebed. “We’re hoping that tillage, basically like farm tillage, will be approved,” says Adams. “It costs about 10% of what it costs to do flooding. It’s a huge savings for rate payers.”

Adams has support from Schade on this. “We’re working with the city on the tillage project,” says the Great Basin’s control officer. “We know it’s possible, big clay clods that bake in the sun are non-emissive. We’re trying to see how long the clods stay whole.”

When three square miles of dust suppression construction is finished in 2015, LA will have treated 45 square miles, after which it insists, categorically, that it will be done. Hang the regulatory shoreline.

Adams loses Schade here. “That’s completely untenable,” says Schade.

The California State Lands Commission and Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District are checking where they are in lawsuits brought against them by the LADWP before commenting on the Master Project proposals. Los Angeles has told State Lands that it wants to be the lead agency, not the lakebed owner State Lands as originally planned, if the Master Project goes forward.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is also in wait-and-see mode. The Owens Valley Committee and Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation withdrew over many issues. For the reservation, says air quality coordinator April Zrelak, the biggest issue was the insistence on pumping local groundwater. For the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone, any impact on local seeps and springs would be unacceptable.

Audubon is staying with the new project. “It’s incredibly important,” says Andrea Jones of California Audubon. “We know that a lot of water birds migrate through saline lakes—the Salton Sea, Owens Lake, Mono Lake, the Great Salt Lake. A lot of those habitats are in danger. The Salton Sea is drying up.” If Audubon does not like the project description as California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) documents are drawn up for review, it will comment then, she says. “In the mean time, we’re staying at the table trying to make the project better.”

The federal case brought by LADWP against Great Basin, the string of other air regulators, LADWP’s landlord State Lands, and the landlord’s neighbor the Bureau of Land Management, was dismissed last May, the same month Adams unveiled the Master Project to the Master Plan committee. “It was a long shot,” Adams said of the lawsuit. “We haven’t lost anything substantive.” LADWP lawyers are currently preparing another suit challenging another order from Schade, he says.

In October, a month before the centenary celebrations, Los Angeles will be facing Great Basin in court to have non-compliance fines decided.

LADWP has succeeded in getting the thickness requirement for gravel cover halved, a potentially huge savings for its most costly waterless dust control technique, and the use of salt water for shallow flooding approved, a development only meaningful if the department is successful in its bid to pump the lakebed’s brackish groundwater. Unflappable, the DWP is also proceeding with turning the Master Project schematics into a full-fledged project proposal for environmental review under CEQA as if the regulatory shoreline of Owens Lake has been lowered and LA’s liability has been capped to 45 square miles. It’s also taking it as accepted by Master Plan stakeholders and regulators that the unvalidated waterless dust control methods used in the schematic will be approved; that waivers to create dust without fines during changeover from shallow flooding will be given; that they will be allowed to pump Inyo County groundwater from beneath the lake to use for dust suppression; and that they no longer must abide by the original deal brokered under S. David Freeman in the 1990s with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the California Air Resources Board, and the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District.

The Master Project should be through environmental review by 2015, says Adams. “We want to rush this thing,” he says. “We want to get this done.”

Emily Green is a journalist who has written frequently for major publications including the Independent (UK), New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Las Vegas Sun, and High Country News. In 2009 her work was recognized by the Associated Press Managing Editors Award and Best of the West Environment and Natural Resources Reporting Award for “Quenching Las Vegas’s Thirst: A five-part series on plans by Las Vegas to tap the Great Basin Aquifer.”

Repurposing the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a Pathway for Sacred Pilgrimages | Tyler Stallings

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Practices | Comments Off on Repurposing the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a Pathway for Sacred Pilgrimages | Tyler Stallings

Photographs by Tyler Stallings

The year 2013 is the centenary of the Los Angles Department of Water and Power’s Los Angeles Aqueduct, an engineer’s 233-mile dream. A small fraction, 24 miles, is an open ditch, along with 37 miles of lined channels, 12 miles of steel and concrete pipeline, or siphons, 52 miles of concrete tunnels under the desert, plus the most notable and visible sections, the 98 miles of open-air concrete conduits. I will be visiting sections of each from the viewpoint of a future Aridtopia, a speculative, utopian, desert-based community that encompasses southern California. In its future, the aqueduct’s water flow will be shuttered as a matter of principal, based on sustainability and restitution to the Owens Valley.  But, even though it will be dry, it will still exist as The Great Incision in the Mojave Desert, or more simply, the Incision. How could it be repurposed in a way that reconnects people to the land and the water?

Aridtopia is a state of desert mind. It is a place where the most valuable commodity is fresh water, rather than oil, diamonds or gold. Hot, dry winds; unrelenting sunshine; gritty sand in your crevices; a weathered sign that reads “Tropical Oasis,” evoking impossibility. It is a place that is around the world: Mojave, Sahara, Atacama, Arabian, Sonoran, Artic and many other places where precipitation is almost absent. Robes, vented hats, snakebite kits; jackets for the cool night since there is little moisture to hold the heat as the sun sets.

The satellite image on my smart phone reveals the linear lines of the concrete aqueduct cutting through the Owens Valley. An extraterrestrial might consider rightly, while peering through its equivalent of a telescope, that they are canals carrying water across the planet’s surface to cities. Their correct estimation would be in contrast to the incorrect interpretation of blurry images of Mars seen through telescopes in the late 1800s, which created optical illusions that suggested crisscrossing canals on the Martian surface and thus:  life exists!

Today, as we consider settling the planet Mars, or Jupiter’s moon, Titan, we ask ourselves—from where will the water come? The next question that we ask: is there life beyond Earth, and does it exist in the harsh conditions of either the remnants of an atmosphere or the frozen seas of methane and ethane? These are the same questions that a nascent city on planet Earth in southern California asked in the early twentieth century.

Los Angeles needed water in order to realize its potential in a near desert environment. From where will it come? The answer was the Owens River. The next question: will this affect life in the Owens Valley? No, as there are only the scattered Paiute and Shoshone people and settler-ranchers using the land.

So, like the potential futures of Mars and Titan, the Owens Valley became a colony of Los Angeles. The city bought the land and the water rights for the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  It began to flow in 1913, allowing for the growth of Los Angeles from a city of just over 100,000 people on 44 square miles in 1900 to over 500,000 people on 364 square miles by 1920. Rather than terraforming Mars into a human-habitable planet, Los Angeles deformed the Owens Valley and reformed itself as a livable city.

I begin my journey on the outskirts of what may one day be Aridtopian boundaries in a former region of the U.S., in order to evaluate the repurposing of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. I drive a silver Mini Cooper, near the same size as the Mars Curiosity rover, exploring on Earth an arid landscape and the Incision.

Pearblossom, California, U.S. Route 18

I wear a green baseball cap to protect the beginning of a bald spot from the sun. My back is perspiring from leaning against a faux-leather car seat, despite wearing a thin, cotton, and plaid buttoned shirt. My vision is intermittently blurry because of the dry air as my contact lens need to slip and slide across moisture on my eyeball in order to work effectively.

The farther I drive away from Los Angeles, toward the Mojave Desert, the more the blue dots of swimming pools disappear from my phone’s satellite images. I am leaving my home. The Earth’s blue, watery surface barely registers from the Voyager 1’s viewpoint of 11 billion miles away. It is about to leave our solar system for interstellar space—the first human-crafted device to do so. No more water. No more Earth.

I drive past old, sun-bleached, drive-in motels, still advertising free HBO and air-conditioning. There is an erasure of signs. The lettering fades and peels from the sun, designating  past purpose: gas station, motel, roadside bar. The cloudless sky and the relentless sun send text into oblivion. Perhaps this will help the future Aridtopian squat in the questionably abandoned structures and then post a new sign: “Last Border Stop Between Aridtopia and the United States of America.”

Heading north on the 18, I turn left onto Longview Road, prompted by a sign that promotes a section of the L.A. Aqueduct as a fishing spot.

I drive up a paved road into the hills, turning off onto a dirt road that leads to the Los Angeles Aqueduct that is not visible from the road. I locate it by satellite on my phone. It is so well hidden here. Standing on its concrete banks, I watch the water flow smoothly and constantly. Perfect engineering. No trees on the banks nor boulders in the channel to thwart the pull of water down a steady decline from over 3,500 feet in the northern end of the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. The water flows on its own; a visible reminder of an invisible force—gravity. Claims have been made that when it poured fourth in 1913, William Mulholland announced, “There it is! Take it!” My objective as a future Aridtopian is to reconsider this sentiment. One day, I may stand upon a purposefully dry aqueduct and announce, “There, it was never meant to be!”

The concrete aqueduct is a miniature valley. Its hard, sloping walls are like the steep, sheer grades of the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo White Mountains with the once fertile Owens Valley between them. It would be hard to pull myself out if I fell in because there is so little that can be grabbed. I suppose that I would float downstream, like a new day Huckleberry Finn, meeting characters of the desert along the way, until I slid into one of the several reservoirs along the aqueduct’s route. And just as Mark Twain’s character satirized old, deep-rooted attitudes by Southerners pining for the days before the Civil War, I will become known as No-Job Mesquite, and would offer scathing observations on entrenched views toward water-use.


If the aqueduct were dry,  it could provide a protective trade route, shielded against the daytime desert heat where it is below ground, and against nighttime chill since the concrete will radiate heat absorbed from the sun. Vendors could set up shop too, alongside the upper banks. A narrow track could be laid down the center whereby gravity pulls carts down. Another track could be for carts pulled upslope with ropes.

Creosote bush, Mormon Tea shrub, and Mojave yucca surround the concrete aqueduct with its deep, flowing water. They are spaced apart, creating less competition for water and mineral resources. The Paiute, who were the first inhabitants of the valley, once lived spaced apart in smaller family groups. The Cahuilla in southern California did too. They divided when the group reached 200 or so. The idea of living together as a larger tribe was forced by settler governments more interested in containment than dispersion. I hope that the Paiute, or the Numa, as they call their people, and future Aridtopians will be able to live by their own fates.

Centuries ago, water flowed into imperial ancient Rome from the countryside via beautifully engineered, arched aqueducts. Los Angeles is imperious too, treating the Owens Valley as a resource-colony. The concrete aqueduct is a prison for the water. The snowpack—the blood of the mountains—is being drained slowly.

I am sweating profusely in the near 100-degree July heat in the Mojave Desert. A lizard scrambles along the concrete embankment. I will not allow my water to drain from me into the aqueduct.

Jawbone Canyon, northeast of Mojave, California, U.S. Route 14

I drive north from Pearblossom, past the town of Mojave and the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm—hundreds of single- and double-blade turbines spinning in the wind—and pull off at Jawbone Canyon, named for hills that resemble mandibles. In the 1800s, several gold mines dotted the landscape. Now, it’s the site of one of the largest sections of the L.A. Aqueduct’s metal siphons.

A stark white line crosses the desert surface. It is one segment of a miles-long, nearly seven-foot in circumference, metal pipe, or siphon, transporting water from the Owens Valley River to Los Angeles. The siphon’s extreme straightness suggests a contemporary rendition of the ancient animal-shaped Nazca Lines in Peru, some seemingly visible from an aerial viewpoint only. This same pipe zigzags atop hills in the distance, perhaps suggesting a slithering rattlesnake over the landscape, at least as seen from the sky, or the satellite image on my phone. The reflection of the sun off the chalk-like paint covering the pipe is blinding. I walk across the powdered desert sand to touch its side. No sensation of rushing water—of the Sierra Nevada’s blood—beneath the metal, as I had expected.

Several fire rings are near the siphon. They are made from nearby stray stones, and placed in a circle. They are left by what I call “desert-reckers.” (Those that use the desert for recreation, such as off-roading, do so within a federal embrace of “land of many uses.” An Aridtopian might define it as “wreck-creation.”) I imagine the fire circles as demarcating one of many resting places for future Aridtopian pilgrimages along the aqueduct’s route.

The Mojave Desert is a land of many uses: people retreat into it for the landscape’s solitude, quietness, and stillness, seeking spiritual replenishment. At the same time, the U.S. military maintains several bases such as Edwards Air Force Base, just south of Jawbone Canyon, and China Lake, north of here in the Indian Wells Valley. The desert provides the military bases with plenty of land for secrecy and distance from a civilian population for their protection. Experimental rockets and planes do blow up and they crash hard.

How could these siphons be repurposed? Could they provide a pathway from Aridtopia into Owens Valley that would provide even more protection from the elements than the concrete aqueduct sections that I saw earlier in Pearblossom?

With the siphons, ventilation slits could be cut into their metal sides so that air circulates continuously. This will allow pilgrims and travellers to traverse the desert in coolness. Doorways would be cut into the sides so that people can enter and exit at will, perhaps to sit around one of the fire rings. Flat platforms could be erected atop the curved surface so that people could climb out and up on to them for camping at night, away from snakes, coyotes, and scorpions.

However, these seem like only practical suggestions. There’s an opportunity to use the aqueduct for enacting a sacred journey, seeking spiritual truth. Maybe it could be a journey that the youth will take as they transition into “deserthood?” It would be like walking in a dream as they walk in the pitch-darkness of the siphon with their eyes wide open; severing their tie with the outside world. It would be a waking “dreamdesert” ritual.

Keeler, California, located on the east side of Owens Lake, U.S. Route 395

I leave my Aridtopian fantasies behind at Jawbone, finally merging onto the 395, heading further north into the Owens Valley. I drive past the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake on my right, or east side, in Indian Wells Valley. It’s the Navy’s largest base and the source for a variety of rockets and missiles with desert-animal inspired names, such as Sidewinder and Shrike. The first is a venomous pit-viper and the second is a bird known for its feeding habit of impaling lizards and insects on the thorns of plants or barbed-wire fences, giving them the nickname, “butcher bird.” Whether in Nazca Lines, lengthy metal pipes carrying water, or missiles, desert animals are evoked to represent otherworldly power.

Finally, I reach the southern tip of the desiccated Owens Lake. I turn right off the 395 onto the 190, which curves around the lake’s east side, reaching an intersection.  If I continue on 190, I’ll enter into Death Valley, but if I turn left on the 136, then I’ll continue skirting the perimeter of the lake, until I reconnect with the 395 at its northern end.

My MiniCooperMarsRover curves around the depleted, dusty, briny Owens Lake. Large expanses of salt flats lie at its center. When there is some rain, the water mixes with the salt and other minerals, making a small brine pond. Brine-fly larvae from its edges once sustained the Paiute. But, there is no more water. No more reflections of the sky on a shimmering, undulating, liquid surface.

The lake’s main contribution for decades has been alkali dust storms, since the aqueduct began tapping the Owens River above it. As much as four million tons of dust blows off the lakebed, spreading throughout the United States as one the country’s largest polluters.

I pass the DWP’s Dust Mitigation headquarters. They dump gravel, encourage some vegetation growth, and spray water to tap down the dust. The process has been successful to a degree, but has cost over a billion dollars, and has been executed only because of a court order.

I drive farther north and then stop at Keeler, midway on the east side, off the 136. Stepping out of my MiniCooperMarsRover, I walk among dilapidated, petrified, sucked-dry homes. The upkeep of some places suggests habitation, but it is still a ghost town;  one of hopes and dreams turned into dust. It was built when the Cerro Gordo silver mine was active from 1866 to 1957, 9,000 feet up into the hills from here. The ore was once brought down for smelting in Keeler, and then mule trains would take tons of silver to Los Angeles.

I come upon a post and lintel entrance to nothing. The lintel is a surfboard sign reading, “Keeler Beach. Swim, Surf, Fish. Camps For Rent.” There is no more shoreline since there is no more water.

I read once that in the early 1990s, Dr. Scott Stine, a paleoclimatologist at California State University at Hayward, examined centuries-old tree stumps at Mono Lake, exposed after water levels dropped when the Los Angeles Aqueduct drained water from the Owens Valley. He was able to demonstrate that long drought periods are the norm in the California region. The relative wet period, which is coming to an end, and in which we now live, is the anomaly.

Stine gathered additional evidence from fulgurites at Owens Lake, glassy structures formed by the fusion of sand by lightning strikes and made visible after the disappearance of the lake. He found fulgurites from both decades and centuries past, whose trapped electrons allowed for dating back further than expected. This suggested that the lake had been dry many times earlier, during which a lightning strike would have had the opportunity to hit a dry lakebed, thus, creating the fulgurites. In other words, there were many, long-lasting droughts in the past. Pilgrims could treat the fulgurites as talismans.

Bishop, California, U.S. Route 395

After Keeler, I skirt the remaining east perimeter of Owens Lake, intersecting with the 395 again. Then, I drive straight through the small towns of Lone Pine, Independence, and Big Pine, arriving in Bishop. It is located above the aqueduct’s intake gates, where water begins to flow from the Owens River into the aqueduct, bypassing the Owens Lake. The river can be found in its unchanneled state in this area.

Bishop is the biggest town along the 395. Along the main street are coffee shops and outfitters for hiking, skiing, and camping around Mammoth Lakes,  just a little further northwest in the Sierra Nevada. I’m now a couple of hundred miles north of my starting point in Pearblossom.

I stop at the Black Sheep Espresso Bar to meet with Alan Bacock. He is the Water Program Coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley, tasked with overseeing water quality and quantity for the reservation.  As a future emissary from Aridtopia, I’ve come to discuss the repurposing of the aqueduct as route of pilgrimage. I am curious about what Alan and other Paiute, or Numa, may propose for the aqueduct.  The Numa lived and survived in the arid environment for thousands of years before settlers arrived in 1859.

Could the dry aqueduct serve as a causeway between Aridtopia and the Paiute, collaborating in the development of a new matrix for the landscape?

I will even suggest that future Aridtopians will assume that in the wake of their Grand Refusal of the Aqueduct, that the Numa may be able to take back the 90 percent ownership in the land by the settler-DWP, and then peacefully evict the remaining settler-ranchers in the Owens Valley.

Keeler and Olancha, on the west side off the 395, could become sites where pilgrims rest. Perhaps there are areas of the lake that could be sectioned off with walls so that water can be pumped in, mix with the salt, and create a salinity  eight times greater than the ocean’s, like that of the Judean Desert’s Dead Sea. Pilgrims could float buoyant on it, their bodies touching nothing hard, losing sense of their own body, confronting their primal self as the interior and exterior boundaries of the body dissolve into the briny water.

Or, perhaps Aridtopians can specialize in huge salt sculptures. The old smelting kilns for the silver ore could be used to prepare a salt solution: bring a vat of water to a rolling boil, keep adding salt until no more salt will dissolve, add food coloring. Then, bring the vat out onto the salt plains of the lake, build a skeletal wood structure over it, dip rope into the vat, then pull it out so that one end of it dangles in the vat and the other end is tied to a spot on the skeletal structure, and then leave it undisturbed. When the salt water begins to cool, the salt molecules will crystallize back into a solid, creating long, salt, multicolored, stalagmites along the rope, eventually becoming a crystalline superstructure in the desert. Temporary sanctuaries can be built in this manner. Maybe even a whole city for pilgrims on the dry Owens Lake.

Clues to the past can be excavated in the form of fulgurites, while these Aridtopian structures are being built for the eventual future.

Map by Tyler Stallings

The Numa may choose to return to the ancestral method of creating canals that branched off the river creeks flowing from the Sierra to water fields. Places in the Owens Valley may even revert to historic gathering spots for the Numa, returning to a life of constant movement and seasonal dwellings.


Alan and I order coffee and then step out to Black Sheep Espresso Bar’s back porch area to sit under an umbrella, shielding us from the sun. Alan is a young man and has a family. His hair is black and his skin is brown. He checks his smart phone often, looking for messages from his wife, daughter, or other Paiute.

We had hoped that it would be a quiet location so that we could hear each other’s comments, but a group sits down at another table a few feet away. They seem to be friends who haven’t seen each other for a while. A couple is from Australia and another woman has just returned from travels in South Africa. Either the world is becoming one big desert or inhabitants of one desert region are attracted to arid regions elsewhere.

Alan provides some history of his people in the valley. My own thoughts, sans-italics, alternate with his.

Long ago, our ancestors realized that water did not come from the sky but flowed from the mountains. They learned long ago to build canals and ditches to irrigate seed-lands with the Sierra runoff. There were no fences or property lines so when settlers came they thought that the land was not being utilized but it was—by us.

Invisibility does not mean lack of presence.

In the past, most of the skirmishes with the settlers had to do with food. The livestock were eating plants that we had cultivated and gathered, such as Blue dicks. We would dig them up and gather the corm. Our most important item were the pinyons from the Inyo and White Mountains. There are still some that are being harvested by the Numa. And then the animals were small game that could not get around anymore due to fences, or livestock taking their food away, so starvation began to happen to us. Then, as we were starving we might kill a cow, for example, and then the rancher would retaliate. Then the military would come in from Fort Independence to protect the settlers. I’m jumping around here on history but you get the point. It’s been a slow dwindling of resources. But, we’ve survived.

To build a fence is to steal from the land. A fence makes one lose one’s soul to the impossibility of containment.

But the Paiute are adaptive. So they adjusted to the new paradigm. This was in the 1860s. Then later the aqueduct brought a second paradigm because there were no jobs with the ranchers since they weren’t getting water either. We’ve always existed, just like the Ancient Bristlecone Pine. I think that you should visit them because they are the oldest living trees, going back 5,000 years or more. They have survived in the most extreme of circumstances. Very little water, poor soil, and constant wind. They are like the Paiute; we still live here and still exist, even though many people have tried to destroy us.

Our people have always used the resources, but not to their limit because we live within it. All things are connected. Our use of water affects vegetation, animals and other people. We definitely see things as sacred. So with that point of view, we will always have a different outlook not only towards water, but life.

2013 marks not only the hundred-year anniversary of the LA Aqueduct but it also marks 150 years when our people were forced to march from Fort Independence to Fort Tejón. We just recently had a gathering, praying for peace and for the land. In fact, I have a friend who is not native, and who is walking from Fort Tejón to show the forced march in reverse, that is, to show better outcomes can happen, even today.

Aridtopians will walk the dry aqueduct upstream, against gravity, to reverse the bad intentions connected to decades of water flowing downstream to Los Angeles.


Alan and I depart after talking for about 90 minutes. He checks his phone for more messages. He suggests that I drive to the nearby Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center & Museum.

I realize that people come with answers and not questions many times, when I consider Alan’s comments. And, as Alan said during our conversation, “to come with answers often leads to genocide.” He even spoke about his missionary work in Japan and how he did not like using the word “missionary,” as it suggests that one is coming with a mission, that is, with solutions ahead of time. I consider a better Aridtopian title might be “questionary,” that is, someone who comes into unfamiliar territory with questions in order to learn, rather than impose rule.

Toward the end of our conversation, Alan admitted that he’s not sure how to respond at the moment to the possibility of the aqueduct being “shut off,” in terms of what it would mean for his people, the Numa.

We did not discuss it, but having done a little research on the Numa, I am wondering if some form of forgiveness towards the creation of the L.A. Aqueduct can occur, shedding pain and suffering from present-day identities. Perhaps the Numa could line the banks of the aqueduct and enact their mourning ceremony known as the cry dance. Normally, it concludes the mourning of relatives who died the year before.

But in this case, the cry dance would be ending 150 years of mourning their forced marches, of being put on reservations, and of the water being sent away to a city that does not get rain either. Their tears would fall into the dry, cement aqueduct, filling it with hope and courage. The water would spread out in the valley, creating marshes once again, bringing back the green space; that fertility that so surprised the settlers 150 years ago as they crossed over from the sunburnt, brown basin or from a fried Sacramento. It would go down in Numa lore as The Great Dry Cry.

Lone Pine, California, U.S. Route 395

My last break before I drive back nonstop over the imaginary U.S./Aridtopia border is in Lone Pine, one of the larger towns, though still quite small, along the 395. Lone Pine is a one-stoplight town. Just as Bishop is the entryway to Mammoth Lakes, Lone Pine is the entryway to hiking Mount Whitney.

The Lone Pine Indian Reservation is home to Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone members, and is along the south side of town on both sides of the 395. The Lone Pine Museum of Film History is also located at the south end of Main Street. It’s an old movie house with a towering marquee on its façade and has the snow capped Sierra Nevada as its cinematic backdrop.

I drive up a slight incline, then consult my map, and find the site of the tent city that housed the cast and crew for Gunga Din. The movie was an adventure tale set in nineteenth-century India. According to my guide map, it was about three raucous British soldiers and their water-bearer, Gunga Din, who must stop an uprising by an Indian cult.

These hills are also the site for ancestral stories of the Numa, including one about a giant who pounced and screamed to scare people out of their hiding places, then picked them up and killed them. On his way back up the valley, a water-baby in the Owens Lake outsmarted him, dragged him into the lake, and drowned him.

I stand here amidst the rounded boulders, superimposing water-stories that are centuries apart. I am developing a story about the aqueduct, the Paiute, and Aridtopia. This place will still be here when the chronology of these stories passes, leaving them to exist all at once in this place.

Alan and I talked about this notion a bit in our conversation in Bishop. On one level, the Paiute stories serve a practical purpose: told as warnings to young kids to stay away from places where they might drown by scaring them with a water-baby creature; or as a mnemonic device for remembering the location of sources of water and food. Place connects people with the land itself, rather than emphasizing movement from location to location as an area is exploited for its resources, until it is dead as a source of food, water, and memory.

Focusing on place, rather than time, is one of the biggest mental obstacles for future Aridtopians, since we will have once lived in the United States where “time is of the essence” and “time is money.” It has been said that “time heals all wounds.” Aridtopians may rephrase this sentiment to read as “place heals all wounds.”

In my mind, for future Aridtopians, and for the Numa perhaps, the L.A. Aqueduct has been repurposed conceptually. It has been transformed from an immense mechanism for transporting water into one for transporting one’s spirit. The Incision would become a sacred pathway for rediscovering one’s place within the universe; a desertdreamtrek where one’s consciousness dissolves into the liquid cosmos from which all life has emerged.

Photographs and map by Tyler Stallings.

Tyler Stallings is a writer and curator with a focus on photography, technology, new media, and phenomenology of the body. He serves as artistic director of Culver Center of the Arts and director of Sweeney Art Gallery at University of California, Riverside.

A Paiute Perspective on the LA-Owens Valley Water Story: Jenna Cavelle in conversation with Alan Bacock and Harry Williams

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Perspectives | Comments Off on A Paiute Perspective on the LA-Owens Valley Water Story: Jenna Cavelle in conversation with Alan Bacock and Harry Williams

Alan Bacock (left), Jenna Cavelle (middle), Harry Williams (right). © Chris Morrow 2013.

There is a widely held belief that Los Angeles went out and “stole” its water from Owens Valley. This viewpoint has produced an entire body of literature and film on the Owens Valley-Los Angeles water war. In nearly every case these works focus solely on how Los Angeles took water from the white settlers at the time the aqueduct was completed in 1913. From academic journals to best sellers, to documentaries and film noir, for the past 100 years the Owens Valley-Los Angeles water story always begins and ends with the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But there is a greater story, an untold story that is rich in history and human achievement—a story that is as much a part of American memory as the creation of our great cities. This story is the history of the Paiute Indians who populated and irrigated Owens Valley for millennia, long before the aqueduct was built.

Paya, a documentary film project currently in production, sheds light on the pre-history of America’s longest-lived water war through the untold story of Paiute Native Americans and the vast irrigation systems they engineered. These complex networks of ditches, canals, and dams were erected using communal labor and managed under the direction of a head irrigator who was elected by the tribe.  Over sixty miles of indigenous waterworks irrigated desert valley into an agricultural system that sustained the Paiute for thousands of years.

For the ancient Paiute—from Pai meaning water—water was central to both their cultural practices and sociopolitical hierarchies. Colonization during the nineteenth century and the takeover of their waterworks without regard to first-user water rights led to the displacement of the Paiute, erasure of their irrigation practices, and suppression of their customs and history. Over time, tribal members have lost touch with their cultural traditions or simply don’t remember historic livelihood practices their people engaged in for thousands of years. Perhaps what is most miraculous about this untold story is that living tribal elders have identified what they believe are remnant waterworks in the current Owens Valley landscape.

Paya documents Paiute irrigation history and remnant waterworks using web media, photography, videography, archival materials, cartography, and oral histories. The media resulting from this project will be featured in museum exhibits in the Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center in Owens Valley and in UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, in a documentary film, and on the project website.

The following are excerpts from an interview  conducted in Owens Valley, June 23, 2013, by Paya producer/director Jenna Cavelle with two of the film’s main protagonists, Harry Williams, Bishop Paiute tribal elder and activist, and Alan Bacock, Big Pine Paiute tribal member and the current president of the Owens Valley Committee, a non-profit citizen action group dedicated to protecting the natural resources of the Owens Valley.

Jenna Cavelle: I am Jenna Cavelle. I am a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. I am here in the Owens Valley doing a community service project that recovers the cultural memory of the Paiute irrigation and water history in the context of the aqueduct centenary and a 150-year water war between the indigenous Paiute and various outside entities, LADWP among them.

Alan Bacock: My name’s Alan Bacock, I am a tribal member of the Big Pine Paiute tribe of the Owens Valley. I also work for the tribe; I am employed by them to look at water issues. The story here is continuing and is unfortunately one that stresses a viewpoint that water is something to be owned by people for people only—that’s not a viewpoint that tribal people typically take because we see water as important for all life and life encompasses more than just humans.

Harry Williams: My name is Harry Williams. I am a lifelong resident of Owens Valley. I am a member of the Bishop Paiute tribe but I have relations in the Big Pine area, Tinemaha, and the Round Valley areas that were traded off during historic land exchanges. Since 1996, I’ve been pretty involved in water rights and I’ve argued for them as a member of the Owens Valley community.

JC: I think I will start out by piggybacking something that you said, Alan. You mentioned that for the Paiute people and you personally, resources including water and land are not just for people. I think that’s a good starting point; to talk about what the Paiute perspective on the resources in question are. What is the Paiute view on land and water or on resources? Do the Paiute think about natural resources in terms of ownership or not?

AB: That’s a great question especially because our thought is very different from current, modern thought about life and ownership of land or ownership of water—those concepts are new to our culture. In contemporary mainstream society, we feel that we need to own things. And not only do we need to own them, we need to change them for our benefit—regardless of if it’s beneficial [overall] to do so or not.

For instance, Phoenix is a huge metropolis and within that metropolis people don’t want to suffer in the heat of summer, and so they go into buildings and those buildings are climate controlled so people don’t recognize where they’re living because they’ve completely controlled their environment. Within Paiute thought we don’t control our environment—we work within it.

JC: Harry, how about you? As a Paiute, what do you think the Paiute perspective is? Surely it’s changed over time because culture is not a stagnant thing. Before the settlers entered the valley, what do you believe was the viewpoint of the Paiute people on resources such as water and land in terms of ownership?

HW: The tribes really lived within a balance of life, but then they also learned how to spread the water because water turned into life and the more life or diverse life you had, the more opportunities for food and resources that you could also use. They were utilizing all the water by spreading it and creating life, creating a habitat for the plants that they gathered seeds off. When you got habitat for plants, you got habitat for animals and the animals you could then collect. But you never really killed everything because then you would have nothing. They learned: never take everything, always give a little bit of water back, always offer a little bit of food back. If you took everything then in the long run you’d have nothing. That’s what modern society needs to learn today: if you exploit all resources you will end up with nothing.

JC: So it sounds like they were practicing a very sustainable way of interacting with their resources but not necessarily calling it that. It was just sort of their way of being; it was just like breathing for them.

AB: Yes, when you rely on the environment for all that you have, you’re going look for ways to make it sustainable. Of course “sustainability” is a buzzword now, it was just a way of life for our people back then.

JC: Okay so let’s go back to the 1800s, the mid-1800s. There was a significant war that happened in 1863. It spanned about a five to seven year period depending on what academic book you reference. And 2013 marks a hundred and fifty years since that massacre. This is a period when Paiute territory and resources were formally taken over by the U.S. government. And so, what exactly happened during that time period, during the mid-1800s, to the Paiute

AB: Well, I would say that at that time period, people began moving into the valley and settling. Prior to that, you had explorers coming in, looking at things, but then leaving. Once settlement started to occur and people began to then take ownership of things like water and land, fences were put up. These new people began using the area’s water for their own purposes and they didn’t necessarily leave water for people downstream. And so a lot of the areas, the seed lands, the places where people still gathered, began to dry up. Also, cattle and sheep were brought in by the settlers and they were confined in different areas so either those animals were eating the vegetation that our people utilized or they were taking over areas that animals native to the place would typically go and they were no longer able to [use]. So when you don’t have the ability to collect and gather as you did, which was a major source of food for us, and when you don’t have the ability to utilize the native species of wildlife that’s there because you’ve been forced into new areas, that means that our people, then, weren’t able to find the needed food resources. That’s what really began the conflict here.

Harry Williams (left), Jenna Cavelle (middle), Alan Bacock (right). © Chris Morrow 2013.

JC: So the period from 1863 to 1913, before Los Angeles enters the valley, there’s a lot of changes happening; settlers start changing the name of places; you get Big Pine Creek, you get Bishop, you get Wind Valley. You get sort of the renaming of places that were once called something completely differently by the Paiute. So as this is happening, the irrigation systems are taken over; Indians are being essentially forced into labor at ranches because there are no other options. This happens over a fifty-year period and you get to a point where the settlers have, by 1900, essentially taken over the valley. Shortly thereafter you have a new stakeholder that enters the picture: the City of Los Angeles. Would it be fair to say that after LA’s entrance into the valley—whose primary goal is water resource acquisition—that during those initial years, the Paiute were not really considered a stakeholder until later in the twentieth century when LA wanted their water and their land in particular?

HW: Well, up until the 1960s let’s just say they called us the “Indian problem.” Capitalistic attitude; we were a problem because ‘we can’t make money with you in our way.’ We’re lucky that they didn’t just try to kill us all off. They tried to remove us but then nobody agreed to that, especially the ranchers because we were good workers for them.

JC: How did their presence in the valley change the Paiute way of life? What was the impact on Paiute livelihood, especially with the construction of the aqueduct in 1913? What was the effect on Paiute native plants? On irrigation? On their way of life in particular?

AB: Well, we had to adjust to settlers coming in and being able to work on the operations that they had going. When LA came in, then we had to do another shift. Because LA’s needs weren’t the same as the ranchers’ needs. In fact, they were very different, but again we looked to see ‘how are we going to survive with…?’ Was it easy? No, but to survive in this new environment with this new entity coming in—I would just say there was hardship. There was definite hardship. And how did they impact our culture? Oh, it devastated our culture: from having our children taken to schools outside of the valley to folks not being able to share our language with each other because that’s not the language you’re supposed to speak anymore. Our native plants—they were non-existent; we had to look for new sources of being able to feed ourselves or we had to go to the extremes to find new places where we could gather and then [when] we did do so, we had to be careful about going about it because usually it was somebody else’s property at this point.

AB: We had a very forced, sudden amnesia that happened to our people because of settlers and then, because of Los Angeles. And that impacts us to this day. Fortunately, now we have a resurgence of wanting to recover our memory—something denied to our people in earlier times. That is important for our people and for our environment because we’re all connected together. We can see that this amnesia has impacted everything around us; we deal with the highest air pollution levels in the nation for [airborne] particulate matter, we look at springs that are dried up, we look at animals that are either extinct or now endangered because a group of select people in power throughout the last 100 years—in their desire to manage this place for themselves—have only managed to destroy this area.

JC: Wow, that’s powerful.

HW: Yeah, that’s good

JC: It’s like the Paiute people really went through two separate colonizations—in the beginning when the settlers entered the valley and then again when LA arrived. I asked you guys this question in the beginning: when the settlers entered the valley did they consider Paiute ownership of resources? Did they consider the Paiute as a stakeholder? Did it change when LA entered the picture? You know, it’s fifty years later—we should have progressed as a society, so did they consider the Paiute as a stakeholder at that point or was it still sort of the same song and dance?

HW: I would say so because they tried to make us work under their rules and their rules were made for their benefit. Like when they told the tribes, if you didn’t apply for your water rights in 1851, well, you don’t have them now. And if you didn’t do this, well, you didn’t own that land. We didn’t understand these rules, didn’t even speak their language. They came in and started using all their big words—lawyer words. Indian agents [representing the tribes] worked for the federal government and their whole thought was ‘they weren’t using it so we’re going to use it, so it’s not theirs, and they just took it away from them.’ So who can you fight? They’d send in an army and kill you if you disagree with them. And today they’ll name you a terrorist just by arguing with them. They’ll label you. Like I said, ‘til 1924, we couldn’t own land. What kind of government does that? That’s a colonial attitude; first you come in and change everything, change the religion, change the rules, say that you’re less than me and since you’re less than me, I have a right to kill you if you disagree with me, and that’s kind of like what we’re just getting over today.

AB: In 1937 there’s an act of Congress enabling land and water exchanges on the res for Indian allocations with the City of Los Angeles. Now, as things progressed, what Congress had intended was that land and water would be exchanged with any [future] agreement including those with the City of Los Angeles. What happened was land was exchanged but water [rights] were not.

JC: I want to talk a little bit more about the relocation of the Paiute from one place to another by way of the land exchange. When I was a student at UC Berkley and I was studying the land exchange, one of the things that was so confusing about it for me was that land and water seemed to be inextricably linked. This land exchange was presenting a whole new concept for me by separating and exchanging them independent of one another. It was really difficult for me to wrap my head around that. When talking to the public over the past couple of years as I’ve been here working on my project, this seems to be a common point of confusion. One of the points of confusion is in the literature—sometimes you see the land exchange talked about as a 1937 document and sometimes you see it talked about as a 1939 document. And I’m wondering is that—

HW: They’re two separate documents.

JC: Does that represent a process? Or…?

HW: The ’37 one was after Congress gave the water rights for [surface] runoff to the City of Los Angeles. Then after that act was passed they went after the [actual] tribal land. That’s when they did the land exchange. They offered every Indian from Fish Lake Valley all the way to Yerington to come join this process. It wasn’t just in Owens Valley—they just wanted to consolidate all the problems and get rid of everybody. But a lot of people back in Yerington—they didn’t agree with that. Fish Lake Valley they didn’t agree with that either—they just said ‘no.’ In the Bishop area, my grandfather Billy Williams was a chief negotiator. They wanted to put us down by the airport and my grandfather said ‘we can’t grow anything down there.’ So he forced them to move [us] up to the present site where Bishop is right now. We were never given a good option.

AB: Going off of what Harry said, there were actually two acts of Congress in 1937. One act gave LA the ability to have that watershed protection, the second act disabled federal government from negotiating with the City of Los Angeles to trade lands. The result of those acts was a new agreement in 1939, and then that agreement was finalized in 1940/1941 with both the City of Los Angeles and the federal government. So yeah, it’s a process that went on.

HW: Here let me answer part of it. The act of ’39 was kind of illegal. What they did was they said if you want to become part of the Bishop, Big Pine or the Lone Pine tribes you had to sell all your land—all your allotted land. Some of the people ended up selling—which is evil to force someone to sell their land. They said, well, you can’t have land out there if you want to become part of the tribe. Some people still did it and they couldn’t go after them to make them sell their land so today, they still own their allotted land.

JC: So would you say then that this piece of legislation, or these pieces of legislation were really thrown into motion as a result of LA being here?

HW: LA had so much political power. They were able to push that 1939 act in one day. One day it went through Congress. One day. It just got pushed through. Voted on, not talked about, just… it was done.

JC: So are there current unresolved issues around water rights today that come out of that land exchange?

HW: Our water rights have never been settled.

AB: I want to say in 1937, the act and then with the 1939 agreement—which created the Big Pine, Bishop and Lone Pine reservations—are the water rights in question. The Fort Independence tribe, which is also in the Owens Valley, has their water rights established. But it’s the Big Pine, Bishop and Lone Pine reservations, which were a part of that agreement, that have not had those water rights settled. And that continues today. It is something that has always been on the hearts of our people to settle but we’ve always had opposition, be it externally or internally, that have not allowed us to fully settle out those rights. And again, the question is how do we then plan for the future if we don’t know what we have today?

JC:  So considering the potential for a positive future that considers all of these stakeholders that are here now with the Paiute at the forefront, how do you sort of imagine people coming together at the same table to create some sort of social exchange or change that is different and works for everyone; or can you even imagine something like that?

AB: That’s difficult to imagine. However, I would say that in the beginning of this interview we spoke about sustainability and that was how our people used to live before we knew what that really meant and we’re coming back to that. What is it to be sustainable? Because currently we look at our people and we see a lot of health impacts because of our [contemporary] diet, the lack of exercise—which a lot of folks aren’t able to do. The Big Pine tribe is looking at ways for our people to be healthier so we are looking at our diet. We’ve developed a project to create a community garden to demonstrate how to grow plants that will help our bodies be healthier. And in the process of doing that we’re utilizing the land in a beneficial way. We’re utilizing the water in a beneficial way so that we show that we still have an interest in protecting the land, protecting the water and, in turn, also being a healthy people. And I believe as we continue to do this demonstration, it will help to build the soil within our reservations. In Big Pine, because of the de-watering that’s gone on with the groundwater pumping and because of a flood that came over that deposited a lot of sandy soil, it is difficult to grow [food] and a lot of dust is produced on our reservation. We want to change that and it’ll take little bits here and there to strengthen our soil by utilizing the water and hopefully strengthening the health of our people in the process.

JC: I like that—I like the idea of growing plants to grow healthy people. You know I really like the way that sounds and feels.

AB: There’s a permaculturalist—Jeff Laughton is his name and he says that I can change the world through a garden. It sounds funny because you really think of a garden as something small and not really impactful; but when you look at what a garden is—it provides food and an area for animals and it provides nourishment for all kinds of things—I think he’s correct. You can change the world through a garden. I’m hoping that our project starts to show that by creating an environment where people can be healthier through getting out, working [outside] and eating from those plants so we can show others that this is how we will become healthier. This is how we can interact again with the world around us. When we started this interview we spoke about the disconnect that modern society has with the environment and how we always want to change our environment to fit our needs instead of being able to live within the environment. And when we begin to then live within the environment, we begin to recognize the importance of having clean air, clean water and [productive] land that can support life. When we end up doing that we will be a happier, healthier people in the process. And I would venture to say that a healthier environment as a whole is best for all living things.

Alan Bacock serves as Environmental Director for the Big Pine Paiute Band of the Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone people.

Jenna Cavelle is a conservation and resource studies researcher at UC Berkeley and founder of Peakwater.org. She is currently working with the Paiute Indian community on a documentary film, Paya: The Untold Story of the LA-Owens Valley Water War.

Harry Williams is an environmental activist and Bishop Paiute tribal member who serves as an educational guest speaker with the White Mountain Research Station.

genius ingenium: Near Adjacencies to the Owens Lake | Alexander Robinson

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Pedagogies | Comments Off on genius ingenium: Near Adjacencies to the Owens Lake | Alexander Robinson

Illustration displaying data of lake wide visual resources field assessment by James Lively, Myvonwynn Hopton, and Adrian Suzuki. Fall 2010.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was getting ready to roll out a solution to what is perhaps the agency’s most vexing problem. The alkaline Owens Lake, having been depleted by LADWP’s Los Angeles Aqueduct since the 1920s, was now a 100 square mile volatile salt bed, with resulting dust storms that were responsible for over six percent of California’s airborne particulate matter.

The LADWP had demonstrated from full-scale field tests that instead of controlling dust by watering the giant, dry lakebed, they could build berms, fences and ditches. “Moat and Row” was not only cheaper to construct, it was waterless – the holy grail for a utility using 95,000 acre-feet of water to saturate the lakebed and retain dust each year (95,000 acre-feet is roughly equivalent to the amount of water the city of San Francisco consumes each year).

However, this experimental BACM, or Best Available (dust) Control Method, was never implemented. Just as their definitive “master plan” for the Owens Lake has undergone more than eight unanticipated phases, the project did not go as planned. Moat and Row field test plots were erased, watered over with “shallow flood” and other approved BACMs. After a year and a half of review, the LADWP was ultimately unprepared to answer for concerns of “significant impacts to public trust values, including wildlife and visual resources” that the State Lands Commission and others raised.

By the poor impression it made on constituents and regulatory agencies, “Moat and Row” become an unofficial non-starter. Meanwhile, the LADWP had prepared no alternative approaches for this area of the lake and were forced to pay mitigating fines for failing to meet deadlines set by the local Air Pollution Control District.

Designing for Public Trust

By official accounts, the problems with Moat and Row were habitat and visual resources, two of a host of “Public Trust Values” required to be maintained on all navigable bodies of water (the Owens Lake was formerly plied by two steamships carrying bars of silver) in the United States. The plans that the LADWP had prepared showed a lakebed crisscrossed with orthogonal rows of sand fences and berms up to eight-feet-tall with trailing edges—a grid pattern trimmed to fit the contours of the lake. Driven principally by operational efficiency, the proposal diagrammed the most effective arrangement for dust control performance, construction, and maintenance. While reviewers stated they had concerns of the potential impacts that Moat and Row might have on endangered Snowy Plover populations, there appears to have been an unofficial sentiment that the larger problem was how the LADWP had designed and presented their approach. In their final disapproval, State Lands, the lake’s landlord, and others argued for something more  “creative.”

In a region built upon infrastructures engineered for, and measured by, their large-scale operational capacities, failure due to a lack of “creativity” is still a novelty. While Los Angeles’s design community is galvanized by the failure of infrastructures like the Los Angeles River to provide multiple social, cultural, and ecological benefits beyond flood control, most engineering projects remain driven by instrumentality and pragmatics. For example, recent proposals by the Army Corps for restoring L.A. River ecologies are driven by metrics of habitat units and cost. The only viable alternatives considered are so-called “best buy” options, many of which radically de-value improving the concrete channel itself, the impetus for decades of activism.

Multi-performance design is often still seen as a luxury appliqué or secondary mitigation measure, not integral to the design process. Even as noted landscape architects such as Lawrence Halprin attempted to gain agency in their design in the late ‘60s, most large freeway projects only engage designers to pattern sound walls or provide pastoral relief to the infrastructure, rather than become an integral player in the physical form and ecology of the system. In many recent local infrastructure projects, engineers routinely engage landscape architects at late stages of design to aestheticize their interventions with constituent-friendly renderings and add-on features.

In weighing the essential services that infrastructures must provide, and the vast scale at which they must perform, the marginalization of enhanced, multi-purpose landscape design might be considered reasonable. At the Owens Lake, the LADWP needs to provide water-frugal dust control above all else and the Moat and Row scheme reflects this. However, while pragmatic functionality is clearly necessary, it is, as State Lands argued, at times insufficient.

Los Angeles and the West have entered an era in which public agencies are expected to seek and fortify public trust values integral to the sites on which their systems operate. Beyond marginalization in favor of pragmatics, and beyond after-thought appliqué or horse-trade mitigations, design disciplines have an opportunity to integrate effective technical solutions with powerful place-making. The focus of my teaching and research as a landscape architect is at this intersection: where genius locii (locale) meets genius ingenium (engineering).

Lake Bed as Test Bed

In my studios and research within the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of Southern California, I have focused on the Owens Dry Lakebed as a proving ground for developing this approach. Studios and research employ a hybrid process, combining the strengths of engineering and landscape design. Our goal is to create a dialogue between the a-priori rigor of an engineering focus on performance and efficiency, and the ability of landscape design to capitalize on qualitative values embedded on site. Since 2011, I have been immersing students in LADWP’s perpetual Owens Lake dust control project and challenging them to find solutions that hew closely to the established LADWP performance parameters and systems, while providing, and extending the boundaries of, public trust values. Our contention all along has been that landscape design could, in an unlikely twist from it’s outdated perception as a “luxury” service, prove integral to providing the most resource-efficient infrastructural solution.

Humility and Accountability

When approaching this site and the policy frameworks that govern it, my graduate landscape architecture studios start from a place of humility. While there are multiple grounds for challenging the instrumentalist approach of the managing entities, our strategy has been to understand the current working conditions before offering alternative paths for current, possibly troubled, trajectories. Proposals and methods are necessarily shaped by this aikido-like approach to influence, whereby the momentum of current trajectories is understood and carefully re-directed to an alternative outcome.  The product of small adjustments, such outcomes can be considered “near-adjacent” to the existing conditions, even though they can accrue into radical transformations.

In order to re-direct an engineering trajectory (even when it is failing), landscape practice must closely observe engineering modes. Doing so is less a methodological surrender than both a sensible concession to the ultimately collaborative role of our practice in these situations, and a growing interest in our profession becoming more instrumental and performance-based. Far from abandoning the flexible, qualitative interest of landscape practice, we focus on how to hone or adapt our core methods within the dominant, quantitative framework of engineering. The purpose is not to compromise, but rather seek a methodological common ground—a hybrid practice where the highest interests and concerns of each are accommodated.

Viewshed analysis at Red Pond T3NE (detail), Myvonwynn Hopton,  Fall 2010

Quantitative Research

At the Owens Dry Lakebed, initial engineering design was largely driven by compliance with mitigation deadlines, an approach that incidentally created unsustainably high public trust values. The LADWP, having delayed action for years, had to rush the first phases in order to meet a series of benchmarks. While watering the lake has the highest inherent public trust values of any BACM—almost anyway it is applied to the lake creates valuable habitat and improved visual resources—the LADWP chose it as their predominant BACM on the lake due to its ease of implementation and relatively low capital cost. By following the path of least resistance in terms of construction and implementation for most of the lake, they inadvertently set a high bar for public trust values, at great annual expenditure of resources.

After they had achieved major dust mitigation goals on the lake, they began to take a closer look at the efficiency of each BACM—by the square mile—in terms of the cost of construction, water use, and maintenance costs. However, public trust values having been automatically provided by water was not initially measured or integrated into this assessment.

Approaching this situation my studio began to understand that the LADWP, after having soured from “wasting” so much water and failing to limit their obligations by a series of lawsuits, was beginning to see the lake as a long-term and extremely costly expenditure. There has been a tangible shift in their quantitative strategy as they began to weigh annual inputs, both resource use and maintenance operations, above all else. However, as they seek to move away from water intensive dust control, the question of how they integrate and maintain public trust values in ways that match their efficiency goals comes into high relief.

Perhaps our studio, through analysis and design, could find other, more resource-efficient ways to provide public trust values than making a dry-lake lake-like with thousands of acres of potable water? Might landscape architecture provide an acceptable way to reduce resource inputs that theoretically could continue for thousands of years?

OWENSdry LAKEbed, Christopher Arntz, Fall 2010

Perceptual Fieldwork

Even when fiascos such as “Moat and Row” demonstrate that resource and maintenance metrics cannot serve as the only measures of a successful design solution, there is no clear roadmap of how to combine the quantitative efficiency of engineering with the relatively fuzzy qualitative interests and inspirations of landscape architecture, or even the “visual resources” mandated by Public Trust doctrine. Our studios explore several possible avenues for integrating the quantitative with the qualitative.

The vast, flat space of the lakebed offers a fertile ground for exploring issues of perception and experience. Endless pools of shallow water give way to meadows to pink salt flats to neat rows of vegetation, each foreground experience changing with the kind of ground cover or dust control in place. The lakebed confronts us with the limits of our perception and what we can access. How do we capture and capitalize on these perceptions? If we want to match, or extend, the necessary efficiency of engineering interventions, how do we assess the impact and value of interventions in terms of experiential performance? How do we supplement our subjective understanding of landscapes with additional models and data? How do we calibrate perceptual conditions to utilitarian needs?

In the spirit of John Wesley Powell’s famous exploration of the Colorado River, we saw field surveying techniques as a means to map and value personal, immersive explorations of perception and experience, as well as for data collection. The first year we visited the lake, we conducted a survey of existing visual resources, altered as they were by the approximately $1 billion worth of dust control interventions already in place. To coordinate our efforts, we employed a modified version of the 1995 United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service Landscape Aesthetics, Handbook of Scenery Management.

Equipped with custom programmed GPS devices, student groups spread out across the lake’s access roads in vehicles with clipboards and cameras, making regular measurements of “Landscape Character” and “Scenic Integrity” re-conceptualized for the lake’s unusual environment. In addition to helping navigate, the GPSs monitored the groups, measuring number and duration of visits to particular locations made by student surveyors and diverse tours thus surreptitiously assessing the visibility and popularity of specific spots. These studies resulted in the first maps to recognize the scenic value of engineered sites, normally disregarded for lacking “integrity.”

Students also mapped and valued a variety of perceptual conditions. The lakebed is situated in one of the deepest valleys in the country, flanked by mountain ranges on both sides, with some peaks above 14,000 feet. At any point on the lakebed, both spectacular mountain ranges are visible, yet gaps appear in the perception of middle and foreground, depending on the dust control system framing the vantage point. Some of these studies were the first to reveal the peculiar conditions that create disorientation on the flat lakebed.

Building on these studies and inspired by Edgar Payne’s Sierra-based work on outdoor painting composition principles (Composition of Outdoor Painting, 1941), students analyzed a single vista point in greater detail, to the extent that they altered it based on their understanding of its framework and effect. These studies initiated a more precise understanding of scenic values, particularly of the built landscapes. One student, intrigued by the surreal color gradients of saline pools, inventoried a remarkable diversity of chromatic effects. Others studied views ranging from sinuously picturesque to radically orthogonal arrangements, resembling city-sized petroglyphs.

In response to this re-survey of visual resources, students were required to produce a “postcard” of the Owens Lake that epitomized their understanding of its appeal as a recreation and site-seeing destination, two important public trust values identified by local constituents. The postcards challenged students to produce a minimally modified vista that could be self-consciously hawked to the general public in a nearby gas station. One student, altering course slightly, visualized a billboard on the lake edge taunting us with contrasting views of the lake before and after the LADWP’s interventions.

Postcard Proposal, Myvonwynn Hopton, Fall 2010

Subsequent visual resource studies of the lake benefited from testing concepts and techniques developed by Tadahiko Higuchi in his seminal The Visual and Spatial Structure of Landscapes, a qualitative/quantitative study of Japanese shrines and their surrounding landscapes. Students measured “foreground,” “middle-ground,” and “background” within the different dust control methods. By establishing measured thresholds for detail perception, landscape reflections, and other sensory and feeling perceptions, sense perception and experience could be calibrated as carefully as dust control or habitat performance.

Cumulatively, the perceptual documentation, analysis, and response generated through fieldwork led design students to re-frame the category of “visual resources” to include the altered, infrastructural landscape itself. By inventorying and valuing the manmade as well as the natural, students located themselves as curators within a concrete manifestation of genius ingenium.

Choreography of Place

With the emphasis on understanding extent, quality, and principles of perception and experience, the development of designs proceeded in a different direction, borrowing a playbook from neither engineering nor landscape design.

Rather than developing a discrete site or technology, students began by choreographing an idealized experience on the lake, akin to a cinema storyboard. Informed by their field studies and equipped with this “experiential score,” students proposed intervening into the site only to the degree necessary to support this experience. The goal was to minimize investment in experiential performance to the extent that it would be valued—a significant departure from the typical landscape architecture impetus to control the entire site, an approach that while seductive, can, un-abetted, easily overwhelm budgets and resources and can diminish the perceived value of the profession.

In subsequent studios, we honed the experiential score, with a particular focus on a “capstone” experience—a heightened moment, inspired by the annual “firefalls” in Yosemite Valley, that may be very specific and temporal. For example, a student oriented reflections and experiences based on which mountains were best lit at different times of day. These studies sharpened the design process to the conscious minimalist creation of a human interface with the lake.

Critical Values

While some may argue that the visual and experiential qualities of the lake are bit players in a landscape dominated by concerns of water supply, dust control, and bird habitat, what distinguishes the students’ work was an understanding of how “aesthetics” and “recreation” can be used to leverage technology to help us better cherish and protect a place. Students successfully made the case that minimal investment in the qualitative and perceptual could enhance resource use and transform the dry lakebed into an asset with public support.

By some indications the LADWP has learned from this process. Representatives who attended our final reviews of student work claimed to be inspired by the student designs. Not long after, LADWP hired three landscape architecture firms to design the next phase of the project. By all accounts a challenging collaboration, progress was delayed by the discovery of an archaeological site indicating a Native American massacre… the process that may come to an indefinite halt.

While potential benefits are manifest, it is clear that even in the best of circumstances, developing solutions that can bridge between the divergent priorities of the managing engineering entities and landscape architect consultants, is difficult work—a task that neither profession is especially equipped to engage in. There is a need for improved techniques and approaches, not only in the design classroom, but in experimental practice as well. At the Landscape Morphologies Lab (LML), we are developing design tools that provide professionals with a hybrid set of representational and feedback technologies that enable a more rigorous exploration of the design space defined by the project’s complex parameters. For the Los Angeles River, the lab fabricated and employed a scaled physical hydraulic model, employing an engineering methodology that is also appealing to non-professionals. For the Owens Lake, LML is developing a multimedia system that includes a robotic sand modeler, a 3D scanner, projection, and a custom software interface. The systems are designed to support a working environment that respects critical constraints, but still allows a free and impassioned study of potentially enriching outcomes. The first phase of the Los Angeles River studio will be exhibited in August 2013 at Los Angeles City Hall. An interactive exhibit of the Owens Lake research is expected in Lone Pine, California in early 2014.

Alex Robinson directs the Landscape Morphologies lab at the University of Southern California and is principal of the landscaped design and planning practice, Office of Outdoor Research.

Contested Water, Unholy Alliances, and Globalized Colonies: Exploring the Perception of Water by Residents of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Watershed

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Policies | Comments Off on Contested Water, Unholy Alliances, and Globalized Colonies: Exploring the Perception of Water by Residents of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Watershed

Fig. 1. Grant Lake. © Eric Haley 2012

Lee-Anne Milburn, Ph.D. and Barry Lehrman, with Tiernan Doyle, Eric Haley, James Powell and Devon Santy


Located in the Central Eastern area of California along the border with Nevada, the Eastern Sierra is facing the  effects of climate change: altered precipitation patterns, increasing extreme weather events, and changing ecological processes. Within the Eastern Sierra, the Mono and Owens River Basins make up the watershed supplying the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  They are the westernmost valleys of the geographical province, and are located in a diverse and ecologically complex setting.

Climate change in this area is of special concern because of the resource commitments to both local and regional entities. The inevitability of increased fluctuations in the water supply threatens the health of inhabitants and ecosystems of the Eastern Sierra as well as the Aqueduct’s end-users in Los Angeles.

Against the background of the Aqueduct’s centennial, the Metabolic Studio sponsored the Aqueduct Futures project at the California State Polytechnic University of Pomona.  As part of this exploration of alternative futures for the Aqueduct and its watershed, a team of graduate students from the Masters of Landscape Architecture program  developed regional strategies for sustainable land use and watershed planning along the northern half of the Aqueduct.

While the larger project focused on scenarios for the future of the Aqueduct as a structure, as well as the source of water for Los Angeles, students and faculty in the Master’s program collected data focussing on how water is perceived by the public and residents of the Aqueduct basin. This paper explores those perceptions, and their implications for planning and design, suggesting design methods and land use guidelines that seek a balance between the social, political, and ecological needs of the area.


Nestled between the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and the White and Inyo Mountains to the east, the scenery is diversely spectacular (Fig.1). The Eastern Sierra’s watershed offers a striking combination of preserved lands and intensive resource extraction. Closely connected to both Yosemite and Death Valley National Parks, the Eastern Sierra attracts a wide variety of visitors using the parks for recreation. Apart from their beauty, the region’s natural systems are the result of highly specialized interactions between topography, climate, hydrology, and ecology. Water is an especially prized commodity throughout the region because the valleys to the east rest in the rain shadow created by the Sierra Nevada Mountains. While the western slope of the Sierra averages 45 inches of precipitation per year, the Owens Valley floor receives five inches in addition to abundant flows from snowmelt supplying the creeks, rivers, and aquifers of the valley (NRCS 1998).

As it looks today, the Eastern Sierra is a sparsely inhabited area flanked by two massive mountain ranges. Only a handful of towns provide homes for the bulk of the local residents, with miles of open land in between. In the past few decades, hydrologic extractions and diversions have caused a flurry of litigation revolving around the environmental effects of water export. Environmental degradation such as habitat destruction, dried up springs, and significant river channelization (Fig. 2) are slowly being addressed by mandated mitigation projects (LADWP and ICWD 1991).

Fig. 2. Walker Creek. © Eric Haley 2012

History of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Completed in 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct holds the honor of being the first major municipal water project in the state of California (HAER 2010). The initial transference brought water 233 miles (375 km) from the Owens River to Los Angeles. In order to increase supply, a second conduit was added in 1970 that stretches south from Haiwee Reservoir to Santa Clarita (HAER 2010). The Los Angeles Aqueduct and the Eastern Sierra have contributed to infrastructure development, allowed massive population growth, and provided for irrigation within one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country (LADWP 2002).

Though early farming and mining took their toll on the original landscape of the Eastern Sierra, the most drastic changes to the Owens Valley took place after 1913, when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed. Although agricultural activity throughout the valley had already begun lowering lake levels, Aqueduct diversions accelerated the process and Owens Lake was dry by 1924 (Gagnon 2001). Subsequent groundwater pumping, in addition to diversions from nearby creeks and the Owens River, significantly lowered the valley’s aquifers and produced changes in much of its remaining native vegetation (LADWP and ICWD 1991).

Regulatory Context

Due to the myriad of  demands of land planning for human and ecological needs, it has been difficult to establish a management protocol that retains enough water within the Eastern Sierra while still providing an adequate supply for the City of Los Angeles (even with diversification of the city’s imported water supplies). Lawsuits involving decision-makers and stakeholders have been a way of life since the 1920s, when disputes over land ownership between farmers and the City of Los Angeles intensified (Libecap 2005).

Opposing viewpoints and competing claims have stymied productive land and water management between the Inyo County Water Department (ICWD) and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Despite the Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) of 1991, the necessity for court intervention in management decisions has solidified a lasting tension between Inyo and Mono County and the City of Los Angeles. Unease continues with LADWP’s current lawsuits against the Town of Mammoth Lakes, where arguments over surface water use have become more contentious (Gervais 2012).  And while the LADWP does have contracts for water with several of the ranchers that lease land from the agency,  the supplies to Lone Pine, Big Pine, Independence, and the reservations are exempt from the LTWA (LADWP 2006). Most of the inhabited areas throughout the valley and Mono Basin derive their water supply from small mutual water companies and community well or spring supplies.

Under what conditions might land and water management in the Owens Valley move past stalemate?  In this complex and piecemeal regulatory landscape, is it possible to generate consensus around innovative policies, programs, and tools for water conservation, filtration, and infiltration?  If the values and perceptions of the watershed’s inhabitants were as well understood as the demands of the end-users,  could the Aqueduct’s future be shaped as much by the community that inhabits the watershed as by the community that extracts its resources?


Providing insights into how water is perceived in a politically complex environment such as the Owens Valley cannot be done through a descriptive, statistically based analysis of simple survey responses. As noted in Mulley (2007), landscape and quality of life factors are difficult to address using superficial questioning techniques. People tend to give economic responses to quality-of-life questions when given simple choices or written surveys. Deeper issues related to landscape 1) have an exploratory or discursive component (such as focus groups or interviews), 2)  incrementally increase the complexity of the questions (often open-ended questions that build on one another, such as in a semi-structured interview), or 3) questions that encourage people to tell stories rather than provide short “off the cuff” answers. Because of this, the issue was addressed through the analysis of focus group workshops, questionnaires and interviews in the aggregate, observing themes, patterns of responses, and sequencing, rather than a more traditional content-oriented approach.

To understand the concerns of the study-area residents, the team chose to employ a method that included the analysis of focus group workshops, questionnaires and interviews in the aggregate, observing themes, patterns of responses, and sequencing, rather than a more traditional content-oriented approach.

Focus Groups

The team facilitated two community focus groups: one in Lone Pine, California on February 16, 2013, the other one in June Lake, California on February 17, 2013. Lone Pine and June Lake were chosen as locations in order to allow a broader portion of the study-area population to make their voices heard. These two locations are near the south and north ends of the study-area respectively, and the team was hopeful that residents of nearby communities would be willing to make the short commute to these workshops, rather than the long drive to Bishop. To encourage broad participation, the workshops were advertised via email for several weeks prior to the events. The Mono Lake Committee, Owens Valley Committee, and the Inyo-Mono Regional Water Management Group distributed the invitations to their contact lists. Seventeen people participated in the focus group at Lone Pine, and eight participated at June Lake.

The workshop format was simple: three activities allowed participants to engage in group discussion about their concerns for their local communities and the Eastern Sierra. The focus group format included small group discussions, large group discussions, and individual responses.


The team posted a survey on watershedwranglers.com to obtain local opinions about various topics, from political decision-making to ecological health in the Eastern Sierra. A link to the survey was emailed along with the community workshop flyer to all of the research team’s contacts with various Eastern Sierra agencies and organizations. Several of those organizations then forwarded the survey link to their emailing lists. The survey was posted on January 28, 2013 and the team kept it open to responses until March 31, 2013. The survey was written to include both numerical ranking questions and open-ended write-in questions.


Community workshops and the online survey provided valuable information about the community and stakeholder needs within the general study-area. In order to develop additional depth and detail to the data from the community workshops and survey, the team met with 14 individuals who represented decision making agencies, organizations with significant influence on the planning and land management of the area, and underrepresented organizations that have specific interest in local planning and land management, including:

  • • Mono and Inyo County Planning and Water Departments
  • • LADWP
  • • Inyo-Mono Regional Water Management Group
  • • Owens Valley Committee Board of Directors
  • • Sierra Nevada Conservancy and Eastern Sierra Audubon
  • • Big Pine Paiute Tribe
  • • City of Los Angeles City Councilmembers
  • • Mono Lake Committee

Participants were originally contacted by email and were either interviewed over the phone, on location in the Eastern Sierra area, or in Los Angeles, per their preference. Participants were given a brief summary of the project, and a series of questions was prepared based on the participants’ area of expertise. Interviews were informally structured and the conversation was allowed to flow naturally. The project team took turns posing the prepared discussion topics to the interviewees to make sure that all the necessary points were covered.

Focus Group Results

Seventeen local residents attended the Lone Pine workshop, including one participant who made the trip from Ridgecrest, California. The following day, a total of eight residents from the northern reaches of the study-area participated in the June Lake workshop.

Among the top five priorities from the Lone Pine meeting were:

  • • Mitigate groundwater pumping effects, follow EIRs (Environmental Impact Reports), and enforce existing agreements
  • • Demand LADWP facilitate sustainable small-scale farming near developed towns
  • • Protect natural, cultural, and historical resources on LADWP and other lands
  • • Ensure/preserve valley floor open space concerning recreation value and conservation easement
  • • Accommodate climate change variability

The top five priorities from the June Lake meeting were:

  • • Involve Eastern Sierra representatives in planning made in Los Angeles related to the Eastern Sierra, and vice-versa
  • • Increase LADWP’s cooperation with communities in economic development efforts
  • • Create a work plan for aqueduct infrastructure maintenance/upgrades/improvement
  • • Undertake a comprehensive hydrologic study of June Lake area
  • • Increase transparency by making all planning information on both sides available to all who are interested

The most common themes became the dominant categories. The water-related responses and synthesized themes were:

Cooperation & Communication

  • • Educate locals on headwater stewardship
  • • Communicate with Los Angeles to increase understanding of past “mistakes” and for better planning for improvement in the future
  • • Create a commitment that requires cooperation between Eastern Sierra and other agencies (LADWP)

Development & Economy

  • • Create/form tourism “planning committee”
  • • Encourage sustainable economic development
  • • Acquire local control of food sources
  • • Expand Mammoth Hospital and its ability to provide for its patients
  • • Maintain economically productive local fisheries
  • • Stop approving development where resources are lacking—eliminate over-riding considerations


  • • Restore Baker Creek Meadows
  • • Make decisions for ecological health rather than economic advancement
  • • Reclaim enough water locally to be sustainable
  • • Restore or expand pupfish habitat
  • • Use the watershed boundaries as priority for all planning processes


  • • Secure water rights for native communities

In addition to these main categories:

  • • Allow tribes to use the resources available to them (water and land)
  • • Decrease water pumping amounts – allow groundwater to recover

Survey Results

Overall, there were 23 respondents to the questionnaire. Only one of those surveyed was not a resident of the study-area, and while the local respondents were distributed across the study-area, the majority of them were from the Bishop area. The survey results are integrated into the “theme” discussion below.

Interview Results

The interviewees expressed several important themes, some of which were addressed by multiple individuals. The most common theme was the lack of constructive cooperation between LADWP and local governments, agencies, interest groups and residents. It was clear that further openness could be mutually beneficial for the residents and agencies operating within the study-area. Recreation was brought up in several different forms, and it became clear that planning tools needed to address how to maintain and improve upon the current recreation system that brings so many people to the area. Environmental quality related to the water extraction practices also came up in several of the meetings, and became a constant component in the development of planning guidelines and implementation activities.

Integrated Water-Related Result Themes

While the focus group, questionnaire and interviews culminated in a large quantity of descriptive and nominal data, the details of those results are outside the scope of this paper. The results are available in the full Watershed Whispers report (Cal Poly Pomona, 606 team 2013). The following are the results based on a meta-analysis of the themes and trends evident in the focus groups, questionnaires, and interviews.

1. Water is a symbol of control and power.

Rather than being a seen as a resource, water is identified relative to power (LADWP) and the lack thereof (especially related to the Native American population). According to one participant, “…local Paiute tribes have been given a hideously raw deal in terms of water and land rights—they’ve been moved off their traditional lands and onto lands where LADWP holds the water rights, and their water has been switched from high-quality sources to the dregs of LADWP’s supplies in the eastern Sierra. They now have to report exactly how much water they use to LADWP, to beg for yearly water allotments from LADWP, and to wait when LADWP deems it inappropriate to grant them water.”

2. Water is more significant in its absence.

Unsurprisingly, water is discussed in terms of the impact its absence has rather than its presence. This has been seen in other research, related to less tangible, non-financial goods; the value of them is identified when they are lost or at risk of loss. (Milburn, Brown and Mulley 2010) According to participants, lack of water blocks development, reduces agriculture, creates dust, eliminates wildlife and habitat, and creates negative aesthetics.

3. Water is perceived as important because of its impact on recreation and aesthetics.

Even in the Eastern Sierra, the first consideration relative to water availability is not one related to survival (minimum quantity availability), conservation (water use reduction), or water quality. In people’s minds, the impact of reduced water availability is felt most strongly on the quality of the recreational experience, especially as related to aesthetics.

Beyond the appearance of water and its related habitats (riparian buffers, floodplain vegetation, etc.), participants focused on dust as an aesthetic concern, identifying the landscape as “Drier and dustier.” “Groundwater pumping and steadily lowered water tables have slowly converted the landscapes that I saw when I first came here from alkali meadows to moonscapes, ” and “…underground pumping has resulted in more dust in the air during wind events because now there is no vegetation to hold it down. Also, the street trees in the communities have decreased… many on fixed incomes can’t afford to water their vegetation. That makes the town brown.” (Fig. 3)

Fig. 3. Owens Lake dust bowl. © Eric Haley 2012

4. Reduced access to water is not seen as mitigated by conservation, rather, it is mitigated by ownership.

Instead of focusing on reduced water consumption (even redirected water consumption goals for Los Angeles residents), study participants focused on water access as a product of ownership, rather than availability. “The land ownership issue is one that makes my blood boil because it all focus’s [sic] on the water and any other resource that was under the indigenous peoples feet. LADWP… and other federal agencies… have land… and it pisses me off since it leaves very little for progress and no chance to add any type of development to create any type of jobs for the youth and willing.”

5. Development is good; additional water consumption is bad. The two are not related.

There was a clear inconsistency between positions on development and increased water use. Participants clearly differentiated between the two goals in their minds, and were able to embrace both positions simultaneously, in spite of their obvious link. According to one participant: “If you define LADWP as a ‘private’ landowner, then we need less ‘private’ land ownership; if you define LADWP as a ‘public’ landowner, then we likely need more ‘private’ land. LADWP’s ownership of the vast majority of the Owens Valley floor precludes or impairs conservation projects and small business development alike.”

6. Private land ownership leads to water conservation and small business development.

This position is strongly related to the dominance of LADWP’s land ownership in the area, but is notably in conflict with societal trends to see the government and public ownership result in improved conservation management. The government and their representative agencies are not perceived by the public as being less responsible figures in conservation efforts than private land owners. According to one participant, “Too many governmental or agencies like LADWP own the land. There’s not much left for private ownership,” and “The future of LADWP lands is a large concern. The management of public land is a concern. Protection of special resources by overburdened public land managers is a concern. Control of noxious weeds and restoration of impacted habitats is a concern. Conservation of farms, ranches, wildlife habitat on private lands is important to our identity, quality of life, and economy.”

7. Land and water are inextricably tied together.

In most areas of the country, land and water issues are separated in the public’s mind. In the case of the study participants in the Eastern Sierra, the visual evidence of water scarcity has linked water to the land that holds, filters, and infiltrates it. Respondents indicate impacts on water adjacent landscapes when discussing habitat: “Alkali meadow habitat, riparian habitat, and particularly spring habitat (incredibly degraded or gone), and the species that live there.” (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4. Owens River at Hwy 136. © Eric Haley 2012

Discussion: Involvement in Decision-Making

As the demographics in the Eastern Sierra change, there will be an increasing demand for public involvement in decision-making. The landowners move to rural areas not just because they want to be “close to nature,” but also because they want to “manage” or “care for” nature. This desire to be actively involved partly reflects a desire to participate in improving the quality of their environment.

Without consultation by local experts and community members, land planning and design efforts will be unable to meet the existing needs of the communities, or to articulate satisfying and enriching futures. Engaging in this process is especially important in the Eastern Sierra, where interviews and examination of newspaper and web sources indicate a high level of frustration with the opacity of land management plans that are developed by the LADWP and Federal agencies in the area (Gervais 2012).

Meetings with key stakeholders within the study-area revealed a unified desire to hold more meetings with the LADWP and create an open dialogue on land use policy and environmental strategies. Illustrating the lack of communication between Los Angeles and the Eastern Sierra was the conservation easement plan proposed by Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn in 2004. This would have placed a majority of LADWP’s lands in trust for environmental preservation and alleviated local concerns over unapproved development and unexpected outside intervention from Los Angeles. Because, however, this plan was not discussed with local communities or organizations, its intentions were not made clear, and the effort failed (Broder 2004).


Landowners and residents are not interested in learning about, or participating in, initiatives that have no visually tangible result. This issue explains the lack of interest in learning about water quality, wastewater management, and other concerns. Changing conservation behaviors requires that residents be able to directly relate physical results to their activities (Petry & Simcic 2002).  To get support, water policy changes need to be linked to tangible and visually evident results, and these changes need to be clearly articulated and demonstrated.

The other two issues that should be addressed to increase community capacity for change related to water, are influence and applicability. Influence is the ability of a single individual to create change, thereby overcoming a sense of helplessness. Applicability is the perception that given information, or action, are relevant to an individual’s identified goals or problems. Strategies in the Eastern Sierra need to address not only the behavior of the LADWP, but also clearly articulate and support changes the individual can make. This effort is less directed at the impacts of these individual actions, than at the change in attitude that it precedes. Agencies in the Eastern Sierra also need to invest effort in tying their priorities to those of local residents, and communicating those relationships.

Changing Demographic

The migration of the youth out of the Eastern Sierra, and the movement of non-farming, rural recreation-oriented landowners into the area is gradually changing not only the demographic profile of the area, but also the dominant political attitudes and community priorities. With the changing population, the Eastern Sierra will see increasing environmental concern with the associated indignation, interest in nature, knowledge of issues and action strategies, verbal commitment, and sense of responsibility (Kals, Schumacher and Montada 1999, Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002). On the other hand, as the population shifts, the standards for access to water use, aesthetics, and recreation will also change. New residents will not have the same history related to these issues, and so their “baseline” of comparison will be closer to current, rather than historical, conditions. This will change the focus of concern to be future-oriented, rather than related to the past.

It should be noted that Kaplan and Kaplan (1989),among others, suggest that seniors may prefer landscapes with greater evidence of human impact, and as the Eastern Sierra population ages, structural interventions in the landscape to address water issues will be more accepted. Higher levels of education will lead to a reduced need for order and neatness in natural areas (Kaplan & Kaplan 1989, Lyons 1983).

Design and Planning Implications

  1. Design and planning in the Eastern Sierra cannot occur without substantive public participation (rather than public consultation—see Arnstein 1969).  There is a strong belief in the local communities that lack of participation in decision-making leads to preferential treatment and inequities. They are particularly sensitive to this issue because of the impact Los Angeles residents have on their quality of life without any perceived accountability.
  2. The absence of water creates community capacity and willingness to address water issues. The Eastern Sierra communities are sensitized to the issues of water quality and quantity because of the visual evidence of the lack of water. This capacity can be leveraged to create community support for innovative approaches to water management, infiltration, and filtration, as well as support for water-related educational and recreational programming. This additional capacity will result in support for new policy.
  3. Policy that relates to water should be crafted, maintained and justified with an eye to what is important for the public, rather than the people writing policy. To the public, impact on recreation and aesthetics are extremely important. While we change water policy to address problems with water quality, quantity and accessibility, these changes should be framed in terms of their recreational and aesthetic impacts.
  4. The LADWP has been largely unsuccessful in its efforts to change public behavior relative to water conservation. As such, people continue to disassociate water use and water availability. In the Eastern Sierra, this is complicated by the politics of water access. People assume that if more land was in private ownership, more water would be available. Additional transparency related to water consumption, decision-making, and the impacts of development decisions are necessary to address this issue. Education across California needs to more effectively tie behavior and water availability, though this will be a challenge so long as water remains available with the only evidence of increasing scarcity being increased cost. Scarcity needs to be established using physically and visually clear tools to make connections for users throughout the state.
  5. The water availability impacts of development need to be made clear using visual tools, numeric metrics, and articulate language.
  6. Similar to policies that require replanting of tree stock to replace areas cleared for lumber, more direct links between water removals by LADWP and conservation efforts are important. Policies must tie conservation directly to water quantities and financial costs to create public confidence that government funding cuts will not result in reduced conservation capacity of the agency.  Rather than having conservation efforts funded separately, funding should be allocated on a unit basis, with expenditures determined by a group composed of LADWP representatives, scientists, and local residents.
  7. Policy should leverage the recognition of the link between land and water in the Eastern Sierra.  While in most areas of the country the public sees land and water as two separate issues, with different management and planning considerations, the extreme aesthetic and recreational impacts of water withdrawals in the Eastern Sierra have created a capacity in local residents to address water issues that would otherwise struggle for support.


Three key issues will determine the effectiveness of water-related policys the relationship between Los Angeles and the Eastern Sierra evolves. Local involvement in decision-making will be the key factor for creating support for the implementation of existing and new policies. Approaches to addressing water quality and quantity challenges need to be developed, which tie water to factors that are important to residents and tangibly impact the individual and community’s quality of life, such as recreation and aesthetics. Finally, while our changing demographics will result in an increasing demand for public involvement and its associated challenges, it will also create community and cultural capital to support changes in individual behaviors, involvement in community conservation groups and organizations, and a willingness to change individual behaviors to address current conditions, rather than a focus on (and idealization of) past conditions.

For Los Angeles, the Aqueduct is an invisible lifeline that is understood as an abstract idea. Water scarcity is reflected in policy, cost and a slowly evolving water-conservation-oriented landscape aesthetic, but largely disassociated from its quality of life considerations. Until water scarcity reaches a crisis point, wherein access to water is limited or water quality is compromised, public agencies will struggle to change water-related attitudes and behaviors. In the Eastern Sierra, the opportunity to leverage the evidence of unsustainable water consumption is evident on the landscape. The area is fertile ground for innovative policies, programs, and tools for water conservation, filtration, and infiltration.  The Aqueduct’s future will be defined more by the community that inhabits the watershed, than by the community that uses its resources—if it is empowered to act.


Arnstein, Sherry.  1969.  A ladder of citizen participation.  Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35 (4): 216-224.

Broder, John. 2004. Los Angeles Mayor Seeks to Freeze Valley Growth. http://www. nytimes.com/2004/08/08/us/los-angeles-mayor-seeksto-freeze-valley-growth.html [March 1, 2013].

California State Polytechnic University Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona), 606 studio.  2013.  Watershed Whisperers:  exploring potentials for water use, infrastructure and environmental justice in the Owens Valley and Mono Basin.  Unpublished report.  Pomona, CA:  Cal Poly Pomona.

Gagnon, A. 2001. Chronological History of Owens Valley. http://www.owensvalleyhistory.com/stories3/chronological_history_ov.pdf [January 10, 2013].

Gervais, M. 2012a. Mammoth and Forest Service Plan Land Trade. http://www.inyoregister.com/node/2187 [February 26, 2013].

Historic American Engineering Record (HAER). 2010. Los Angeles Aqueduct, From Lee Vining Intake (Mammoth Lakes) to Van Norman Reservoir Complex (San Fernando Valley), Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, CA. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.

Kals, E., Schumacher, D. and Montada, L. (1999).  Emotional affinity toward nature as a motivational basis to protect nature.  Environment and Behavior, 31 (2, March), 178-202.

Kaplan, R. and Kaplan, S. (1989).  The experience of nature.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kollmuss, A. and Agyeman, J. (2002).  Mind the gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior?  Environmental Education Research, 8 (3), 239-260.

Libecap, G. D. 2005. The Myth of Owens Valley. Regulation 28(2): 10–17.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Inyo County Water Department (ICWD). 1991. Inyo/Los Angeles Long Term Water Agreement. Bishop: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). 2002. History of the LA Aqueduct. http://wsoweb.ladwp.com/Aqueduct/ historyoflaa/ [January 7, 2013].

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). 2006. Eastern Sierra Commitments and Issues. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Lyons, E. (1983).  Demographic correlates of landscape preference.  Environment and Behavior, 15 (4), 487-511.

Milburn, Lee-Anne, Robert D. Brown and Susan J. Mulley. 2010. Living the rural dream: the changing countryside and non-farm rural landowners. In Proceedings of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture. pp. 235-240.

Mulley, Susan J.  2007.  (De)Constructing the Countryside:  Vernacular Perceptions of Pastoral Landscapes and the Rural Idyll.  PhD Dissertation.  Guelph, ON:  University of Guelph.

Petry, N. M. and Simcic, F. (2002).  Recent advances in the dissemination of contingency management techniques: clinical and research perspectives.  Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 23, 81-86.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). 1998. California Annual Precipitation. Sacramento: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tiernan Doyle is a 2013 graduate of Cal Poly Pomona’s Landscape Architecture program.

Eric Haley received his Master’s of Landscape Architecture degree from Cal Poly Pomona in 2013, where he participated in the Aqueduct Futures capstone project. He is now a designer at EPT Design.

Barry Lehrman is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, where he leads the Aqueduct Futures program. He is the author of “Reconstructing the Void: Owens Lake” in The Infrastructural City, Kazys Varnelis, editor (ACTAR, 2008).

Lee-Anne Milburn, PhD serves as chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at Cal Poly Pomona. Her research focuses on water, energy, transportation, and land uses.

James Powell is a design associate at Alta Planning and Design in Los Angeles. He completed his capstone project in the Cal Poly Pomona Landscape Architecture program in 2013.

Devon Santy earned his Master’s of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona in 2013. A University Olmstead Scholar, his work has focused on watershed management and river restoration.

Magical Thinking and the Los Angeles Aqueduct | Nicole Antebi

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Practices | Comments Off on Magical Thinking and the Los Angeles Aqueduct | Nicole Antebi

Loan Library at the “Water, CA Creative Commons at the Armory Center for the Arts” 2012-2013

I’m not going to tell you about the length of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the magnitude of such an engineering project, or that Robert Towne’s Chinatown is in no way a precise history of the Los Angeles water wars, or about the events leading up to the tragedy of the St. Francis Dam, because those facts/histories have been well-fleshed. What I will tell you is that there is a map of Owens Valley housed in the Los Angeles Central Library which is labeled “Los Angeles County.” I will also tell you that the first expedition led by William Mulholland and Fred Eaton to Owens Lake was dubbed the “Whiskey Trail” for all the whiskey they drank en route. And lastly, I will tell you that in the late ‘80s, the EPA along with The Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District forced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to return some of the water to Owens Dry Lake. Resembling something remarkably like a ‘60s-era earthwork, an installation of small sprinklers spaced in a grid-like formation across the chalky salt flat dribbles a minimal amount of water to dampen alkaline dust and seed the salt grasses. [1] The aqueduct acts like a two-way hose between estranged gardens. This is what we are left with: the magical thinking of a continuous garden.  Despite the parched odds, this is California; but this is also Los Angeles.

Nine years after William Mulholland completed his fabled Whiskey Trail, the aqueduct was completed. What followed, even after the violent collapse of the St. Francis Dam, were other rainmakers, men with the power to conjure water from afar and under any conditions—politically, ecologically, or otherwise. My project for the past six years has been reporting on these “rainmakers” and the mythologies that surround them. I use animated drawings in tandem with archival audio, a type of video I call an animated essay. I found that animation is particularly well-suited to tell these stories because the medium speaks to boundary transgressions (human/non-human, fiction/non-fiction) or, as laid out by David Shields: the novelty of “straddling between verifiable and imaginary facts” that bring to life histories for which there is no original documentation. [2]

In 2009, I produced my first animation titled Uisce Beatha for the exhibit, “Through the Looking Glass: The Los Angeles Aqueduct” at the former Sea and Space Explorations art space founded by Lara Bank. After many conversations and several trips to Owens Valley, May Jong and I co-organized the exhibit with the desire to illuminate the distance between Owens Valley and Los Angeles, and the aqueduct that connects them.

In Uisce Beatha, which translates from Gaelic to mean “water of life,” I animated the phantasmagorical biography of William Mulholland—conflating the chief water poacher of the LADWP until 1928 with “Uisce,” the half-man, half-horse, bird trickster of Irish mythology. Uisce sometimes appears as a handsome Highland water-horse, perpetually searching for unsuspecting riders to drown in inland bodies of still water. When Uisce finally does find a rider, s/he will find her/himself affixed to Uisce’s adhesive skin as the monster runs headlong into the nearest body of water, until the rider is completely submerged, leaving only a liver washing up on the shore. This project led to other biographies of the grandiose and destructive ways in which water has been summoned in the West.

Bumper stickers for the Mulholland Dérive edition of the Los Angeles Road Concerts, 2012

In 2012 Stephen Van Dyck organized the “Mulholland Dérive” edition of Los Angeles Road Concerts, a massive one-day event bringing together 110 site-specific artist projects, programs, and performances along the 21 miles of Mulholland Drive. In keeping with the automobile-centric nature of the event, I reformulated some of my ideas about the person William Mulholland and designed a bumper sticker for participating cars. The sticker asks participants to “Take Mulholland and Remember the Uisce Trail.”

In 2007, after discovering that we had a mutual interest in the history and mythology of the Salton Sea, Enid Baxter Blader and I began to co-edit a creative anthology and media book about water projects in California titled Water, CA. The title Water, CA, is derived from John Wesley Powell’s 1890 map of “the Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Districts”[3] proposing that lands be divided by water districts or watersheds. Water, CA revisits Powell’s vision of a water-state by erasing the traditional map, tied together by counties and towns, with a state that can be drawn by waterways, watersheds, reclamations, and deprivations, connecting seemingly disparate bodies.

Since its inception, Water, CA has led to the formation of many unexpected and fruitful partnerships, seeking to make visible, accessible water systems and infrastructure that have fallen out of sight over the last century. The project has been the focus of a 2011 interpretive exhibition and festival at the Crocker Art Museum, and the basis of “Facing the Sublime in Water, CA,” at the Armory Center for the Arts in 2012. Curated by Irene Tsatsos, “Facing the Sublime in Water, CA” featured an elliptical relationship between platforms. The website, the exhibition, and the exhibition catalogue reflected the fluid constraints of palpable desperation, and persistent optimism related to water and water use at the center of these projects. “Water, CA Creative Commons at the Armory Center for the Arts,” organized by Enid Baxter Blader and myself was nested within the larger exhibition, and served as an outgrowth of the common areas of the website. Based on the original bibliography on the website, I designed a water-focused Loan Library, borrowing the “water bookshelves” from the following influential institutions:

  • • The Center for Land Use Interpretation: whose mission is concerned with reading landscape as a cultural inscription.
  • • Arid Lands Institute: a self-sustaining education, research, and outreach center of Woodbury University, whose purpose is to train designers and leaders who will be resourceful and inventive in addressing water scarcity in the West.
  • • Loyola Marymount University’s J.D. Black Papers, which consists mainly of Black’s documentation and collection of materials, related to the Owens Valley/Los Angeles water wars with striking images of the Bishop Farmers occupation of the L.A. Aqueduct.
  • • The Reanimation Library: Based in Gowanus, Brooklyn, it consists of a collection of books that have fallen out of routine circulation and been acquired for their visual and textual content.
  • • Water, CA, which runs the gamut from historical to technical, to magical ways of looking at water. A number of titles have been authored by the original group of contributors to the website, which offered a basis for the conception, and in recent years, expansion of the project.

The books and media from each institution reveal a multi-pronged interest in art, design, land use, and literature, some more weighted in one discipline or the other. In thinking about the nodes at which certain institutions intersect, I designed 26 bookmarks, or “Landmarks,” for a select set of books which evoke memories of people and interactions with land and water features I’ve visited over the past few years while researching my animations. The Landmarks, like a palimpsest, added another, personal stratum to the history of these places and events, and asked readers to actively perform aspects of the text before them.

Landmarks part of Loan Library at “Water, CA Creative Commons at the Armory Center for the Arts” 2012-2013

One hundred years after its construction, the Los Angeles Aqueduct remains magical thinking made real. The garden [of the San Fernando Valley] is an exercise in forced cultivation and persistent optimism; and here, a fiction told on a grand scale. To say, this place is a garden, this place will be a garden, this place will remain a garden is to say “there it is, take it,” without asking what it means to take.[4] The partners I’ve worked with over the years in researching water in California remind me that this question can be asked and answered in eloquent and nuanced ways, and can offer a different kind of optimism about how and where we take things from here.

[1] Karen Piper, “Dreams, Dust and Birds: The Trashing of Owens Lake” http://places.designobserver.com/feature/dreams-dust-and-birds-the-trashing-of-owens-lake/23328/.
[2] From #35 in David Shields’ Reality Hunger.
[3] John Wesley Powell’s 1890 map of “the Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage
Districts” published in the Eleventh Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey.
[4] “There it is, take it!” were the words of William Mulholland as Owens Valley water began flowing into the San Fernando Valley.

Nicole Antebi is a video, installation, and animation artist. With Enid Baxter, she leads the ongoing collective artists’ inquiry, Water, CA: Creative Visualizations for a New Millennium.

David Maisel: In conversation with Lisa Tamiris Becker

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Practices | Comments Off on David Maisel: In conversation with Lisa Tamiris Becker

David Maisel’s two aerial photography series The Lake Project (2001 – 2002) and Oblivion (2004) explore respectively the landscapes of Owens Lake and the Los Angeles metropolis. Owens Lake, a mostly dry glacial lake some two hundred miles to the northeast of Los Angeles on the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, was drained throughout the 20th Century to supply water to the ever-growing Los Angeles megalopolis. The desiccated Owens Lake, transformed through the immensity of water diversion projects that fed the Los Angeles Aqueduct, has become the largest toxic dust site in the United States and remains so, even with the more recent partial restoration of water flow to the site in an attempt to mitigate its toxicity.

The Lake Project consists of large-scale color prints of images Maisel captured flying over Owens Lake in a small, piloted Cessna airplane. In this work Maisel exposes otherworldly views of the toxic mineral beds, rivulets, and dust clouds, the result of industrial-scale human intervention. Maisel’s mineral-based painterly color prints transform poisonous human-altered landscapes into subjects and objects of extreme beauty, while simultaneously unveiling the magnitude of hidden ecological devastation that punctuates the vast interior of the American West, a space that is often represented in the visual, cinematic, and literary arts as endless and eternal.

By contrast, Oblivion consists of tonally reversed black-and white aerial views of Los Angeles revealing ominous horizons and dark skies hovering over the megalopolis while also exposing the strange beauty and structure of the city’s arteries, axes, housing developments, and cloverleaf highways. Taken together The Lake Project and Oblivion explore the interrelatedness of the phenomenology, aesthetics, and social/political reality of the Los Angeles metropolis and the arid landscapes and fragile watersheds in which the city is embedded and on which it ultimately depends. These two series, as well as the larger body of works collectively known as Black Maps, collapse the romantic sublime of the Abstract Expressionists into the concrete and conceptual sublime of Land Art, presenting us with a distinct vision of the American West—one which is at once lethal and transcendent, compelling us to reconsider relationships of the urban to the rural and the growing consumptive addictions that drive the culture of urban sprawl.

The following interview between Lisa Tamiris Becker, Director, UNM Art Museum and David Maisel, artist and photographer, was conducted via e-mail in July and August, 2013.

LTB: Your work is overtly engaged with the long-running interest in the sublime landscape that underpins much of American Art in the 19th and 20th centuries, whether we are talking about The Hudson River School, the Abstract Expressionists, or even the Land Art movement. How do see your exploration of the “Apocalyptic Sublime” relating to these traditions?

DM: I came of age as a young artist being deeply affected by work like Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. It was clear to me at the time that the spaces of the American West to which these artworks responded were unlike those I’d grown up with in the northeast. The vastness of scale and the aridness of the landscape made all the markings of human occupation and endeavor seem elemental and filled with portent. As a student of art history, I was also interested in the work of abstract expressionists that preceded so-called Land Art by several decades. I found compelling the idea of abstraction as a palpable force. In work like that of Richard Diebenkorn (an abstractionist, though not really an abstract expressionist painter) and Clyfford Still, there are clear references to landscape, and to humans as small ­­–even insignificant– elements within that landscape. With the work in Black Maps, I’m conscious of those antecedents, and am interested in both working with them and against them in order to forge something new.

Smithson was well aware of industry’s role in changing the land, and in creating aspects (formal and political) of the sites where he chose to work. He accompanied Bernd and Hilla Becher on an artistic pilgrimage of sorts to the heavily industrialized Ruhr Valley, Germany, in 1968. (The expedition and some of the work that came out of it is documented in a remarkable book titled Field Trips). Diebenkorn was obsessed with the aerial view, having worked as a cartographer in the Marine Corps. He later was commissioned by the Bureau of Reclamation to depict water projects in the American West, and made flights from a helicopter in order to photograph the sites on which his paintings were based.

These are a number of the through lines that I have brought together in Black Maps.

LTB: What has inspired you to continue to pursue aerial photography, in spite of its inherent dangers, expense, and physical challenges?

DM: Aerial photography is a way of seeing, of mapping the land, of abstracting, and of being exposed to sites that I could not otherwise encounter.  And, perhaps most importantly, it allows me to make the kinds of images that I want to make. It is simply a tool. Photography is a medium that slices into reality; it is an art of extraction. The ability to see and compose from the air is both demanding and thrilling. It is rather like an out of body experience, when the aircraft is angling obliquely into a steep bank, and you feel the g-forces growing, and the planes of the earth are torqueing and twisting in extraordinary ways that could otherwise never happen.

Photographing from the air interests me not as a method, per se, but as a way to see the otherwise unseeable and unimaginable, and as a way in which time and space can get strung together. From a moving plane, naturally, I am never in the same place twice, so no image can be repeated—it is a stream of images and possible framings that is not unlike the stream of consciousness itself. Motion gets dissected and reanimated.

Working from the air allows me to see things that are secret. The deconstructed landscapes of strip mines, cyanide leaching fields, tailings ponds, and drained lake beds seem to me to be the contemplative gardens of our time; they are like subterranean dream worlds demanding to be brought into the light of day. I think of my pictures not as simply documents of these blighted sites, but as poetic renderings that might somehow reflect back the human psyche that made them.

Ultimately, I don’t consider my aerial work to be documentary images—they are not pure in that respect. They are theoretical, not cartographic; they are as interested in exploring the unconscious as the objective. They have my thumbprint all over them. They are, in a sense, meditations. Frederick Sommer made horizonless views of the Arizona desert in the 1940’s. He said of this work that they became internal landscapes as much as external ones, and I think the same is true with my Black Maps aerial work.

LTB: How do you see your work in relationship to 19th-century exploratory photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson? And in relationship to more recent photographic movements such as New Topographics.

DM: Those photographers were surveyors, they were explorers, consummate technicians and craftsmen. The legacy of their images has informed our sense of the American West to this day. In some ways photographers like Carleton Watkins were responsible for articulating, or re-presenting, the myth of the American West as an undisturbed Eden. In fact, Watkins’ work in Yosemite from the 1860’s seems to intentionally adopt the tropes of the picturesque and the sublime—modes of landscape depiction that the Hudson River School had previously established. (Joel Snyder writes about this in WJT Mitchell’s Landscape and Power). Where they existed, signs of human presence (mining sites, railroad cuts, etc.) were frequently portrayed either uncritically, or even celebrated for their harmony with the land.

Conversely, the photographers identified with the New Topographics School sought to strip away any romanticized notion of the American West, and to present it in the mode that you’ve called “the anti-sublime.” From this group, I feel that the most compelling images were made by Lewis Baltz. There is a cumulative power–and perhaps, horror–in his stripped-back images of facades and construction sites, wasted peripheries and entropic zones.

Both of these aspects of the cumulative history of photography of the American West inform my work. On the one hand, as in the work of the New Topographics, I’m interested in exploring zones of intrusion, where human endeavor has impacted the land­. On the other hand, I also see myself as an explorer similar to those of the 19th century exploratory photographers, in that I am creating images of sites heretofore unseen, or unconsidered.

LTB: What influenced your decision to work in black-and-white for the Oblivion series, while using color for The Lake Project as well as most of the other BLACK MAPS series? 

DM: In my early years as a photographer, I worked only in black-and-white. Indeed, Black Maps and The Forest, my first two extensive aerial projects, were made in black-and-white. But eventually I realized that the incredibly toxic, vibrant, awful, and seductive colors of the mining sites were critical to their power. In 1989, I began to work in color, and that shift really accelerated and intensified the aspects of my work that twinned together these two poles of repulsion and beauty. While it is the dominant method with which I approach landscape-­based work, I felt that with Oblivion, I wanted to see the city of Los Angeles and its environs in ways that were wholly unfamiliar. So, in addition to being photographed in black-and-white, the images in Oblivion have been tonally inverted, creating a kind of x-ray of the city.

LTB: How do you see the mineral-based pigment prints of your work relating to the subjects of mineral beds and mineral toxicity that you explore in The Lake Project and other BLACK MAPS series such as Terminal Mirage?

DM: While much of the work in Black Maps shows sites that have undergone extreme environmental transformations, the bodies of work together describe the basic components of photography. From clear-cut logging sites in The Forest, paper is created; the various mining projects permit the mineral and metallic elements of photography to be harvested; and The Lake Project describes a massive water reclamation scheme, and water is essential to processing of photographs.

In recent years as I began to work with pigment prints, I realized that once again my photography was reliant on the very elements pictured in the images I was making. And this echoes the notion that we are all complicit in these sites, and in these images.

LTB: Desertification and desiccation are topics of increasing relevance to many regions of the world, including the American Southwest and Southern/Central California, in particular. Do you see your work as creating greater awareness of our depletion of water resources and our preparedness for contending with increasingly arid environments?  Do you see your work as cultivating an ecological consciousness?

DM: I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner recently. I’ve come to his work rather late, but last week I went to the public library and gathered everything I could lay my hands on. How could I have spent three decades thinking about the spaces of the American West and the environmental problems they face without delving deeply into Stegner until now? In a 1987 publication titled The American West as Living Space, Stegner writes that

…the West is defined…by inadequate rainfall, which means a general deficiency of water…And what do you do about aridity, if you are a nation inured to  plenty and impatient of restrictions and led westward by pillars of fire and cloud? You may deny it for a while. Then you must either adapt to it or try to engineer it out of existence.

Just to be clear, Stegner did not believe either of those two solutions was tenable.

I do feel that my work is implicitly political, though the elements of advocacy in my work are not dominant. Certainly my focus on such contested landscapes for the past thirty years is indicative of my concerns.

Owens Lake, site of The Lake Project, holds a pivotal position in the history and rampant development of southern California. A desiccated 150-square mile lakebed on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains, it had been a body of water for 78 million years prior to its destruction. Beginning in 1913, the Owens River was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct to supply water to the fledgling desert city of Los Angeles, some 233 miles to the south. By 1926, the lake was depleted, leaving a vast playa of exposed mineral deposits and salt flats. Once lush farmland, the Owens Valley became an environmental disaster, a wasteland. Water from the Owens Valley came to supply sixty percent of the water for Los Angeles, enabling the rapid expansion of this megalopolis.

No act of radical intervention on this scale occurs without unintended consequences. As Owens Lake was consumed, winds sweeping through Owens Valley would dislodge microscopic particles from the lakebed, creating carcinogenic dust storms. By 2001 it had become the highest source of particulate matter pollution in North America, emitting 300,000 metric tons of dust annually. Dust from Owens Lake contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, nickel, selenium, and cadmium. Naturally occurring in the lake, these metals became exposed as the lake was drained. The poisonous dust particles are so small that they infiltrate lung tissue when inhaled and remain permanently in the human body.

Natural resource extraction and its consequences are themes central to my photographic practice that I’ve pursued passionately for three decades. Through aerial photography, the series Black Maps, The Mining Project, and American Mine explore sites across the United States that have been radically and irretrievably transformed by open pit mining. These images encompass documentary and aesthetic perspectives in equal measure, seeking to frame and interpret issues of contemporary landscape and culture. Literally and figuratively, the Earth’s consumption is revealed.

The Mining Project considers sites like the Berkeley Mine in Butte, Montana, whose open pit is filled with severely poisoned water a mile deep and nine hundred feet wide. American Mine features open pit mines on the Carlin Trend, the most prolific gold mining district in the Western Hemisphere. Mines from this region are the source of devastating mercury emissions, released when ore is heated during the process of gold extraction. Both series depict the calamitous practice of cyanide and sulfuric acid heap leaching, employed to extract microscopic particles of precious metals from mined ore, which often permit these deadly solutions to contaminate surrounding groundwater.

Inconceivably, federal legislation governing mining activity in the United States dates from more than 135 years ago. The legacy of the 1872 Mining Law, ratified in an era when America sought to develop the West and exploit natural resources without regard to environmental impact, has left this land deeply scarred. Current mining techniques carve out entire mountains and utilize tons of toxic chemicals at massive industrial sites. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mining has become America’s largest source of toxic pollution. Further, the mining industry is a globalized one, whose practices are often less regulated in other countries.

Metals extracted from the Earth by open pit mining are used to manufacture products that we global citizens employ on a daily basis. The mines and their surrounding expanse of tailings ponds and cyanide leaching fields are byproducts of the developed nations’ culture of consumption. Our infrastructure, our technology, our transportation systems, and even the medium of photography itself, are all reliant on metals extracted from the Earth’s crust in methods both brutal and complex.

Of course, none of this is explicitly stated in my photographs, which are formal and abstract as well as being highly descriptive. I don’t caption my images or even title them in a manner meant to sway audience reaction. I want them to exist as visual images first and foremost, but their power comes from examining sites that are contested, difficult, and damaged. They are intended to offer a sense of what has been lost, what the structure and forms of our civilization are taking, and perhaps, views of the problems we face and that we’ve collectively created.

LTB:  In many of your works the collapse of scale is critical to the sense of otherworldliness that results. In several works for example, what appears to be an amalgam of blood vessels perhaps, is actually a large terrain of toxic mineral beds viewed from an airplane, for example. How consciously do you manipulate scale in your work and to what end?

DM: I don’t know that I am manipulating scale, so much as I am responding to it. From the air, the site of Owens Lake certainly takes on aspects of the human body. I began to treat my work in The Lake Project as an autopsy of Owens Lake. An apt phrase; to autopsy means to see for oneself. At Owens Lake, the blood red waters seem like veins and arteries, and certain images can feel strangely like we are within the brain or the heart. In fact, after he saw the images in The Lake Project, a cardiac surgeon invite me into his OR so that I could witness just how similar open heart surgery looks to some of the images I’d made at Owens Lake.

LTB: Given that you have been photographing the American West for over two decades now, what changes have you observed in that time period? Are you compelled for example, to return to Owens Lake and see how that place looks today?

DM: Owens Lake is a site that I would like to return to every decade or so. I like the idea of charting changes to this particular site over time. In fact, in the two years I spent working there on The Lake Project, the changes to the dry lakebed were massive in scale. The EPA had mandated specific modifications to the dry lakebed in an attempt to quell the toxic dust storms arising from the playa. Between 2001 and 2002, a vast area of the lakebed, many hundreds of acres in size, was covered with drip irrigation tubing; some 15% of the water drained from the lake and intended for Los Angeles was instead diverted back onto the lakebed to dampen the surface enough to keep dust storms from forming. It is at this point a kind of synthetic landscape, with many successive layers of human intervention.

LTB: I believe you grew up and came of age in Long Island, New York, a place that has been radically transformed through human intervention, land development, industry, etc. over the last two centuries and a place where connections with the natural world are nonetheless still evident, particularly because of the omnipresence of the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. How would you say that your experiences there might have influenced your work and perhaps your passion for environmental concerns?

DM: Well, Long Island was a synthetic landscape, too. I lived in the same house on the same street for the first eighteen years of my life, and returned to visit my parents there until I was in my late 30’s. The street had a kind of Levittown aspect to it; each home on my side of the street had originated with exactly the same floor plan. Ranch house, ranch house, ranch house. As a small kid, I was acutely aware of how each house had, over time, shifted in subtle ways as the occupants made changes. Variation within sameness. I recall how otherworldly it felt when I discovered, perhaps as an 8-year old, that the homes around the block from mine, whose backyards bordered my own, were again the same home endlessly repeated, but with their floor plans inverted. That was the strangest science fiction I could have imagined, and it fueled my sense of how the uncanny coexists alongside the prosaic.

I lived in that house when I saw footage of men walking on the moon, and lived there when I saw TV coverage of Lake Erie on fire. Within a year or two I formed the ecology club in my middle school. The club sold seedlings of pine trees; eventually a few of them that I had planted outside my parents’ bedroom grew taller than our house. I suppose all of those events were formative on some level.

LTB: You cite your studies at Princeton with Emmet Gowin and Edward Ranney as seminal in your development and engagement with contemporary exploratory photography. How did these mentors influence your work?

DM: To describe Emmet Gowin and Edward Ranney as photographic educators only begins to skim the surface of their impact on me as a young artist; they were philosophers and exemplars, as well. They showed me, through their ­­­­­quietly profound work and their dedicated working methods, that if photography provides anything at all, it is as a platform for inquiry, or, as Emmet has described it, “the natural exhilaration of an encounter with the unknown.”

As an undergraduate student, I had the opportunity to accompany Emmet Gowin on a photographic expedition to the aftermath of the volcano Mount St. Helens. This was a profoundly formative experience for me. I witnessed the landscape being taken apart on a seemingly biblical scale by not only the natural disaster of the volcano, but also by the actions of the logging industry that were clear–cutting in the area. I also worked from an airplane for the first time, and I was immediately captivated by the abstracted and distanced view of the earth afforded by the aerial perspective.

At the time I studied with him, Ed Ranney was engaged in his photographic survey of Mayan and Incan architecture. I think that from Ed I absorbed the idea of thinking of myself as an archaeologist, examining the artifacts left by civilizations in the lands they had occupied. However, with my work, I was representing a kind of future past- that is, I was documenting and cataloguing that which our current civilization might leave behind once we have vanished.

The CU Art Museum touring exhibition David Maisel/Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime is curated by Lisa Tamiris Becker, Director, UNM Art Museum and Helmut Müller-Sievers, Director, Center for Humanities and the Arts, Eaton Professor of Humanities, University of Colorado Boulder. The introduction for this interview is an excerpt from Ms. Becker’s curatorial statement from the exhibit.

The exhibition, which premiered at the CU Art Museum in 2013 was recently on view at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and will travel to the University of New Mexico Art Museum for exhibition in the Fall of 2014.  The UNM Art Museum is also planning a major symposium to explore the multiplicity of meanings emanating from David Maisel’s Black Maps work and the symposium will focus on subjects such as aesthetics and history of aerial photography in the American West; aesthetics, sustainability, and land-use in the American West; the relationship of Maisel’s work to Land Art and practices of Art and Ecology; as well as the relationship of Maisel’s work to the historic and contemporary sublime. For more information about the symposium please e-mail Lisa Tamiris Becker at lbecker@unm.edu.


Lisa Tamiris Becker led the CU Art Museum in Boulder, CO for ten years and in 2013 was appointed director of the University of New Mexico Art Museum. She has curated and organized over fifty major exhibitions of contemporary art.

David Maisel is a San Francisco-based photographer whose large-scale photographs explore the visible traces of mining, logging, water reclamation, and military testing. His work has been collected and exhibited internationally, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.