OVERLOOKING WATER BETWEEN LA AND OWENS VALLEY
THE LATEST CLUI EXHIBIT ABOUT about the relationship of the city of Los Angeles and its antipode in the Owens Valley, titled Best Available Control Measures: Aerial Portraits of Owens Lake, included a self-guided tour presented on a touchscreen in the gallery and in a booklet, which people could take with them. This tour follows Los Angeles’ water upstream, from the ocean to the Sierras, through a series of viewing points—overlooks—which provide a view of different water landmarks at various steps along the way.
The tour begins where the Owens Valley water’s journey ends, at the city’s main sewage plant, on the beach. An elevated platform nearby, the “Outfall Overlook,” provides a view of the outfall pipes as they head out to sea from the Hyperion wastewater treatment plant in El Segundo.
The Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant is the head of the infrastructural delta at the end of Los Angeles’ constructed watershed. Here the waters of northern and central California are processed for the last time and discharged out to the sea, after all their busy work being routed through the distribution systems, industries, washing machines, and kidneys of the citizens of the city. The sprinkler heads, on the ocean floor, at the end of the Y-shaped outfall pipe, five miles out to sea, is where the water meets its own, and reenters the hydrologic cycle.
Leaving the Los Angeles basin, we travel through the Sepulveda Pass to the next basin—the San Fernando Valley, and the next overlook—the Sepulveda Dam.
The Sepulveda Dam is a flood control structure on the Los Angeles River, a buffer to hold water and to keep other parts of the city from flooding. Behind it are golf courses and recreational areas designed to flood in a large rain event. The dam basin also contains the Tillman Water Treatment Plant, the principal sewage plant for the San Fernando Valley.
Unless it’s raining, the treated effluent exiting the water plant is the primary source of water for the LA River. From this mechanical headwaters, the river runs through the dam and along its concrete course, leaving the Valley, passing Griffith Park, then heading past downtown Los Angeles to its delta: the Port of Long Beach.
It makes sense that the source of the LA River is the runoff of treated Owens River water in the San Fernando Valley, since the developers of the Valley were the primary beneficiaries of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Starting in 1915, most of the Valley joined the City of Los Angeles, in order to have access to the LA Aqueduct water, doubling the size of Los Angeles in area. Today the Valley holds half of the city’s population.
Our next overlook is at the north end of the San Fernando Valley, at the Van Norman Complex, at the bottom of Newhall Pass. The Los Angeles Aqueduct terminates at the Van Norman Complex, where Owens Valley water spills into the city after its 200-mile plus trip in pipes and canals through the desert. The water comes down its final drop across the highway at the Cascades, then enters two small power plants (one for each aqueduct), then goes to a water treatment plant for distribution into the city. Van Norman is at the city’s northern infrastructural gateway, where long distance electrical lines from the Owens Valley and Columbia River enter the grid, and where the LAPD trains in a simulated version of the city, next to a reservoir covered in small plastic balls to help cut down on algae formation. The Department of Water and Power has a heliport here, and their helicopters make daily flights up and down the aqueduct and powerlines through Owens Valley.
The tour continues up the 14 freeway to the next overlook, on the edge of the Antelope Valley, the next basin. This is an official overlook next to the highway, the Lamont Odette Vista Point, named after a local newspaperman. It provides a great view for motorists entering the desert from the city of Los Angeles, less than an hour away. Beneath the overlook is Lake Palmdale, part of the water supply for the city of Palmdale, fed by the California Aqueduct, which is also visible, bringing water from Northern California.
Lake Palmdale sits in the San Andreas Fault, which has a distinct rift zone that defines the southern edge of the Valley. Beyond is the city of Palmdale, with its airport, surrounded by the hangars of the aerospace companies at Plant 42, a major manufacturing center for military aircraft. This industry, and the community spurred by the work it provides, exists here because of imported water.
A few miles up the 14 freeway, to the bottom of the Antelope Valley, is our next overlook, the Lancaster Water Treatment Plant. The plant cleans wastewater from the city of Lancaster, most of which is water coming from Northern California through the State Water Project aqueduct, before passing through the region’s homes and businesses, and ending up here.
The partially treated water from the plant is used to fill ponds and irrigate crops. Some of it sustains the Piute Ponds, a marsh next to the plant. The marsh is at the end of the original drainage system for the region, Amargosa Creek, which terminates in Rosamond and Edwards Dry Lakes. These flat lakebeds at the end of the drainage basin were used as airports for experimental aircraft, which developed into Edwards Air Force Base, the nation’s primary aviation test site.
Continuing upslope and upstream leads to Mojave, a crossroads town in the Mojave Desert, dominated by aerospace, windmills, railways, highways, mining, and chemical industries. It is also the base for DWP’s Aqueduct Division’s Southern District headquarters, where approximately 65 employees operate and maintain the 160 miles of the aqueduct system between Los Angeles and the Haiwee Reservoir, at the south end of the Owens Valley. Across the highway is Mojave Airport, a major storage site for grounded airliners, and one of the few civilian spaceports in the country. Cement plants nearby provided the rivers of concrete required for the aqueduct, and continue to supply the region.
Our next overlook is at the north end of the valley, at Jawbone Canyon, where amidst the busy off-highway recreational vehicle area is the largest of the pressurized tubes dipping into and out of the canyons along the Los Angeles Aqueduct (8,095 feet, with a 850 foot drop), notable also for having burst in freezing weather in 1988. A few of these siphon points are visible along the course of the original LA Aqueduct—the largest single water project in the world when it was built in 1913, especially remarkable for being gravity powered for its entire 226 mile length. In order to flow through valleys, the aqueduct is contained in steel pipes, using the pressure developed in the down slope to force water through the up slope.
There is a visitor center at the turn-off from Highway 14, with displays and books about the region. It is operated by Friends of Jawbone, an off-highway recreational vehicle promotion and information group. Heading further up the road you come first to the 1970 aqueduct pipe, then, in another mile or two, the 1913 aqueduct, next to a DWP caretaker compound.
From the visitor center you can see, in the distance, trees lining the huge Honda test track, and extensive new photovoltaic arrays. Leaving the visitor center, continuing north, Highway 14 passes through Red Rock Canyon, where the land takes the next step upwards.
The next basin is Indian Wells Valley, and our overlook here is next to the highway and the Indian Wells themselves, a natural spring on the hillside overlooking the desert of Inyokern, Ridgecrest, and China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Years ago, a resort was established here for people to take the waters, but now the spring is used as the source for the Indian Wells Brewery, located here, which makes Lobotomy Bock, Mojave Red, and Sidewinder Missile Ale, referencing the decades of past and current missile development in the valley below.
Continuing north, out of the valley, the highway rises to meet a little lake called Little Lake, which once had a hotel and resort, now all gone. In another couple of miles is the turn off to the next overlook, Fossil Falls, at the base of a big cinder cone.
Fossil Falls is a remnant from a dynamic earth, when volcanoes spewed and melting mountain glaciers kept the Owens River flowing south, out of Owens Lake, and through fresh lava (as recently as 10,000 years ago) creating these strange waterfalls, now dry. Above the falls is Red Hill, a pile of ejected cinder, now mined to make building blocks in Los Angeles. Geothermal springs and earthquake lakes can be found throughout this region, where large-scale non-human forces still lurk, until the next intersection of human time and geologic time.
Our next overlook is at the Haiwee Reservoir, where the double barrels of the Los Angeles Aqueduct are loaded, they say, as both the 1913 and the 1970 aqueduct projects flow out of it, emerging from under its dam as separate aqueducts and pipes for the rest of their journey to Los Angeles. The Haiwee is a fulcrum, marking a transition from water supply—the Owens Valley, to consumption—Los Angeles, a non-stop 200 miles away (for the water). The original settlement of Haiwee was displaced when the reservoir was constructed.
Our next overlook is from the top of a pile of potash at the town of Cartago, overlooking the southern end of Owens Lake, near the big sheds of the Crystal Geyser bottling plant, a major source for bottled water in Los Angeles.
Cartago is the former port on the southern end of Owens Lake, where silver and lead bullion from mines and smelters on the opposite shore, at Cerro Gordo, Keeler, and Swansea, came by boat to meet wagon teams which took it south from here to Los Angeles. Once connected by trade, the port communities of Cartago and Los Angeles are now connected by the Aqueduct.
After the lake dried up, Cartago ceased to be a port, and became an industrial site for the processing of potash drawn from the exposed lakebed. Next to the stack of potash, the plant is now a ruin of concrete foundations looming over the former port, which evokes its namesake, the ancient city of Carthage on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
The final overlook is the pumping plant at the north end of Owens Lake. The Owens River terminates here, where it enters Owens Lake. Upstream, the water flows out of Sierra snowpack, and passes though dams, power plants, aqueducts, and culverts, with most of it diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct before it gets to the old riverbed. In an effort to restore the habitat along this lower end of the river, some of the aqueduct’s water is diverted back into the river channel, then removed again at a pumping station here. What remains in the riverbed trickles under the road, and fans out, to evaporate in the flats of the dry lake bed.
From this point, at the pump station and delta of the Owens River, you can continue east on a new road called the Brady Highway, named after James Brady, the builder of the first boat to ply the waters of the lake nearly 150 years ago. The road makes a long arc around the eastern side of the lake, and has a few new overlooks and wildlife viewing areas, while passing the pumps, berms, pipes, ponds, tillage, sprinklers, gravel fields, plastic lining, and monitoring facilities built on the lake to control the dust. You can drive the road all the way back to Highway 395, where it hits pavement again at the entrance of the Rio Tinto mining road, just north of Cartago. From there you can head south, 200 miles back to Los Angeles, with Owens Valley water flowing next to you the whole way. ♦