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Where There Once Was Water: Photographer Brittany App Documents the Drought

This aerial photograph reveals the effects of the drought on the Laguna Lake area of San Luis Obispo, Calif. | Brittany App
This aerial photograph highlights the effects of the drought on the Laguna Lake area of San Luis Obispo, Calif. | Photo: Brittany App.

Last summer, as Southern California sunk into the third year of a devastating drought, San Luis Obispo photographer Brittany App noticed a disturbing trend. "People all over the place were freakin' dumping five gallons of perfectly good, clean water on their heads and filming it," App recalled, as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fundraising campaign.

"I knew I'd get challenged eventually, and I knew I had to come up with some sort of sensitive, respectful response," App, 36, said. So, in August 2014, she launched her Five Gallon Challenge, which challenges participants to live on just five gallons a water a day -- plus three toilet flushes.

"As the drought has gotten worse, I feel that people are waking up to it, and slowly but surely people are changing habits," said App, who has been documenting the effects of the drought for the past two years as part of her photography series, "Where There Once Was Water." "That's a great thing, but I don't think enough of us are taking it as seriously as we should be."

According to App, "Where There Once Was Water" is aimed not only at showcasing scenes of devastation -- cracked earth, dusty lake beds, drained reservoirs -- but also raising questions about responsible water use.

Her goal is to "start a conversation that gets us all thinking about what we can do individually and collectively, and what we can do in communication with the powers that be," she said.

 San Luis Obispo photographer Brittany App goes for a ride. | Photo: Brittany App.
San Luis Obispo photographer Brittany App goes for a ride. | Photo: Brittany App.   

App grew up in Los Osos, a small, scenic coastal community with its own complicated relationship with water. Work on a $183 million sewage treatment project began in 2012 following three decades of debate, divisive politics and legal battles; construction is slated to be completed in 2017. She graduated from Morro Bay High School in 1997.

Even though App had been a shutterbug since childhood -- at age 11, she purchased her grandparents' old VHS camcorder with $150 she raised by doing household chores, breeding mice and catching crayfish and tadpoles -- she didn't see photography as a viable career until she attended Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.

"It wasn't until after a few years at Cuesta that I realized, 'Oh, people do this for a living,'" said App, who officially launched her photography business in 2001.

"Everyone who chooses an artistic career is on an exciting but dangerous path," she said. "It's really exciting that you get to do what you love and make money doing it. And it's also very dangerous because the burnout factor is very real."

Intake towers poke out of the water at Hoover Dam. | Photo: Brittany App.
Intake towers poke out of the water at Hoover Dam. | Photo: Brittany App.   

With that in mind, App has made it her mission to supplement her paid work with passion projects "that have absolutely nothing to do with a paycheck," she said.. Over the years, she has visited 31 countries and sailed twice with shipboard study-abroad program Semester at Sea.

App, whose travels have taken her to Africa, Asia, Europe and Central and South America, said her experiences overseas have opened her eyes to the realities of life around the globe. In particular, she's struggled with feelings of guilt over her access to amenities such as safe, clean running water.

"In one part of the world, there are 11-year-old girls walking five miles each way each day just to fetch dirty water, and in another part of the world, I can walk 10 feet and I get to choose if I want [my water] hot or cold," she said. "Why do I deserve that and someone else doesn't? Because I was born here and they weren't. That's not fair."

"The basic building block of life and growth and prosperity is access to clean water. That is the first, most important step in eradicating poverty," the photographer added. "That became my heartbeat, in a way."

In 2010, App and Oregon filmmaker Garrett Russell went on a three-month bicycle ride from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., to raise awareness and funds for international nonprofit organization WaterAid. Their journey was chronicled in the 16-part Web series "Water Tension" in 2012.

Paw prints can be seen in the dry lake bed of Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo. | Photo: Brittany App.
Paw prints can be seen in the dry lake bed of Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo. | Photo: Brittany App.

App continues to rally for water rights overseas. But her attention has turned closer to home in recent years as California's devastating drought has deepened.

"Probably two years ago... I went, 'Huh, it's really starting to get dry in my hometown. Nobody's talking about. Nobody seems to be doing anything about it,'" App recalled. That's when the subject of water "started bubbling up in my mind and my heart again," she said.

In January 2014, App and her now-husband, Steven Anzel, took a day trip to Lake San Antonio, on the border between Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties -- lured by rumors that the scenic site of the Wildflower Triathlon had lost its lushness.

"It was like barren desert, that cracked dry (lakebed)," App recalled. "You could ride your bike out on the nothing and ride your bike down to the dam because there was no lake at all."

She snapped a few panoramic photos with her cell phone and posted them on Facebook under the evocative heading "Where There Once Was Water." "As a photographer, I felt it was my duty, in a sense, to share what I was seeing," she explained.

Empowered by that experience, and the vocal response she received, App began pursuing her project in earnest.

An aerial view of Santa Margarita Lake southeast of Santa Margarita. | Photo: Brittany App.
An aerial view of Santa Margarita Lake southeast of Santa Margarita. | Photo: Brittany App.

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Over the past 18 months, the photographer has documented most of San Luis Obispo County's bodies of water, ranging from the small -- Atascadero Lake and Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo -- to the sizable, such as Santa Margarita Lake, Lopez Lake east of Arroyo Grande, Nacimiento Lake northwest of Paso Robles and Whale Rock Reservoir near Cayucos.

She's headed north to snap photos of Guadalupe Reservoir south of San Jose and San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos, and journeyed south to photograph Cachuma Lake in northern Santa Barbara County. App even stopped by the nation's largest reservoir in terms of maximum water capacity, Lake Mead, during a business trip to Las Vegas.

She choses her subjects partially for convenience -- "Where There Once Was Water" is an unpaid project, after all -- and partially for notoriety.

"I pay attention online to what lakes are getting the most coverage because (the changes) are so drastic," she said. She's eager, for instance, to visit Folsom Lake northeast of Sacramento, where dropping water levels have revealed the remnants of a 19th-century mining community.

App said her subjects represent the metaphorical tip of the iceberg. "How do you photograph what's really going on with the water situation in California? You can't photograph groundwater, or the lack of groundwater," she explained, adding that the status of the state's lakes and reservoirs can serve to demonstrate what's happening under the surface.

"Unfortunately, I have... an endless supply of subject matter," she said.

Although "Where There Once Was Water" has focused primarily on photography, App has also branched out into video. Her short video "California, where there once was water" was selected as one of 21 finalists in this spring's sH2Orts international film competition organized by WaterAid in partnership with WorldView -- and the only one representing the United States.

Asked what form "Where There Once Was Water" will take in the future, App suggested a gallery exhibition, a Web series and even a full-length documentary as possibilities.

"I don't have an end goal... because I don't know or when there is an end to the project," the photographer said. In fact, she said, it could last a lifetime.

"Part of the reason I'm doing this project is I want us to respect the beauty and the sensitivity of (California)," she said. "If you love it here, like I do, and you want to keep living here, like I do, behave like it."

An aerial view of Lake San Antonio on the border of Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties. | Photo: Brittany App.
An aerial view of Lake San Antonio on the border of Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties. | Photo: Brittany App.
An aerial view of Lake San Antonio Dam on the border between Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties. | Photo: Brittany App.
An aerial view of Lake San Antonio Dam on the border between Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties. | Photo: Brittany App.
Boat launches jut out above the water at Cachuma Lake in northern Santa Barbara County. | Photo: Brittany App.
Boat launches jut out above the water at Cachuma Lake in northern Santa Barbara County. | Photo: Brittany App.
An aerial view of Nacimiento Lake and the Nacimiento River in northern San Luis Obispo County. | Photo: Brittany App.
An aerial view of Nacimiento Lake and the Nacimiento River in northern San Luis Obispo County. | Photo: Brittany App.
San Luis Reservoir in Los Banos. | Photo: Brittany App.
San Luis Reservoir in Los Banos. | Photo: Brittany App.
A rusting car rests of the shore of Guadalupe Reservoir south of San Jose. | Photo: Brittany App.
A rusting car rests of the shore of Guadalupe Reservoir south of San Jose. | Photo: Brittany App.

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