This article has been updated for clarity about the project cost.
Off Highway 136 in the Owens Valley, just north of Owens Lake, there is a shade structure silhouetted against the still luminescent sky. Its dominating upright large sculptures are inspired by and modeled after the extended wings of a small, unassuming protected bird found nesting on the lake. This bird is the treasured, or infamous, snowy plover -- depending on whom you ask. At the center of the concrete oval, there is a circular gravel foundation on which rests the large boulder, which aesthetically echoes Japanese influences.
These incipient architectural structures are part of a work-in progress. It's a plaza engineered by CDM Smith and designed by Perry Cardoza of NUVIS Landscape Architecture. The Owens Lake that surrounds the plaza glistens with opalescent light as the sun drops below the Sierra Nevada crest, now frosted with an icing of early snow. The Owens Lake with a surface of crystallized salts, pools of still reflecting water, cascading fountains and areas of salt marsh waits silently. There is, for a change, no wind at all.
The plaza is surrounded by interconnected, wandering gravel paths and roads; boulder arrangements in fives, twos, and threes; and large marsh habitats and smooth reflective ponds bordered by beautiful curvilinear shores. According to Amana Parsons, of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the agency calls the trails simply the Owens Lake Trails. Together, they make a spectacular piece of land art that has many purposes.
"The main plaza design was inspired by the nest of the snowy plover," Cardoza explains. "Circular in form this plaza is meant to be the central gathering space for visitors. The central feature of rock on the plaza that some have named the 'Zen Rock' represents a snowy plover, while the other plaza's boulders in large circles around the plaza represent the eggs in the nest."
Shimmering roadways, small turn-offs, and paths of local rock of various coordinated size indeed remind one of the peaceful rock gardens of Tokyo, where rumination can coexist alongside human activity. In this industrialized, riparian area there is a feeling of meditative peace and a place ripe for serious contemplation. Even the flocks of avocets, grebes and ducks move like an avian choreographedcorps de ballet: feeding, diving and coasting through the still warm waters.
Cardoza conceived this installation/land art as well as its utilitarian function. He has visited often to oversee the construction and even select and place the gravel paths, the roads, the seemingly desultory yet carefully planned habitats for the various guilds of birds that call the lake home, permanently or as a stopover while migrating on the Pacific flyway. The beautiful, undulating shores were designed with the same serene determination that has saturated this gigantic landscape art project, which is still only a tiny piece of the lakebed.
The land art installation is still under construction, and testing of the complex irrigation systems, and the seeding of the areas including the upper surfaces of the whitecaps themselves are continuing. It is not open to the public yet. At the time of this writing, they expect the official opening to happen sometime in March or April 2016.
From another age
Once a gigantic inland lake, left from the glacial age, Owens Lake hosted two different steamships. The Bessie Brady, named by James Brady, superintendent of the Owens Lake Silver-Lead Company's smelting furnaces, carried silver bullion bars from the foot of the Inyo Mountains to the foot of the Sierra. The other was the Mollie Stevens, named after his daughter by Colonel Sherman Vanderventer Stevens. Stevens made charcoal and the Mollie Stevens carried it across the lake to the furnaces. Their runs were limited and dwindled quickly.
Then with the completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and its opening on November 5, 1913, the lake began to empty. The flow of water was memorialized with Los Angeles Water Company's William Mulholland's immortal benediction on water: "There it is. Take it." It was nearly empty 10 years later. Soon water wars were breaking out between the ranchers of Owens Valley and the L.A. Water Department and dynamite explosions echoed across the dry lands.
During a recent visit, I stop by Owens Lake just before sunset. I have seen the large pumps and the giant pump-back station installed to meet the dictates of court ordered re-watering of the Owens River with "borrowed" water. Just before it would flow into Owens Lake, it is returned to the aqueduct. The light bounces off of banks and roads of salt, the crystals at times sparkling like diamonds in the slanting sun. Marshes of grass bend gently now in a thermal rush of air. Soon an intense tranquility again creates a calming in me. An almost spiritual aura comes over this altered, wrecked, and reworked landscape that actually belongs to all the people of California.
For a few years a working group loosely known as the Owens Lake Master Plan Committee met regularly, examining the cultural history, the challenges of air and water pollution and the natural resources of the lake to create a plan to address the many problems that have been identified by the State Lands Commission, the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District, the people of the Owens Valley and many other agencies and stakeholders. I attended them as an observer for Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio of Los Angeles.
Then in April 2013, the City of Los Angeles released its own Owens Lake Master Plan. They wrote at the beginning of the simple 32-page document: "LADWP, along with a diverse group of stakeholders including state and local agencies, non-governmental organizations and interested individuals, has been an active participant and supporter of the development of an Owens Lake Master Plan. Based upon, and in the spirit of this planning effort, LADWP proposes the Master Project described in this concept document."
Cardoza saw a photograph of the lake once with whitecaps on it, and that has branded his vision of how he responds to this lake today. In one of our interviews, he explained in detail the origin of the "whitecaps." He reminisces: "The inspiration came from a simple photograph. In our search for inspirational images we found a very simple yet powerful picture of the lake pre-1912 that showed strong winds over the lake. We were fortunate to find this image early into the design phase of concept development. Another large landform art we were considering was how we could symbolically represent the historical lake edge. We'll leave that for another day."
He continues, "During the idea generation process of the whitecaps, we considered and studied all aspects of dust mitigation, potential habitat benefits and constructability. We found that by varying the size and proportions of the whitecaps in theory we could positively affect wind patterns thus helping to keep adjacent particulates from becoming airborne. Placing gravel or planting on the tops of the whitecaps would prevent erosion." (Note: dust control was one of the requirements of the design. More on that later.)
Cardoza emphasizes he worked with an environmental team from the LADWP that was very helpful. "In collaboration with the environmental team at LADWP we determined that by providing larger rock as the base of the whitecaps we could create niches for small mammals, reptiles and insects. Changes in topographic elevation also added to the habitat benefits by providing variation to a very flat playa."
But the formations had to be constructed, and Cardoza had to work out how best to do this. "The construction of the whitecaps was envisioned to be done with earth moving equipment existing on site and local white rock. We understood that the design must be simple, easy to construct and maintain. The bottom line was we needed contractors to install the whitecap sculptures or structures with little guidance. Thanks to talented contractors and a visionary client, our idea of whitecaps has once again returned to the Owens Valley if only as a poetic expression."
A history of violence
I must note that in the American Indian wars of the early 1860s, a massacre of women, children and old men occurred on the Owens Lake. White pioneers attacked a peaceful settlement of Paiute on the edge of Owens Lake. Many were driven into the lake but then a great storm arose. As the Indians struggled back to shore, they were picked off by the ranchers and towns people in wait. I never quite understood how waves could have made them fear for their lives. Then my High & Dry project collaborator photographer Osceola Refetoff and I were caught out in the lake and experienced these whitecaps. Greatly reduced in size now by the desiccation and DWP's Owens Lake dust mitigation project, I still realized how much greater the whitecaps must have been historically. Perhaps unintentionally these whitecaps stand as stark memorialization of that terrible time in history. Recently Kathy Bancroft, Paiute tribal heritage monitor, announced the identification of the actual massacre site based on white soldier ammunition and military buttons and Indian artifacts crowded together in an area adjacent to the lake shore.
So this land art has two major parts: the plaza, the shade structure and gathering place for visitors, and a complex set of trails, marshes and pond habitats and native flora called the Owens Valley Trails. I like the nickname "whitecaps" because these dune-like constructions are fascinating, both visually and conceptually, found on this managed dry and wet lake.
The architect states there were several "must have" components or purposes that the installation design had to accomplish. It had to mitigate dust off the surface of the lake. It had to save water. It had to reflect organically not only the nature of the lake, but also its look and viewscape. Cardoza explains, "The three approved dust mitigation measures include gravel cover to prevent particulates from becoming airborne, planting and water. By saturating the soil or providing shallow ponds the soil will stay in place. Specific design features we were asked to incorporate included shallow flood areas with a main pond, islands and deep-water areas for diving birds. In addition undulating shoreline and topography changes through berming were included."
The plaza and surrounding trail system arises first and foremost from the goals of the master project. The goals are reflected in what the land art/public access structure needed to address. First as mentioned: control dust. It also has to protect, create and enhance habitat, as well as protect cultural resources and provide area-wide economic development. Other needs are renewable energy development, a flexible adaptive management plan and reduction of lake-wide water use by at least 50 percent. Finally the master plan requires the creation of a "viewshed that is in harmony with the surrounding rural environment."
The plaza and trails will provide a large public access opportunity for bird watchers, visitors, artists and the scientifically minded, to study how environmental challenges have been addressed. The master plan, the challenges and "whitecaps" could also be of significant interest to the many agencies and individuals who are taking on the Salton Sea challenge. The Salton Sea is another dying lake close to the large populations of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and even San Diego. The Owens Lake project has attracted visitors exploring alternatives for the Salton Sea, which is larger than Owens Lake.
When I met with Cardoza in L.A. and later on the lakebed itself, he reminisced about the first time he saw this lake landscape and was almost overwhelmed by the size of the project he had undertaken. This landscape architect stressed to me right off the bat that he believes strongly in and professes the partnership of art and landscape architecture. He immediately identified a natural palette of colors, textures and forms that he would be using in his designs
The plaza and trails are complex and in one sense ambiguous. Critics will question the price tag, over $300 million for entire Phase 7a dust mitigation effort on the lake bed, and exactly what motivations the city has in funding such a gigantic landscape interpretation. There is no denying its beauty and power. It works to bring the public access to the Owens Lake project and to this otherworldly landscape. It could draw bird watchers, artists, photographers, and even performance and installation-based interpreters of California's land. But will it assuage industrial damage waged on the lake's surface?
In Michael Auping's essay "Earth Art: A Study in Ecological Politics," found in Alan Sonfist's collections of articles called "Art in the Land," we hear land artist Robert Morris reflect on how projects like Cardoza's can even be an act of reconciliation: "The most significant implication of art as land reclamation is that art can and should be used to wipe away technological guilt. Will it be a little easier in the future to rip up the landscape for one last shovelful of non-renewable energy source if an artist can be found -- cheap mind you -- to transform the devastation into an inspiring and modern work of art?"
This article will continue in part two, where we look at habitats in the project saving water, Perry Cardoza's design elements in more detail, and the Owen's Lake Master Plan: transitioning to waterless and water-wise solutions.
Top Image: Wide view of the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project (T30-1) in progress. | Photo: Christopher Langley.