A century ago, a famous engineering feat sacrificed Owens Lake for developers’ dreams. William Mulholland’s 200-plus-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct was key to developing Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. Controversial from the start, the aqueduct intercepted melting Sierra Nevada snow, sending it south before it reached Owens Lake. The lake shrank and began to dry up, disrupting the lives of Native Americans, farmers, and abundant and diverse wildlife populations. The water helped Los Angeles grow seven times over in twenty years. The crusty lakebed soon was the source of the world’s largest dust emissions. It took decades until a way to hold LADWP accountable appeared. LADWP built the Second Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1972, diverting nearly all surface waters from Mono Lake, dropping lake levels by half and doubling its salinity in ten years. In 1979, lake advocates sued LADWP for violating the Public Trust Doctrine. The California Supreme Court agreed and ruled that LADWP had to conserve Mono Lake above a certain level, and that the state’s duty to protect the public’s common watery heritage extended to Owens Lake.
The GBUAPCD’s extensive dust mapping and documentation, and LADWP’s attempts at finding waterless solutions to meet the public trust, make up the bulk of Robinson’s maps, figures, and text. He organizes the book around the idea of a prism, directing our gaze through the multiple refractions of a single view. While each refraction is fascinating, it is dizzying at times to find a thesis or follow a thought. The clearest concept is the accidental remaking of a watery and welcoming habitat. With the mandate to mitigate dust, the GBUAPCD’s personal dust observations and detailed maps showed beyond a doubt that the dried lakebed was in fact the source of dust. LADWP eventually had no choice but to re-introduce water to the lake.