Problematic Surfaces and Collateral Urbanism (2): Reconstructing the Void

[Note: This post is part of the Infrastructural City blogiscussion – Chapter 1: Owens Lake: Reconstructing the Void, as a well as a follow-up to our earlier post Reclaiming the Florida Everglades]

[U.S. Geological Survey reconstructed Landsat image of the Florida Everglades circa 1850 (left) and actual Landsat image from 2000 (right). Florida has altered much of its natural land cover types to farmland, grazing land, and urban/suburban units over the last 100 years, shrinking the formerly aqueous Everglades by about 50%. This is a loss of about 2.9 million acres [or more than 4,500 sq miles, in comparison to the Owens Lake area of 108 sq miles].

We mentioned Lehrman’s chapter (Owens Lake: Reconstructing the Void) in the Infrastructural City in a previous post on sources of urban water supplies (urban waters: tap and bottled), similarly noting the necessity of  ‘off site’ water infrastructure in the form of underground aquifers, rivers, aqueducts, reservoirs, bottled water and combinations thereof.  But Lehrman also mentions that although Owens lake was drained to feed LA’s water demands, it could have just as easily been drained by the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to divert it for irrigation purposes to feed, rather than quench the thirst of the city.  So what if it had been? Given the climate of LA, a limited amount of food is grown there, thus still requiring more networked infrastructure with distant landscapes and collateral effects.

The Infrastructural City doesn’t have a chapter related to the networked infrastructure required to feed Los Angeles – something we would like to provisionally explore that has much in common with the problematic borrowing of Owens Lake.  Take something as basic as sugar – a staple of the American diet and common ingredient in most things we eat – where does LA get that from?

It’s likely that a sizable portion of LA’s sugar supply comes from Florida, the top sugar producing state in the country, which is estimated to produce approximately 25% of all sugar consumed nationally.  Most of this sugar is produced in the thickest accumulations of peat-based soil just south of Lake Okeechobee in what used to be the heart of the Everglades.

[the agricultural area south of Lake Okeechobee drained by a series of canals, adjacent to a water conservation area and coastal urbanization]

Unlike the relatively simple network connection between Owen’s Lake and Los Angeles (basically a giant straw), the networked ecology and connection between the Everglades and LA is far more nebulous and complicated to trace; a commodification network structured on industrial agriculture’s economies of scale and distribution. Unlike the importation of water to Los Angeles, the product of the sugar network is dispersed to multiple regions.  Everglades sugar farming doesn’t support a single, physically distinct urbanism, but a dispersed many. Not only LA, but every city in the US is networked to sugar production in the Everglades.  A largely invisible and abstracted infrastructure manifest in the baking isles of grocery stores and the scale and extent of transformation of the Everglades landscape.

[Everglades canal circa 1959.  Image from the Florida humanities Council]

“Since 1900 much of the Everglades has been drained for agriculture and urban development, so that today only 50 percent of the original wetlands remain. Water levels and patterns of water flow are largely controlled by an extensive system of levees and canals. The control system was constructed to achieve multiple objectives of flood control, land drainage, and water supply…The Everglades ecosystem has, in fact, been badly degraded…Prominent symptoms of the ecosystem decline include an 80 percent reduction in wading bird populations since the 1930s (Ogden, 1994), the near-extinction of the Florida panther (Smith and Bass, 1994), invasions of exotic species (Bodle and others,1994), and declining water quality in Florida Bay, which likely is due, at least in part, to decreased freshwater inflow (McIvor and others, 1994).”

[Everglades dike and canal system.  Over 1,500 miles of this infrastructure has been constructed in the Everglades]

[before and after effects of water engineering on the extent and patterns of water flow in the Everglades]

Similar to Owens lake, the engineered modifications to the Everglades produced a changed surface with similar progressions of unforeseen effects and incremental crisis-response-crisis cycles discussed in our previous post.  Like Owens lake’s toxic dust storms, the drying of the Everglades increased the frequency and intensity of fires in the area, producing smoke filled skies that sometimes burned for months at a time until the rainy season set in.  And perhaps less well-known, drainage of the surface has also initiated the physical loss and dispersal of the landscape itself.  Beyond the changes in vegetation and ecosystem structure, the peat soil substrate is disappearing:

“In today’s Everglades agricultural area, evidence of substantial land subsidence can readily be discerned from the relative elevations of the land surface, the drainage-canal system, and the lake, and from the elevation of older buildings that were built on piles extending to bedrock…the long-term average rate of subsidence is generally considered to have been between 1 and 1.2 inches per year [a reversal of pre-intervention processes of peat accumulation of about 0.03 inches per year].  The subsidence is greatest in agricultural areas ,which are the most heavily drained, estimated to have fallen between 3 to 9 feet.  The causes include mechanical compaction, burning, shrinkage due to dehydration, and most importantly, oxidation of organic matter. Oxidation is a microbially mediated process that converts organic carbon in the soil to (mainly) carbon dioxide gas and water.”

[Plan and section views of the gradual loss of peat soils since canals and levees were constructed, demonstrating how little peat remains]

Prior to 20th century modifications to the Everglades, it could have been described as a huge solar collection surface.  The landscape was so shallowly and consistently sloped that a drop of water starting at the headwaters of the system, flowing continuously, would have taken 8 months to reach the southern tip at the Gulf of Mexico.  Over thousands of years, the ‘product’ of this system (synchronized with yearly weather patterns) was the accumulation of peat soils on the limestone surface.  Water drainage and subsequent subsidence has warped the regional topography that originally had less than 20 feet of total difference in elevation.

“Infrastructure’s only possible future, it seems, is to restore what it had previously destroyed.  These efforts only compound the condition of the urban landscape today.  Before us we see a second nature, a wild and untramable terrain that undoes our attempts to control it or even understand it fully (Varnelis – Introduction).”

“51,000 acre-feet of water once bound for Los Angeles, are now being diverted back onto Owens Lake each year.  But this amount will never refill the lake.  For that to happen it would take at least seven years of the entire Owens river flowing unimpeded back into the basin (Lehrman – Reconstructing the Void)”

In our previous post on the Everglades, F.A.D. speculated that restoration of the Everglades was a misnomer.  Similar to Owen’s Lake and other systems borrowed by contemporary urbanism, the landscape can never be returned to exactly what it used to be because its anthropologically networked condition precludes it and because it is technically impossible.   Scientists seem to have confirmed that hunch down to the word:

“Subsidence makes true restoration of the Everglades agricultural area itself technically impossible, even in the event that it were politically and economically feasible…. Differential subsidence has significantly altered the slope of the land, precluding restoration of the natural, shallow sheet-flow patterns….“Restoration” is perhaps a misnomer, as the focus of this effort is on more natural management of the remaining 50 percent of the Everglades wetlands, not on regaining the 50 percent that has been converted to urban and agricultural use. Even improving the natural functioning of the remaining wetlands will be a complex problem, due to the lost spatial extent, the hydrologic separation from Lake Okeechobee, and land subsidence. The Everglades will likely continue to be an intensively managed system”


As we discussed earlier, in order to reclaim ecological function in the Everglades, the policies and physical solutions are going to have to be systemic and integrative of the environmental, political and economic infrastructures at play in the region.  Its also going to have be shrewd and very creative.   As the above information suggests, the Everglades region is possibly approaching a third transitional state, going from a slow moving ‘River of Grass’ (thousands of years), to channelized industrial agriculture (less than a century?), to something else.  The loss of the peat growing medium mandates that sugar production, as currently practiced, is reaching the end of its viability, perhaps offering Florida’s state government more leverage to purchase farm lands near lake Okeechobee to extend the Everglades.  Can future agricultural infrastructures operate productively (synergistically) in the Everglades, rather than consumptively?  

(All unreferenced images and quotes are extensively borrowed from an informative report by The U.S. Geological Survey.  The USGS also has another report examining a similar condition closer to L.A. in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of California.)

“Since 1900 much of the Everglades has been drained for agriculture and urban development, so that today only 50 percent of the original wetlands remain. Water levels and patterns of water flow are largely controlled by an extensive system of levees and canals. The control system was constructed to achieve multiple objectives of flood control, land drainage, and water supply.”


  1. two things:

    Are you saying Varnelis is wrong? about infrastructure’s only role being to restore what was previously destroyed? I would say yes, to take it at face value. Though I bet he is actually arguing for the “third transitional state” as the only viable way forward.

    And second, this story, which you may have seen but just came out last month.

    Toward the beginning, there is this quote:

    “It’s spectacular. I don’t think any of us could have fathomed it,” said Kirk Fordham of the Everglades Foundation. ‘We really are entering a new chapter in the history of the Everglades.”

    This new chapter is the “third transitional state” (i would hazard a guess in the “yes” direction)?

  2. regarding two things…

    No, I don’t think Varnelis is wrong. It may just be semantic, and I think he was probably using the term ‘restore’ loosely, or more generally here. As I’ve argued in these two posts, I do think restore and reclaim mean and imply very different things. I included the quote because similar to the other two quotes that follow it, he is getting at the creative challenge we face in undoing a lot of past mistakes in order to reclaim a lot of the functions of natural systems we lost in the process. Based on the embrace and exploration of the constructed ecologies that Varnelis has collected in the book, my impression is that he comes at it from a similar perspective.

    Regarding item 2: I think Yes. I hadn’t read that article, but others similar to it – in particular the NY times article. But for me it was really the processes and distinct transformations of the soil that made the three generalized states and the forces acting on them very tangible.

  3. Robin Black · ·

    Fascinating article. I think many of us who’ve taken an interest in the Owens Lake have drawn the connection to the Everglades as its analogue–sadly, Owens lacks both the sex appeal and the federal support that the Everglades has, so every bit of restoration (or reclamation, if you prefer) requires an army of Davids to accomplish.

    I agree that literal restoration is impossible, barring some catastrophe by which nature takes back the lake (and that’s not likely, either). The third way, while imperfect and dissatisfying to both sides, does have promise. I think the Owens will always be a bit of a frankenstein monster, an abomination of what it once was, but with a lot of positives. A lot of life has come back to the lake since LADWP began stingily rewatering the lower Owens River; now comes the fight where we work to make sure the LADWP continues, and, hopefully, expands the rehabilitation. None of this has been easy (the LADWP seems to respond only to court-ordered arm-twisting), nor will it be easy in the future, but the results so far are very encouraging.

  4. Thanks for the comments Robin. I think a great part of this shared blog discussion is to see some of the updates on the state of Owens lake – it is encouraging. And as I think your comments point to, attention to political and bureaucratic ecologies is just as vital and important as the environmental and engineered.

  5. namhenderson · ·

    Yeah i would think if anything Varnelis is clear in that these networked infrastructures possibly are the third state. A second nature as i think Lehrman writes. You can’t restore to original condition, but perhaps to original function. That difference though is vital…

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