This year marks 100 years since the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the pipeline that carries water from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley. It enabled LA to grow into the metropolis it is today, but drained the Owens Valley dry. To recognize that legacy, an LA artist has embarked on a curious adventure: to travel that 240-mile stretch of the Aqueduct, with a caravan of one hundred mules.
The aqueduct project began in 1908, with William Mulholland, head of the city’s water and power department, overseeing its construction. Over five years, teams of men and mules laid down a massive pipe, wide enough to drive a locomotive through.
When the floodgates opened on November 5, 1913, Mulholland turned to the tens of thousands of Angelenos assembled and said simply, “There it is. Take it.”
The water from the Eastern Sierras allowed LA to grow from a pueblo of 300,000 residents into a metropolis of 10 million today. But it left the Owens Valley dry and covered in dust and toxins, like arsenic, cadmium and nickel, from the river bed.
“This walk is really meant as a meditation on the aqueduct,” said Lauren Bon, the artist behind the “One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct” project. “It’s also really being done in the spirit of a celebration of the immense beauty that still exists in this landscape. This 240 mile walk will be exquisite on a daily basis, and will potentially help us to convey to people that the Owens Valley needs a revision, from the thought that it’s been a destroyed landscape to something that has a bountiful reality even today.”
Bon estimates it’ll cost $350,000 to pay the mule wranglers and assorted crew. Most artists couldn’t afford to take on a project like that. But Bon is the granddaughter of the late publishing magnate and philanthropist Walter Annenberg, and a board member of the Annenberg Foundation, which funds her studio. It’s an enviable position for any artist to be in, and Bon has a history of taking on audacious projects.
Bon heads Metabolic Studio, an experimental arts workshop tucked under the North Broadway bridge north of LA’s Chinatown neighborhood. It’s also next to the LA State Historic Park, home to Bon’s most famous project so far, “Not a Cornfield.”In 2005 she planted corn on the 32-acre industrial brownfield, reviving and transforming an abandoned site, at a cost of $3 million.
Her next project focused on transforming the Owens dry lake bed. “In that case, instead of growing corn, I decided to work with sound,” Bon said, “because 100 miles of dust is much more difficult to reboot than a petroleum-laced train yard is.”
Bon mic’d a decaying corn silo on the dry lake bed. The sound of wind, taut steel cables, water hitting glass, and the occasional owl or cow blends into a cacophony of nature that’s streamed live online (listen here).
“Soil requires water, and most of the groundtable of water is continually being pulled increasingly out of the Owens Valley and brought here to Los Angeles,” Bon said. “So the story of exporting water, even though it’s 100 years old continues, and is constantly up for reassessment.”
Given all these works, the mule caravan can be viewed as the latest stage of a multi-year, multi-faceted project. Jim Yannotta is the Department of Water and Power’s aqueduct manager, and said the planning began in earnest this spring, with the securing of dozens of permits. “We needed to identify what properties they were considering, having the mule ride go on, including city lands, BLM lands, US Forest Service lands,” he said.
Yannotta says there were also concerns of safety for the riders and viewers, and security for the aqueduct. “We’re just tickled to have this come out, where they could showcase the LA Aqueduct system, with mules to actually help build the aqueduct 100 years ago,” he said.
Bon says she hopes the project helps LA residents appreciate the DWP and its role in providing water to the city. But in the Owens Valley, the DWP has a mixed reputation. “When the letters DWP are used in a sentence up here in the Owens Valley, there can be that kneejerk reaction that, ‘oh boy, what’s in store for us now,’ or ‘what are they trying to get away with,’” said longtime Owens Valley land and water activist Mike Prather. “One thing that concerns me, and I’ve heard this a number of times, some people think this is a celebration of the Aqueduct. That isn’t really accurate, I don’t think. I think it’s an acknowledgement of 100 years and a question of what the next 100 years will be.”
On November 5th, the caravan will reach the cascades where William Mulholland opened the aqueduct exactly 100 years earlier. It’ll end on November 11th at the LA Equestrian Center in Griffith Park, with a concert of the sound recorded inside the silos, streaming live from the dry Owens River.