Overhead: Owens Lake Abstractions

A handful of abstract images I took in 2022 from maybe a couple of hundred feet above Owens Lake in the high desert Owens Valley east of California’s Sierra Nevada. What are they abstracts of? They’re photos of the very concrete patterns made by Los Angeles’s attempts to remediate the century or so of ecological disaster caused to the lake and the surrounding Owens Valley by LA’s thirst and the water wars it started in the early twentieth century.

What you see here are overhead views of things like sprinklers or ditches or weird little islands in shallow ponds of strangely-colored water or matting or small flooded areas in what used to be a large thriving lake but is now (and has been for a century) a toxic dust bowl — the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States (to quote Wikipedia). None of it seems to have worked very effectively; to quote Wikipedia again, “periodic winds stir up noxious alkali dust storms that carry away as much as four million tons (3.6 million metric tons) of dust from the lakebed each year, causing respiratory problems in nearby residents. The dust includes carcinogens, such as cadmium, nickel and arsenic.” I’ve been in a handful of Owens Valley dust storms; they’re not much fun, especially downwind of the lake.

The images and colors are real (people sometimes ask if I’ve manipulated or faked them in any way — no, I don’t have the imagination), and come from two distinct parts of the lake, with two very different remediation regimes in effect. The first set is mostly overhead views of the effects of sprinklers and weirdly-colored streams over towards the southern edge of the lake bed. The second set also includes some interesting structures and paths the LADWP has created over on the northeastern edge in an attempt to allow civilians like me to see the remediation efforts up close and personal; the effect at ground level is definitely very weird (and will probably be the subject of a different photo essay sometime). Other than that, I don’t always have a clue what we’re really looking at…

And yes, I love the Owens Valley, and go there as often as I can for the hiking and photography and general hanging around, but there’s no getting past just how much of an ecological mess Los Angeles (a couple of hundred miles away) and the LADWP caused to the valley and (especially) the lake. And just how weird it all looks from above…

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