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Lauren Bon's water wheel gets one step closer to construction

Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio, 'Bending the River Back Into the City,' 2012-present. Artist rendering for site-specific installation in downtown Los Angeles. Image courtesy of the artist.
Lauren Bon
A rendering of how Lauren Bon's 'Bending the River Back Into the City' would look.

Only two entities possess water rights to the LA River. One is the city of Los Angeles. The other is Lauren Bon.

Bon is an artist known for ambitious projects that straddle the line between public art and public works. She led a

and transformed an undeveloped plot of urban land into a temporary cornfield.

Her latest project may be her most ambitious — and it boasts the strongest public works component.

The three-part sculpture involves installing a water wheel and rubber dam on the banks of the L.A. River, treating that water — at a rate of 106 acre feet per year — and returning to the city for use.

Bon has been working on the project, Bending The River Back Into The City, for years.

A good chunk of that time has been securing the necessary permits. The process requires 61 different approvals from 24 different federal, state, regional, county and city entities.

Michael Gagan, a partner at the public relations firm Kindel Gagan, oversees the permitting for Bon's big projects. "It's sort of a three-dimensional chess game," he tells KPCC.

On Friday, the city council approved the second-to-last permit Bon needs: the operation and maintenance agreement for the dam, which will be operated by the city's Bureau of Sanitation.

A rubber dam will pool water from the river and funnel it via a tunnel to the water wheel, which will convey it to a facility. There, it'll be treated to Title 22 standards, allowing water to be used for landscape irrigation. It will then be delivered to the L.A. State Historic Park, to the city's Albion River Park, slated to open in December 2018, and to the Downey Recreation Center.

The whole thing will be installed near Chinatown, on land belonging to Metabolic Studio, Bon's headquarters.

A trained architect, Bon is also the daughter of wealthy philanthropist Wallis Annenberg. The funding for many of her massive projects comes, in part, from the Annenberg Foundation, where she is vice president and director.

Before construction can begin on Bending The River, Bon needs one final approval: a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, allowing her to install the dam in the river. Gagan says they had hoped to secure it by May of this year.

Gagan believes the permit, which has been under consideration with back-and-forth discussions for a couple of years, is in the final stages of approval.

"If we get it in the next few months, then we anticipate we could start landside work in December, maybe January," he says.

When he says "landside work," he means getting into the L.A. River and drilling the intake and outtake tunnels required for the installation to function.

"This is somewhat unprecedented," Gagan says, mentioning that the city hasn't had a water wheel on the L.A. River since the 1860s. "It conjures up all sorts of images. But the main point is to demonstrate that the river has beneficial use. It is not simply a water body that everybody turns their back on."

This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly referred to Gagan as a lawyer.