Office of Outdoor Research, 
Landscape Morphologies Lab

Owens Lake—Op Ed

Lessons from the Anthropocene: To salvage this world, we must learn not to fix it.

On weekdays, when the explosive winds settled down and the toxic dust stopped blowing across the dry lakebed of what was once one of California’s largest lakes, a team of state employees was often standing by. They donned helmets and goggles and jumped on all-terrain vehicles to draw and trace the giant scars the wind had left behind, in the course of five years traveling almost 2,000 miles back and forth across Owens Lake. Starting in 2006, they simply tracked their position by GPS. In time, their tracks became inadvertent architectural drawings as big as the landscape itself: blueprints for new kind of lake, a simulacrum that is manmade and Frankensteinian yet functional and beautiful.

That Owens Lake was killed by mankind—drained at the beginning of the 20th century by a thirsty Los Angeles—is an old story. It is not a dry lake, one local official always corrected visitors; it is a dried lake. Its source waters were diverted into L.A.’s infamous first aqueduct in 1913, and by the 1930s, when the city’s population had quadrupled in a water-fueled frenzy, all that remained was an ephemeral, hypersaline pool and about fifty square miles of dust-emitting lakebed. That Owens Lake has had a surprise rebirth at a scale five times the size of Manhattan is a new kind of story, however. As we remake our society to face climate change or execute a Green New Deal, embracing our role as this world’s designers, it’s a story worth telling. The lesson of Owens Lake is that, increasingly, there is no such thing as an environmental fix. There is only reinvention.

Authorities did not precisely measure the dust emissions from Owens Lake until the 1980s. When they finally did so, the readings were literally off the EPA’s charts. The lake was the single greatest source of dangerous PM10 particulate pollution in the nation, beating out the smoggiest cities and others top violators by multiple digits. In 1990, a federal Clean Air Act amendment specifically designated it as a kind of “smokestack” for Los Angeles’s water-harvesting operation. Just as other cities had to clean up their factories, Los Angeles was suddenly responsible for fixing Owens Lake.

The best way to fix a dried lake would seem obvious: Refill it. But regulators studied this and ultimately deemed it a poor solution for Owens Lake—even for dust control. Even if Los Angeles could be forced to give up its main water supply, even if the inevitable lawsuits were won, the lake would produce another decade of dust as it slowly filled up. What’s more, its turbulent geologic record suggested that returning it to its natural state might not curb the dust sufficiently to meet modern standards. While various low-cost fixes were proposed, including filling the lake with tires and trash, environmental law dictated that dust controls should at least be “lake-like” and use some water. 

So, starting in year 2000, authorities covered the lakebed with a water-efficient mosaic of berms, roads, pipes, gravel, and vegetation. It was a happy coincidence when these dust controls re-awoke the lake’s dormant ecology, species of which include the tiny shrimp marketed in mail order “Instant Life” kits. “Just add water,” the kits instruct. Los Angeles did, minimally, and Owens Lake became a major international migratory bird habitat practically overnight. The peculiar landscape has a peculiar attraction: You can drive right through the middle of this massive, shallow “lake” atop berm roads, birdwatching with spectacular mountain scenery in every view. Today, Owens seems to fulfill much of its historic function with only a fraction of the water it once required—a rare somewhat peaceable moment in the perpetual contest between resources and the landscapes we extract them from.

While Owens Lake’s reinvention is a gift of hope for decimated landscapes, its clumsy luck also illustrates the inadequacy of our practices. Guided by no more imagination than was required by EPA regulations, the project sought to produce literally nothing: clean air—with minimal side effects. Its massive form was dictated almost solely by measurements of dust, ATV-drawn and others. To assemble a landscape by the markers of a single crisis is akin to drawing a face lit by the raking light of a flashlight. The portrait is based on fact, but on information so select as to be grotesque. 

The narrowness of the approach left Los Angeles unprepared for what was gained from its dust control, and the city was ill-equipped for the surge in bird population and public interest. Only in 2013, after attempting various legal exits to reduce its water commitment, did Los Angeles embrace the new kind of nature it accidentally authored. It made a plan to double its billion-dollar investment while cutting water use in half, and it has since retrofitted nearly a third of the giant expanse of dust controls, employing teams of consultants and landscape architects who are re-styling its haphazard industrial form into a kind of ecological “land art.”

The future, Owens Lake shows us, is ours to destroy, and it is also ours to create. We cannot limit ourselves to fixes. Whether the setting is California’s rapidly shrinking Salton Sea or the wave-lapped shoreline of the Eastern Seaboard, global warming and the needs of civilization dictate that there is no going back, only futures we might choose to design. To reinvent landscapes to rival the ones we have lost will require broader, more synthetic and imaginative forms of authorship than problem-solving paradigms can provide. As Lauren Bon has declared in her neon sculptures, “artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.” It may smack of hubris, but our success will be all that lies between an even more dystopic world, littered with utilitarian “fixes,” and one that future generations will cherish, however different it may be than what we tried to save.

Copyright oOR / LMLab, 2022 — Los Angeles, CA