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Aqueduct Futures: Revisioning the Los Angeles Aqueduct Infrastructure


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.

Over the last 100 years of its official existence the Los Angeles Aqueduct has served the greater Los Angeles region extremely well. This "single purpose engineering" water conveyance system has moved the pristine waters of the Eastern Sierra 233 miles away southerly to Los Angeles providing the impetus that has made the city blossom into what it is today. Much has been said during the last few months leading up to November 5th, 2013 -- the official centenary of the original aqueduct public.1 In both celebration and derision -- artist projects, design partnerships, national news features and scholarly essays on the subject abound -- including a group of inter-related projects by Lauren Bon's Metabolic Studios and this author's self-guided audio tour of scenic Owens Valley along U.S. Route 395, There It Is -- Take It! . Indeed, the Los Angeles Aqueduct's notoriety provides ample food for -- or rather drink for thought now and well into the future.

But what is in store for the future for the Aqueduct? How will this engineering feat or infrastructural nightmare -- depending on what side of the fence or part of California you're on -- evolve into the future? Are there creative ways to re-envision the Los Angeles Aqueduct into a positive symbol for both Los Angelenos as well as the concerned stakeholders in both Inyo and Mono County where the exported water originates? If so, how will we facilitate change for the better? And who will be involved to accomplish this?

"Aqueduct Futures" Cal Poly Pomona students at the LA Aqueduct intake in Owens Valley. © Barry Lehrman 2013.
"Aqueduct Futures" Cal Poly Pomona students at the LA Aqueduct intake in Owens Valley. © Barry Lehrman 2013.

Possibly the answer lies with the individuals contributing to "Aqueduct Futures," a public exhibit that was on display from November 5th to December 5th, 2013 at Los Angeles City Hall. Led by Assistant Professor, Barry Lehrman of Cal Poly Pomona's Landscape Architecture program, Lehrman along with designer Jonathan Linkus and several other dynamic Cal Poly faculty led 130 students over a two-year period during a series of interrelated course fieldwork experiences, studio courses, and other related events in an effort to research, assess, and provide theoretical landscape design solutions to "raise awareness about the sources and quantity of water available to us, cultural and ecological impacts of the Aqueduct and ways to conserve and reduce water use in Los Angeles."

The collection of well-researched projects aspire to provide "a 21st century multifunctional water supply as a means to ensure a more resilient future for the entire region." Professor Lehrman and his students hope to inspire and foster a better understanding of this crucial water resource in an effort to lay a foundation between the Owens Valley and Los Angeles by "offering positive alternatives that from outside conventional thinking."


Over the past two years, Lehrman and other Cal Poly Pomona faculty accompanied their students to a series of community led workshops organized for "Aqueduct Futures" in Lone Pine, Bishop, and June Lake in an effort to learn firsthand how this now 100 year old water exportation system has directly affected and changed cultural, economic, and ecological landscape within the Owens Valley watershed, which, by the way the City of Los Angeles is the largest private landowner. This aside is one of the many reasons why the region is such a highly contested territory for everyone involved, both human and otherwise.

To complete their investigation the Cal Poly Pomona Master of Landscape Architecture students developed a customized "land-use planning tool" that aided them in their creation of a capstone studio-based project that was supported by graphic arts and computer science students who help envisage land use data into a series of visually stunning information graphics depicting both historic, current, and projected statistics that were on display at City Hall.


Exhibition highlights include the "Ecological Infrastructure" info graphic listing the historic purchase of land by the LADWP over 109 years beginning in 1904. Along side are illustrated statistics of long-term stakeholders such as the Paiute and the natural ecology of Owens Valley that have been effectively disenfranchised through the City of Los Angeles' historic water diversions and property acquisitions. The panel inquires pointedly, "Los Angeles flourished while the Owens Valley stagnated. Is this really the best and highest use for all that water?"

Another panel titled, "Aqueduct Typologies" cleverly compares infrastructure typologies of the aqueduct made fashionable by German architectural photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. "Water Flows: Origins and Ends" illustrates just how much Owens Valley/Mono Basin ground water is surprisingly pumped for export; many of the most informed Los Angelenos naively consider the Owens River's surface flows as the primary source of their tap water.

Other compelling information graphics illustrate water use comparisons and energy production/usage sinks, physical expansions of the aqueduct over time, ecological impacts, economic infrastructures, global water stresses, the many diverted water resources imported for urban use throughout the U.S., adaptive strategies to deal with climate change, infrastructural 'ruralism' in an effort to combat suburban sprawl, mitigation measures, solutions in the form of 'ecotechnical opportunities' plus a graphic which maps a contentious point of view from Owens Valley locals.


Future "Aqueduct Futures" investigations will include a spring 2014 "vision plan" project of the Aqueduct's right-of-way south of Owens Valley to Sylmar.

In short, the "Aqueduct Futures" exhibit provides a cogent and highly educational opportunity to learn about this important topic and history -- one that this author believes would positively serve anyone and everyone partaking of its waters to peruse and study -- regardless if the city now only receives 35 percent of its current annual water supply from the combined Owens Valley/Mono Basin watersheds. Because, for the majority of us, the sweet water brought down to us from the Eastern Sierra via the Los Angeles Aqueduct remains the best-tasting symbolic source of water for all of Los Angeles for time eternal.

Click here for more information about the project, exhibit, and events.

The "Aqueduct Futures" project is the subject of his article "Aqueduct as Muse" and "Contested Water, Unholy Alliances, and Globalized Colonies" which appear in the Aqueduct centennial issue of Arid Journal, Fall 2013 Volume 2, Issue 2.


1 A second 137 mile-long aqueduct with a capacity of 290 cfs was completed in 1970 at a cost of $89 million. The two aqueducts are capable of delivering a combined average of 430 million gallons of water to Los Angeles a day, supplying a 465 square-mile service area with more than 3.9 million residents. See for more info.

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