LOS ANGELES — Since 1960, nearly all of the 51-mile Los Angeles River has flowed within a concretized channel. It begins in the San Fernando Valley at the intersection of Bell Creek and Arroyo Calabasas, then moves east through Studio City, curves around Griffith Park, and heads south past Glendale, Downtown LA, and the Gateway Cities of Vernon, Bell, and Maywood before emptying into the San Pedro Bay in Long Beach. Its stark, industrial shores have served as a backdrop for Hollywood films (Grease, Point Blank, Drive) and a fishing spot for intrepid urban hunters. What the river does not provide Angelenos is water, which its concrete shell ensures is channeled directly into the Pacific: 207 million gallons per day, according to the City of LA.
Through an ambitious project titled “Bending the River” (2012–ongoing), environmental artist Lauren Bon and her Metabolic Studio are working to reclaim at least a small portion of that water.
“This is the first adaptive re-use of LA River infrastructure,” Bon told Hyperallergic. “This work acts as a case study. My hope is to set a precedent and path forward for creative and innovative thinking about how we can better use our infrastructure and re-evaluate our commons of soil, seed, water, and community process.”
The idea for the project began a decade ago as a “new model for thinking about keeping more water in the Owens Valley,” Bon said, referencing the source for a significant portion of LA’s water for the past century. She conceived of cutting a hole in the river’s concrete jacket, then diverting some of its water to irrigate the Los Angeles State Historic Park, a 52-acre site next to Metabolic Studio’s headquarters in Elysian Valley. In 2005, Bon had created her public artwork “Not a Cornfield” on the land where the Park now sits, a former rail depot, where she planted corn to remember the land’s previous uses and inhabitants.
Although the LA River is often derided in popular culture as dismal and polluted, nearly dry at times, it was once a vital waterway along whose banks the Tongva people lived before Spanish colonization. It served as the main source of freshwater for the city until the completion of the LA Aqueduct in 1913, which delivers water to Angelenos from the Owens River approximately 250 miles to the north, a contentious endeavor that allowed LA to thrive to the detriment of farmers in the Owens Valley. The aqueduct has also drained Owens Lake, making it the single largest source of dust pollution in the country.
Historically, the LA River has gone through seasonal shifts, from a trickle in the summer to a raging torrent in the winter. Following a series of disastrous floods in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers began a two-decade process of lining the river in a concrete jacket to prevent future floods. The project has been effective in that goal, but it has also isolated the city from a complex habitat and water source that runs directly through its core.
“Preventing flooding prevents abundance,” Bon said during a recent tour of “Bending the River.”
“Bending the River” is a massive bureaucratic undertaking, involving over 70 permits from city, state, and federal agencies who have jurisdiction over various parts of the project. (She exhibited the stack of permits alongside other documentation and artworks in an exhibition at Pitzer College Art Galleries last fall.) Its design has gone through several iterations, including an inflatable dam and a water wheel; however, the final version is perhaps the simplest, using a 300-foot clay pipe to divert water from the river’s low-flow channel to a well. Then, solar power pumps the water up to Metabolic Studio, “where it will pass through a native wetland water treatment system and then directly to the state park,” Bon said. River construction will be completed next month, when work on the “mother well” will begin. Bon estimates that the park will require 56 acre-feet of water per year for irrigation, which will be provided at no cost, under the terms of a 10-year water sharing agreement that specifies no pesticides or herbicides will be used. If everything goes according to plan, water will begin flowing to the park in early 2025.
When Bon and her team made their first cut into the river’s jacket in 2019, they discovered something surprising. “We saw groundwater, perfectly clean and clear,” she said. “It looked like you would want to swim in it. It caused us to think differently. We hadn’t considered the underland of the river.” Despite the presence of this clean “river beneath the river,” Bon says they will only be diverting wastewater and runoff, as sewage treatment plants contribute about 80% of the river’s contents during the dry season.
Under the concrete, they also unearthed floodplain, the fertile mix of soil, silt, and debris that lines the banks of rivers. They brought it back to the Moon, a barren former tow yard Bon purchased just across the LA River from Metabolic, and deposited the floodplain on several large circles where they had dug up the asphalt. Soon, native plants began to grow. “Within a week or two, with just sunlight, no water, seeds from under the LA river started to germinate. That was the biggest surprise for us,” Bon said. “That relatively small cut has given us a half acre of a completely self-defining and self-complicating kind of novel urban forest … Life remains abundant even after being under concrete for a century.”
Bon’s practice is a mixture of science and poetic thinking. At the Moon, an ambient drone drifts through speakers placed around the site, a soundtrack based on the vibrations of the Sun, Moon, and Earth created by Metabolic’s Sonic Division. The idea is to agitate large cisterns of water to prevent bacteria from forming, though Bon explained in an email that “the drone is more poetic than functional.”
Bon is the daughter of philanthropist Wallis Annenberg and Metabolic is a “direct charitable activity of the Annenberg Foundation,” a relationship that perhaps allows her to be more experimental in her processes than other architecture or environmental design firms. The foundation has provided funding for “Bending the River,” which Bon estimates at $8 million for the “in-river” portion.
For “Bending the River,” Metabolic is working with engineering firms Geosyntec and Pacific Hydrotech and the Army Corps of Engineers, who on occasion push back against her more fanciful ideas.
“The Army Corps loves a right angle. Every time you draw a curved line, it comes back straight,” Bon said.
A sign at the entrance of Metabolic Studio reads: “Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy.” Although she thinks big, Bon is realistic about the scope of the project, which she sees as a testing ground to explore ways of interacting with the natural environment different from those we have become accustomed to in the relatively recent past. “What if we were to see the 51 miles of the LA River as an innovation zone where many small and inventive innovations could happen?” Bon pondered. “Imagine if a patchwork ecological network began to emerge along the whole river. Then we could recharge the water table by opening up vacant lots to receive rain and prepare for the time in the not too distant future, when the LA River will unpave herself.”