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Giant water wheel will churn LA River water just like the 1860s

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The wheel is being installed at the edge of Los Angeles State Historic Park

View of LA River
The Los Angeles River.

A long-in-the-works project that would put a functioning water wheel on the Los Angeles River is underway.

The roughly 50-foot-tall wheel received its final permit—an elusive one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—in September, and began installing the needed pipeline in the river bed shortly after, says Michael Gagan, a lobbyist shepherding Chinatown-based Metabolic Studio through the approvals process.

Called Bending the River Back Into the City, the project will churn with water from the river, siphoning a fraction of it out of the waterway, cleaning that water via “an artificial treatment wetland” to meet cleanliness standards for irrigation, and then piping it to Los Angeles State Historic Park and the recently opened Albion Riverside Park and Downey Recreation Center so it can water plants and other landscaping there.

“It’s actually a piece of civil engineering that’s disguised as an artwork, because that was the only way to get it permitted,” Metabolic Studio founder Lauren Bon told Sci-ARC in October.

Bending the River is slated to be installed just west of the river, between the Broadway and Spring Street bridges. The location is near the site of an earlier water wheel that, in the 1860s, directed water through the Zanja Madre, the original irrigation channel that brought water to LA back when it was still known as Pueblo de Los Angeles.

Plans for the project to include an inflatable dam were scrapped in favor of one that moved the water via pipes in the river channel, which would leave Army Corps access to the riverbed unimpeded.

The work on the water wheel is on hold for what the Corps considers the “rainy” season, roughly October 15 to April 15. Work will continue in seasonal cycles through 2022, when the wheel is expected to be up and running, according to a report from the city’s Board of Public Works. The water wheel effort has been in progress for at least seven years, and required over 60 “major” approvals and permits, says Gagan.

The water wheel is one of a slew of new additions planned for the banks of the LA River—including new housing, parks, and infrastructure. The highly anticipated ecological restoration planned for an 11-mile stretch of the concrete channel between Downtown and Griffith Park has prompted developers to take interest in the properties along the river’s banks, and has caused a number of riverside communities to begin planning for a future where the neighborhood is a newly hot commodity.