In director Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” detective Jake Gittes presses the film’s antagonist to admit that Owens Valley residents will be unhappy when they find out that the city of Los Angeles is building a water reservoir in their area. “Either you bring the water to LA,” says Noah Cross, “or you bring LA to the water.”
Although “Chinatown” is a fictional account of California’s water wars, Los Angeles city officials and Owens Valley residents have long butted heads over water rights in the Eastern Sierra Nevada region. The city of Los Angeles has drained Owens Valley water using the Los Angeles aqueduct, and along with local irrigation, has left Owens Lake as a dry and dusty 42-square-mile playa.
Through an interdisciplinary effort, Cal Poly Pomona students are brainstorming alternative water resources for Los Angeles and exploring ways to revitalize the Owens Valley community, which is 200 miles northeast. The Aqueduct Futures project has brought nearly 140 students together for the effort. Although they are not working directly with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, their plans and ideas will be displayed at an exhibition at Los Angeles City Hall in November, in time for the centennial of the aqueduct’s completion.
To gain the perspective of an Owens Valley resident, a few graduate students involved with the project traveled to the Eastern Sierra Nevada and explored the basin. The community, which includes the towns of Bishop, Lone Pine, June Lake and Independence, is home to fewer than 10,000 people. At workshops held in Lone Pine and June Lake, residents agreed that they wanted a new plan that would increase their say in local policy and revitalize their towns’ beauty.
“The residents understand that the area is not all that it could be, and that the ecological, social, economic and cultural systems could benefit from new ideas. They seem very interested and receptive of our efforts,” says Devon Santy, a graduate landscape architecture student who helped coordinate workshops in February.
Owens Valley residents also voiced their thoughts about building new community spaces, revitalizing tourism and restoring the local ecology.
“It’s incredibly valuable being able to work on a project outside of the studio,” says graduate landscape architecture student Eric Haley, who helped conduct the workshops and created most of the graphics for the project. “Everything we do in the workforce will be a real-world project, so it makes sense to start practicing and preparing for it here and now.”
From the Sierra Nevada to the Studio
Taking the residents’ words to heart, landscape architecture students have created renderings, models and videos of ecologically sound ideas to improve Los Angeles’ water supply without relying on the aqueduct. Restructuring the local water system benefits both the city of Los Angeles and Owens Valley. For example, boosting the quality of the Los Angeles River watershed and runoff would make it usable for Los Angeles residents and reduce the dependence on the aqueduct’s water. That water, which makes up almost 40 percent of the city’s total water resources, will help restore the Owens Valley’s dry playa and reduce the region’s violent dust storms. The Metropolitan Water District, ground water and recycled water make up the remaining 60 percent.
This type of solution will not only help reinvigorate the natural beauty of the Eastern Sierra’s trails and parks but also pioneer the next century of water usage in urban settings. The city of San Francisco already supplements its sources with reclaimed and desalinized water, reducing its dependence on the Hetch Hetchy reservoir near Yosemite.
James Powell, a graduate landscape architecture student, has researched the economic issues associated with using outside water sources.
“The sorts of issues being addressed in this project will need to be addressed by all major cities as growing populations create strains on these extra-urban systems,” he says. “The possibility that our work will live on after graduation and inspire positive change in the Eastern Sierra makes the work extremely rewarding.”
To help convey the importance of water conservation in Los Angeles, landscape architecture students have teamed up with computer science and art students to create a smartphone and tablet app for the exhibition. Integrated with GPS features, the app allows users to explore the aqueduct, learn about how much water is shipped to Los Angeles (more than 400 million gallons per day) and understand what it means to the Owens Valley community.
“Rivers and streams support so many different forms of life and provide habitat for everything from the very smallest organisms to our own cities,” says Tiernan Doyle, a graduate landscape architecture student who helped analyze the area’s ecosystems. “There are myriad ways to create sustainable water supplies for rural and urban environments.”
Barry Lehrman, assistant professor of landscape architecture and faculty advisor for Aqueduct Futures, says that the City Hall exhibition may nurture and benefit a future DWP and Owens Valley relationship. This could lead to stronger water rights for residents of the Eastern Sierra.
“If a vision for the aqueduct were mutually agreeable, it could represent a shift in the quality of life for residents, the ecology and Los Angeles,” Lehrman says.
Metabolic Studio, an offshoot of the Annenberg Foundation that supports art and environmental projects, has provided funding for the project. Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge has also sponsored the City Hall exhibit and installation fees.
(Photo: Students Eric Haley, Devon Santy and Tiernan Doyle worked on the project.)