PASADENA — Moving across a 15-foot landscape of clay and plaster, environmental artist Newton Harrison deftly cut a cliff here, a small island there, and, with a few quick strokes, added a meandering riverbed.
With the touch of a sculptor, engineer and ecologist, Harrison slowly carved a model of his vision of the now-desolate Devils Gate Reservoir out of a jagged slab of green plaster, dotted with small clumps of clay, pen markings and deep cuts.
As he worked, the details of the reservoir began to unfold, revealing a vision that many residents have waited years to see.
Harrison and his wife and artistic collaborator, Helen Mayer Harrison, last week unveiled the sculpture and outlined their plan to rejuvenate the reservoir, a 240-acre tract of neglected land that looks more like a landfill than anything else.
The Harrisons hope to replace piles of gravel and debris with a pair of winding streams, fed by a two-mile-long pipeline tapped into a Metropolitan Water District trunk line, that would nourish an expanse of reeds and trees.
Water from the streams would also seep into the ground, replenishing the region's water supply.
A parking lot would be turned into wildlife habitat, webbed with horseback and bicycle trails. A debris-littered stretch of land near Oak Grove Park would become a 10- to 15-acre green, including a restaurant and playing fields.
"We're reinventing the ecology here," said Helen Harrison, who, like her husband, is a professor of art at UC San Diego.
The estimated cost of the Harrisons' vision would be $40 million, according to Thomas K. Underbrink, a city Water and Power Department engineer who is serving as project manager.
The admittedly high cost could result in major modifications to the plan, such as eliminating a lake behind the dam and reducing the amount of landscaping.
But Underbrink said much of the cost could be borne by other agencies that stand to benefit from the project, such as the Metropolitan Water District and Los Angeles County.
MWD spokesman Jay Malinowski said the agency is interested because of the potential for storing large amounts of water and said he believes that funding can be obtained.
"We are going to look at the overall project," he said. "If those costs are reasonable, I suspect we will participate."
Underbrink added: "It's all conceptual now, so the estimates are 'blue sky', but all sorts of different interests would share the benefits so the costs would be spread out. What we're talking about seems to be workable."
Details to Change
Newton Harrison cautioned that details shown on the model, now on display at the Art Center/Downtown Gallery on Colorado Boulevard, will change as the project evolves.
What won't change, he said, is the idea of blending a variety of uses, including recreation, wildlife preservation and water conservation.
"It's time to wed the urban and natural ecologies," he said.
The Harrisons' vision marks a dramatic departure from the way most people regard the area.
The flat, brush-covered wilderness wedged between La Canada Flintridge and Altadena, just north of the 210 Freeway and south of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is covered with a rocky silt that has washed down from the mountains and become mixed with debris.
Underbrink said the area is occasionally used as an illegal dump site. Gravel, broken concrete pilings and beer cans litter the landscape.
On most maps, the reservoir is marked as a cool, blue expanse of water. But the only trace of water most of the year lies dozens of feet below, in ground water contaminated by carcinogenic organic chemicals believed by city and JPL officials to have originated from JPL.
The dam was built in 1920 as part of a network of flood control dams. Its job was to impede the flow of water during the rainy season and add to the ground-water level by allowing trapped water to seep into the soil.
But the importance of Devils Gate Dam began to fade in the 1970s after an engineering survey declared that it would be unsafe in a major earthquake.
The county has largely stopped maintaining the area, which is used for gravel mining and parking for JPL.
However, four years ago, Ernie Messner, a Pasadena resident who was working as a state land acquisition lawyer, began urging the city to take a new look at the area.
Messner's efforts caught the attention of the city and other groups, which agreed to fund the Harrisons' $30,000 environmental sculpture.
The Harrisons' plan would require removing 3 million cubic yards of dirt, silt and debris that has collected behind the 68-year-old dam. The earth-moving effort could cost as much as $15 million.
About half of the dirt would be trucked away, and the other half would be reshaped into stream beds, hills and embankments.