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“rising like alien plants on the terraformed lakebed”
Owens Lake / Bubblers

One of the interesting things — and there are definitely many — that you will read about in Kazys Varnelis' paean to the “networked ecologies” of Los Angeles, The Infrastructural City, is the dust control system at Owens Lake.

After decades of monumental water projects that have diverted the lake's “life-giving liquid” to quench a distant city's thirsty populace, to ensure the perfect shade of green for their lawns, and to turn their swimming pools into aqueous micro-paradises, the now parched lake has become a health hazard.

Writes Barry Lehrman, author of the first chapter:

Wind gusts above twenty miles an hour lifted over fifty tons per second of “Keeler Fog” off the lakebed. Often reaching over two miles high, these dust storms sent 130 times the United States Environmental Protection Agency's limit for particulate matter into the atmosphere, blowing the dust over 250 miles from the lake. Such storms occurred two dozens or more times each year, generally in the spring and fall. Composed of microscopic particles smaller than ten microns (PM10), the dust contains significant levels of toxic metals like selenium, arsenic, and lead along with efflorescent salts. The largest single source of PM10 pollution in the country, these dust storms were a clear threat to the 40,000 people in the immediate region.

The threat, according to Lehrman, came in the form of higher rates of cancer, respiratory disease, and eye problems.

Owens Lake / Bubblers

To combat these carcinogenic storms, Los Angeles grafted onto the desiccated corpse of the lake a hydro-network as monumental as the existing network responsible for the situation it is tasked to offset: “over 300 miles of pipe (some as large as five feet in diameter), more than 5,000 irrigation bubblers, and hundreds of miles of fiber optic control cables and valves.”

[T]he dust control projects on Owens Lake is roughly equivalent to that of a waterworks for a city of over 220,000 people. Construction of the first five phases, treating the worst thirty square miles of dust-emitting soils on the playa, has cost the City of Los Angeles $425 million dollars to build. But that sum doesn't factor in the lost revenue from the water being appropriated for the project (around $15 million/year) or the operations and maintenance budget, some $10 million per year.

“[R]ising like alien plants on the terraformed lakebed,” the bubblers flood the playa with shallow water, creating the merest suggestion of a lake, a perverse reminder of Lake Owens' former self.

Owens Lake / Bubblers

However superficial such observations may be, we couldn't help but see similarities between these bubblers and fountains.

Firstly, much like the fountains at Versailles, behind these water spouts is a staggering hydrological infrastructure. Among other things, Versailles had the Machine de Marley, considered the greatest engineering marvel of its time; Owens Lake is part of what is probably the greatest water engineering project of the 20th century.

Secondly, since time immemorial, fountains have been creating micro-climates, cooling gardens, palaces and sartorially bedecked aristocrats. The array of bubblers, you could say, is also a type of weather modification system: an anti-dust storm. Moreover, fountains like those at Columbus Circle in Manhattan can provide a sonic barrier, making one unaware of the tumult outside; with some conjecture, probably forced, you could say that the bubblers don't do much to make Los Angelenos more aware of the negative environmental effects their mode of living is contributing outside the city.

Thirdly, if one can only speculate that fountains have ameliorative effects on one's mental state, you probably don't need to speculate the positive health effects of the bubblers.

Fourthly, fountains like those in Rome are objects for aesthetic consumption; these ebullient and rather photogenic desert sprinklers, thanks to CLUI, have been appropriated into a staged aesthetic experience.

Lastly, and most significantly, they are the products of a complex network of intermingling social, technological, political, economic and geographical conditions, the manifestations of competing ideologies and agendas. They're not mere water features, in other words.

Owens Lake / Bubblers

In any case, we recommend the book.

On fountains
  • Anonymous
  • January 21, 2009 at 10:52:00 AM CST
  • Interesting post; and I just bought the book. But couldn't we simply say that these sprinklers/fountains reinstate modern water-systems traditional role as facilitators of urban health? Albeit flowing in reverse? Also, the photos of such things (by CLUI et al.), like the photos that circulated in the late-19th century of urban water systems, provide this with a powerful aesthetic dimension, matching its more materialist aims. I think the chapter on water in Matthew Gandy's Concrete and Clay might be useful here, among other things. The latter is a great read.

  • Anonymous
  • March 6, 2010 at 12:18:00 PM CST
  • It would seem like some type of ground cover would help the situation....some type of low growing plant could conserve water, bind sediment, and reduce surface temperature.

  • Anonymous
  • May 12, 2010 at 1:52:00 AM CDT
  • Why not fill up the lake again.

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