Posted on | May 22, 2012 | 4 Comments
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art compares the Levitated Mass to the construction of the Pyramids. After captivating the world’s press by parading the 340-ton boulder from Riverside to mid-city Los Angeles last winter, the latest news is that the museum is about to officially declare its rock open for visitors. Irony of ironies, just as our collective gaze is once again drawn toward this $10m publicity stunt, roughly 20m cubic yards of the kind of rock that can’t be levitated has built up around the headwaters of LA’s paved rivers. In contrast to the Levitated Mass, it’s not getting much press while the infrastructure that holds it can and should rightly be compared to the Pyramids. This is the flood control system of 14 dams and 162 debris basins that form what historian Jared Orsi describes as “a Maginot line” between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Los Angeles basin. It is the product of the headiest days of 20th century engineering, in part the work of General George Washington Goethals, the man who oversaw construction of the Panama Canal. And this flood control system on par with the Panama Canal and Pyramids is failing.
With the benefit of hindsight, the wonder is that anyone ever thought it would work. Fire-scarred slopes of gyrating mountains send millions of tons of sediment toward this Maginot line every rainy season. This tide is only intensifying after the Station Fire burned a quarter of the Angeles National Forest in 2009. A recent estimate put the backlog of rock and sand in our flood control system at enough to fill the Rose Bowl 50 times, with another hundred and ten Rose Bowl’s worth expected to slide our way out of the San Gabriel Mountains in the next twenty years.
And it will just keep coming. The San Gabriels are a young range, rising by some estimates two inches a year. The rock and sand that they shed as they grow is what formed the LA Basin in the first place, along with its riverbanks and beaches. Since we’ve dammed our rivers and built out the flood plain, the crushed granite carried out of the mountains by winter rains can no longer flow downhill to the Pacific. Rather, we have to catch this sloughed-off rock, by the stadium full, in the foothills.
What can be done with it? If it’s not allowed to be carried by rivers, the most sensible and least likely measure to be adopted, it has to be trucked (or “levitated” if you prefer the LACMA poseur term for trucking.) The cleaning out of one debris basin alone might require 200 trucks a day every day for two years. Quite often, with Sisyphean lunacy, Public Works trucks this truly massive mass back uphill, back into the mountains that form the Angeles National Forest, where Los Angeles County operates 11 sediment dumps and will undoubtedly be looking to open more. Or the trucks might head to lower elevation wild canyons, where many acres of oaks and sycamores are targeted to be bulldozed to make way for sediment dumps. Or this phenomenal tide of ground rock might be drained and stacked in wedding-cake-shaped mounds in ravines behind million dollar homes.
Until recently, the choice of stashing place was made by a relatively closed circle dominated by Flood Control engineers. Since the felling of 11 acres of pristine oak woodland in Arcadia for a sediment dump sparked outrage among LA’s small but passionate network of wild land conservancy groups in early 2011, where to store this infinite supply of sand and rock has gained a public forum. The comment period of a 15 month Public Works study on options closes on May 30th. The renewed hype about LACMA and its “levitated” rock has given me a wonderful idea. We should have a sediment dump on the lawn of LACMA! Then they would indeed have something that would legitimately beg comparison to a Pyramid.