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Two Engineering Wonders That Helped Make The Golden State What It Is Today
The California Aqueduct running along the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley. Photos Courtesy California Department Of Water Resources

California — without a doubt — has the most intricate and massive water storage and transfer system man has ever created.

It is the largest, most productive, and most controversial water system in the world that harnesses nature using man’s ingenuity.

At its northernmost reaches it captures the snow run-off of the Modoc Plateau — volcanic highlands in northeast California and southeast Oregon — that is drained by the Pit River.

Snow blanketing the hills of the Modoc Plateau will melt to start a long journey in the form of water.

The journey’s end for water — that makes it that far — are faucets and water taps in San Diego less than a mile from the border of Mexico.

The journey that approaches 900 miles is not all natural.

Water is pumped up out of its natural basins a number of times.

The most laborious is the scaling of the Tehachapi Mountains where water flows uphill to reach an elevation gain of 1,926 feet — nearly twice the height of the 1,009-foot summit on Altamont Pass via Interstate 580 — before flowing downhill to serve as a lifeblood of the semi-arid region of the Los Angeles Basin.

The LA Basin is home to 19 million people of which arguably a 20th of that population would not be able to live there if it wasn’t for water imported from other water basins that serve the north state, the valleys of the Eastern Sierra, and the Colorado River watershed.


The backbone of

state’s water system

The backbone of California’s major water storage and conveyance system are the Central Valley Project conceived in the 1930s and the State Water Project built in the 1960s and 1970s.

There are other major parts to the puzzle such as the diversion of the Colorado River, the sucking of water from the Owens Valley and Mono Basin, and the original “tunnel” that bypasses the Delta to take water to the Bay Area from a system of reservoirs centered around O’Shaughnessy Dam that sacrificed Hetch Hetchy Valley by flooding a portion of Yosemite National Park to fuel San Francisco Bay Area growth that could not be supported by local water supplies.

You can visit the most impressive man-made components as well as natural features of the part of the engineered water system that sends water essentially from the rugged and sparse volcanic landscape of desolate northeast California to the faucets of $1.5 million McMansion-style tract homes in San Diego where it is used to create lush yard landscaping.

While the Pit River along with the McCloud River contributes water that flows into the massive lake behind Shasta Dam, you might want to start your journey at the headwaters of the mighty 445-mile long Sacramento River whose watershed that includes the Pit River among others captures 31 percent of the state’s surface water.

The river that has been known to cause extensive flooding in cities like Marysville is harmless where it comes to life. Clear, cold, and drinkable water that bubbles up from a spring in a municipal park in Mt. Shasta City serves as the headwaters.

There are low-key walking paths surrounding the springs that you can be within 200 feet.


Shasta Lake is largest

reservoir in California

Water from there will make its way to behind the eighth highest dam in the United States.

At 602 feet in height the gravity arch dam holds the largest reservoir of water in California with a storage capacity of 4.5 million acre feet or almost twice the size of the 2.4 million acre foot capacity of the New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River watershed.

It is also the third largest body of water in California.

Like the New Melones Reservoir, Shasta is part of the federal Central Valley Project and is overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River southeast of Fresno and Folsom Dam near Sacramento are also major CVP components.

There’s a visitors’ center and endless water-related recreation at Shasta Lake.

The Sacramento River — the longest as well as the largest by water volume in California — heads south between reinforced levees and past the Yolo Bypass that’s 40 miles long and three miles wide and was created to spare Sacramento from flooding.

It meshes with the 366-mile San Joaquin River that starts from Thousand Islands Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness at 9,389 feet just south of the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park.

The two rivers create an inverted river delta that was formed from rising seas after the last glacier period. Inverted deltas have a narrow mouth where it reaches the ocean with a wider system of waterways further inland.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the second deepest inland inverted delta in the world only surpassed by the Pearl River Delta in China in terms of its distance from the sea.

The Delta itself is 1,153 square miles just a couple of feet above sea level with 700 miles of waterway along with 1,100 miles of levees.

Man created 53 reclaimed islands that have some of the richest farm soil on the planet.

It is in the Delta, slightly northwest of Tracy and near Mountain House where you can see the engineered solution that overpowers Mother Nature and takes the waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River water basins and sends them south into basins that they were never intended by natural design to go.


Aqueduct sends water

to base of Tehachapis

The Clifton Court Forebay is essentially a 2,200-acre foot holding pond that serves as the staging area to send water into the Delta-Mendota Canal and the 400 plus miles off the California Aqueduct that has three branches.

Those branches deliver water to the Santa Barbara coastal unit’s Lake Cachuma, Castaic Lake in Los Angeles, and Silverwood Lake in San Bernardino County.

Clifton Court Forebay is popular with fishermen but there is also a mostly flat 6.2-mile hiking trail that encircles it.

As the water heads southward some of it is diverted into San Luis Reservoir at the base of Pacheco Pass. With a capacity of 2.041 million acre feet it is the world’s largest off-line storage reservoir and the fifth largest reservoir in California.

Midway between the Pacheco Pass cutoff and Patterson while traveling Interstate 5, there is a scenic overlook that allows you to take a gander at the California Aqueduct.

The aqueduct is typically 40 feet wide at the base with water as deep as 32 feet. Given it is concrete lined the water is always swift and unforgiving.

You can bicycle along the edge of the aqueduct but it is a relentless outing especially heading into the wind given there are no wind breaks.

Due to over pumping of groundwater, land near parts of the aqueduct have dropped 20 to 30 feet in various locations.

Subsidence has reduced the volume of water the aqueduct — which supplies 27 million people — by roughly 20 percent.

Perhaps the most amazing part of the state’s wide repertoire of waterworks projects is the Edmonston Pump Station at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains.

It does what nature can’t do by making water flow uphill.

The 1,926 feet elevation gain is a distance more than three times higher than the face of Shasta Dam.

The power bill is minimal given falling water on the downward trip into Southern California generates electricity to run 14 massive pumps.


State Water Project

Working in concert with the CVP is the State Water Project — the nation’s largest state-owned water project

Beside the aqueduct, the SWP has 10 reservoirs.

The largest SWP storage facility is Oroville Reservoir on the Feather River.

With 3.5 million acre feet of storage, it is the second largest in California behind the CVP’s Shasta Lake.

It is the largest earth fill dam in the United States.

Oroville is also the highest dam at 770.5 feet surpassing Hoover Dam at No. 2 at 726 feet.

The state system includes San Luis Reservoir — the largest off-stream reservoir in the United States — that is located west of Los Banos. It has 2.041 million acre feet of storage.

Looking down the spillway of Shasta Dam above the Sacramento River. Photos Courtesy California Department Of Water Resources
With 4.5 million acre feet of storage, Shasta Dam is California’s largest reservoir. The snow-covered peak in the background is the 14,180-foot Mt. Shasta – one of seven volcanoes in California considered active by the United States Geological Survey Photos Courtesy California Department Of Water Resources