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Repurposing the Los Angeles Aqueduct: A Pathway for Sacred Pilgrimages

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Cement channel of Los Angeles Aqueduct in the hills of Pearblossom, California, off U.S. Route 18. | Photo:Tyler Stallings.

In Partnership with ARID: A Journal of Desert Art, Design and Ecology, a peer-reviewed bi-annual journal focusing on cross-disciplinary explorations of desert arts, design, culture, and the environment for both scholarly and new audiences.

2013 is the centenary of the Los Angles Department of Water and Power's Los Angeles Aqueduct, an engineer's 223-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. In this piece of fiction, I will be visiting sections of each with the viewpoint of a future Aridtopian, a speculative, utopian, desert-based community that encompasses southern California. In its future, the DWP's 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 may reconnect people to the land and the water?

On November 5, 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct began bringing water to the city. 100 years later, KCET is looking at what has happened, what it means, and more across its website. See more stories here.

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 less than ten percent. Robes; vented hats; snake bite kits; jackets for the cool night since there is little moisture to hold the heat as the sun sets.

Sun weathered sign in the Mojave Desert, near Pearblossom, California. | Photo: Tyler Stallings.
Sun weathered sign in the Mojave Desert, near Pearblossom, California. | Photo: Tyler Stallings.

The satellite image on my smart phone reveals the linear lines of the concrete aqueduct cutting through the Owens Valley, which I will be driving into soon. 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, 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 remnant 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 that began to flow in 1913. The aqueduct allowed 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.

Terminus of Los Angeles Aqueduct in Sylmar, California, also known as the Cascades.
Terminus of Los Angeles Aqueduct in Sylmar, California, also known as the Cascades.

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 MiniCooper, near the same size as the Mars Curiosity rover, exploring on Earth an arid landscape and the Incision.

The author's MiniCooper Mars Rover parked in the Alabama Hills, outside of Lone Pine, California, off U.S. Route 395. | Photo: Tyler Stallings.
The author's MiniCooper Mars Rover parked in the Alabama Hills, outside of Lone Pine, California, off U.S. Route 395. | Photo: Tyler Stallings.

Pearblossom, California, U.S. Route 18

I wear a green baseball cap to protect the beginnings 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 blurry intermittingly as my contact lens need to slip and slide across moisture on my eyeball in order to work effectively.

The further I drive away from Los Angeles, towards 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 registers barely 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.

Satellite image of Los Angeles Aqueduct in the hills of Pearblossom, California, off the 18 Hwy. | Photo:Google Earth.
Satellite image of Los Angeles Aqueduct in the hills of Pearblossom, California, off the 18 Hwy. | Photo:Google Earth.

I drive past old, sun bleached, drive-in motels, still advertising free HBO and air-conditioning. There is an erasure of its signs. The lettering fades and peels from the sun, designating what was its 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 Rd., prompting by a sign that promoted a section of the L.A. Aqueduct as a fishing spot.

I drive up a paved road into the hills, turning off on a dirt road that leads to the Los Angeles Aqueduct that is not visible from the road. I located 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 3500 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, he 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 cement aqueduct is a miniature valley. Its hard, sloping cement walls are like the steep, sheer grades of the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo White Mountains in the Owens Valley, with the once fertile 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 will offer scathing observations on entrenched views toward water-use.


If the aqueduct were dry, then it could provide a protective trade route between Aridtopia and this region against the desert heat since it is below ground, and nighttime cool temperatures, since the cement will radiate heat absorbed from the sun. Vendors can set up shop too alongside the upper banks. A narrow track can be laid down the center whereby gravity can pull carts down. Another track can be for carts pulled upslope with ropes.

Creosote bush, Mormon Tea shrub, and Mojave yucca surround the cement 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 units. The Cahuilla in southern California did too. They divided when the group reached around 200 or so. The idea of living as a larger tribe was forced by settler governments that wanted to keep them in one area instead of being able to roam the countryside. 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, and not have to surrender to dense living conditions.

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 one hundred 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 for one of the largest sections of the LA Aqueduct's metal siphons.

A stark, white line crosses the desert surface. It is one segment of a miles long, nearly seven-foot 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 Nazca Lines in Peru, which often took the shapes of regional animals; some seemingly visible from an aerial viewpoint only. Zigzags of this same pipe are 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.

Aerial view Los Angeles Aqueduct siphons in Jawbone Canyon, suggesting a modern day Nazca Line that evokes the image of a giant snake slithering across the desert landscape. | Imagery © 2013 Digital Globe, U.S. Geological Survey, USDA Farm Services Agency, Map data © 2013 Google.

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 who use the desert for recreation, such as off-roading vehicles, commiserate with the federal policy for parks that states "Land of many uses." An Aridtopian might define it as "wreck-reation"). I imagine them as demarcating one of many resting places for future, Aridtopian pilgrimages along the aqueduct's route.

Siphon section of Los Angeles Aqueduct, Jawbone Canyon, north of Mojave, California. | Photo: by Tyler Stallings.<br />
Siphon section of Los Angeles Aqueduct, Jawbone Canyon, north of Mojave, California. | Photo: by Tyler Stallings.

The Mojave Desert is a land of many uses: people retreat into it for the landscape's solitude, quietness, and stillness, seeking spiritual replenishment. The U.S. military has installed several bases such as Edwards Air Force Base, just south of Jawbone Canyon, or China Lake, north of here in the Indian Wells Valley, just before entering the Owens Valley. There is 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? The first idea that comes to mind is that they could provide a pathway from Aridtopia into Owens Valley that would provide even more protection from the elements than the open-air cement 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 from snakes, coyotes, and scorpions.

However, this seems like only practical suggestions. I feel that 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, given them the nickname, "butcher bird." Whether Nazca Lines, lengthy metal pipes carrying water, or missiles, desert animals are a source of representing 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, where if I continue on 190, I'd enter into Death Valley, but if I turn left on 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 are towards its center. When there is some rain, the water mixes with the salt and other minerals, making a small brine pond sometimes. 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.

 Former &quot;Keeler Beach&quot; recreational site, Keeler, California, eastern edge of the dry Owens Lake. | Photo: Tyler Stallings.
Former "Keeler Beach" recreational site, Keeler, California, eastern edge of the dry Owens Lake. | Photo: Tyler Stallings.

I driver further 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, but one of hopes and dreams turned into dust. It was built when the Cerro Gordo silver mine was active from 1866 to 1957; 9000 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 that is a sign, which reads, "Keeler Beach. Swim, Surf, Fish. Camps For Rent." There is no more shoreline since there is no more water.

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 density of eight times more salt than the ocean, like that of the Judean Desert's Dead Sea. Then, pilgrims could float buoyant on it, their bodies touching nothing hard, loosing sense of their own body, confronting their primal self as the interior and exterior boundaries with 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 use 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 tie 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.

Excavated fulgurite on display in the Eastern California Museum, Independence, California. | Photo: Tyler Stallings.<br />
Excavated fulgurite on display in the Eastern California Museum, Independence, California. | Photo: Tyler Stallings.

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, now exposed after water levels dropped as the Los Angeles Aqueduct drained water from the Owens Valley. He was able to demonstrate with this evidence 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.

He gathered additional evidence from fulgurites at Owens Lake, which are glassy structures in which sand has been fused from lightning strikes, and became accessible after the disappearance of the lake because of the aqueduct. He found fulgurites from both past decades and centuries past, whose trapped electrons allowed for dating further back 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 it, bypassing the Owens Lake. The river can be found in its unchanneled state in this area.

I pull into Bishop, the biggest town along the 395. Along the main street, are coffee shops and outfitters for hiking, skiing, and camping around Mammoth Lakes, which is located just a little further northwest in the Sierra Nevada. I'm now a couple of a 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. I've come to discuss the repurposing of the aqueduct as route of pilgrimage, in light of considering myself as a future emissary from Aridtopia. I am curious as to the options that Alan and the other Paiute, or Numa, may propose for the aqueduct, especially since they were the valley's first inhabitants. They have lived and survived in the arid environment for thousands of years before settlers arrived in 1859.

An initial idea is that the dry aqueduct becomes a causeway between Aridtopia and the Paiute, assuming a possible collegiality based on a mutual respect for the land, and would hence collaborate 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 future Grand Refusal of the Aqueduct that the Numa may be able to take back the 90% ownership in the land by the settler-DWP, and then evict peacefully the remaining settler-ranchers in the Owens Valley.

Outdoor exhibition of traditional thatched-hut in the front yard of The Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center & Museum, Bishop, California. | Photograph by Tyler Stallings.
Outdoor exhibition of traditional thatched-hut in the front yard of The Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center & Museum, Bishop, California. | Photograph by Tyler Stallings.

The Numa may choose to return to an 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 back to being historic gathering spots for the Numa; returning to a lifestyle of constant movement based on seasons by living in temporary dwellings.

Alan and I order coffee and then step out to the 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 tanned. He checks his smart phone often, looking for messages from his wife, daughter, or other Paiute.

We had hoped that it would be a quite location so that we could hear each other's comments, but a group sits 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. Maybe there's an innate feeling that as fresh water becomes a valuable resource it will then become a source of conflict too. This means that adapting to aridity will be important. So, perhaps Alan and I, along with our neighboring group, sipping on iced coffees and spinach smoothies, sense the need to learn desert survivalist skills.

Alan provides some history of his people in the valley. My words are in alternating sans-italics, which are digested reactions that came later to my mind while driving back south on the 395.

Alan: 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 from 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.

Alan: 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 for 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 loose one's soul to the impossibility of containment.

Alan: 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 5000 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.