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An engineering wonder that made the Golden State what it is today
Photo courtesy California Department of Water Resources A drone provides a view of a section of the California Aqueduct within the California State Water Project, located near John R. Teerink Pumping Plant.

Editor’s note: This is a periodic series on California’s intricate water issues, development, and challenges.

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 northern most 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 today will melt in the coming weeks and 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. 

That journey that approaches 900 miles is not all natural. Water is pumped up out of its natural basins a number of times with the most laborious being 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-arrived region of the Los Angeles Basin. The LA Basin is home to 19 million people of which arguably only a 20th of that population would 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 while 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 $1.4 million McMansion-style tract homes in San Diego where it is used to create lush yard landscaping.

While the Pit River contributes 80 percent of the 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 and 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 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 8th 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.

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

There’s a visitors center and endless water-related recreation on the lake.

The Sacramento River — the longest as well as the largest by water volume in California — heads south between re-enforced 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-foot San Joaquin River that starts from Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness at 9,389 feet and created 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 that have created 53 reclaimed islands that have some of the richest farm soil on the planet.

It is in the Delta 17 miles slightly northwest of Manteca 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 wants

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.

It 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. In is capable of carrying water that would fill 13,100 basketballs past a set point in any given second.

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

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 is the state’s largest consumer of electricity does what nature can’t do by making water flow uphill. The 1,926 feet elevation gain that pumps sends water uphill 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.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email