Bringing 'la noria' back to the LA River

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Artist Lauren Bon has won approval from the LA City Council to build an enormous water wheel on the LA River near downtown. The 70-foot-tall steel wheel will lift water from the river for use in the neighborhood around Bon's Metabolic Studio between the Spring Street bridge and Los Angeles State Historic Park. Bon will be discussing the project in a public conversation on March 22, World Water Day, in Lincoln Heights.

historic_waterwheel.jpgBon named the project "La Noria," after the Spanish word for water wheel. In the late nineteenth century, there were as many as nine norias in the area along the "zanja madre," or mother ditch, the principal canal carrying water from the river to nearby vineyards and farms. The new water wheel will take 35 million gallons of water each year from the river for neighborhood parks and gardens.

waterwheel_map.jpgBon talks of "bending the river back into the city" with this iconic, high profile project, which was endorsed by Mayor Eric Garcetti last fall. "The idea of connecting the river to the land and to once again rely on the river for beneficial use, even on a small-scale, is at the heart of the city's Los Angeles River policy," he said. "The water wheel will be the first and perhaps the most visually dramatic project implemented by that policy."

waterwheel_sketch2.jpgAn inflatable dam in the river will back water up high enough to enter an opening that will be punched in the side of the river's current concrete channel. Water will then flow in a pipe and channel to turn the wheel, which will be built between the Broadway and Spring Street bridges next to Metabolic Studio. The wheel will lift the water from the level of the river to ground level. And from there, the water will be distributed around the neighborhood. The estimated $10 million cost of the project will be covered by waterwheel_model.jpgMetabolic Studio, which is a project of the Annenberg Foundation, where Bon serves as a trustee.

The project cleared a key hurdle Wednesday when the city council voted unanimously to approve a finding that the water wheel would not have a significant environmental impact waterwheel_aerial.jpgunder the California Environmental Quality Act. Metabolic Studio hopes to break ground on the project this summer pending additional permit approvals.

"Unusual and delightful," is how Deborah Weintraub, LA's interim chief engineer, who is overseeing environmental approvals for the project, described the water wheel in the Los Angeles Daily News last week. "It's essentially a piece of art that's taking water out of the river."

"This is so much more than just an art project," city council member Mitch O'Farrell said at the hearing before Wednesday's vote. "This is a demonstration with practical uses that will deliver water to the new state park and other public properties."

The wheel "will put water that would simply end up in the ocean to good use here in the city," added council member Paul Koretz. "As we're in the process of freeing the river from its concrete shoes, I'm thrilled to see Metabolic Studio's water wheel project leading the way to bring it artfully back to life."

The Metabolic Studio sees the water wheel as even more than all of that. "La Noria" is described by the studio as one of its "devices of wonder"--projects that combine art with work in communities and with government agencies and other institutions in artistic practices and social processes that have "a catalytic and transformative effect on the brownfields" in which the studio operates. Bon hopes that the water wheel project will have the power not only to bring water from the LA River back into the city, but also to inspire broader conversations and changes in the economics and distribution of water in Los Angeles, the state of California, and the wider American West.

Lauren Bon, Deborah Weintraub, and Miguel Luna will discuss "La Noria" and "bending the river back into the city" in a public conversation at the Lincoln Heights Senior Citizen Center at 23 Workman Street on March 22 from 11am to 1pm. For information about this World Water Day event, contact or Jill Sourial at (213) 926-4785.

Images courtesy of Metabolic Studio, top to bottom: Historic Los Angeles water wheel, map of water wheels on the zanja madre with the new water wheel's location in red, an early sketch of the new water wheel, a current model of the new water wheel, aerial view of the new water wheel's location.

Disclosure: Jon Christensen has collaborated with Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio on events around the LA Aqueduct and the future of water in Los Angeles, and the studio supported a special issue of Boom: A Journal of California, which he edits, on the aqueduct's centenary.

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