GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

Colorado River Aqueduct and All American Canal inspection trip

Posted by George J Janczyn on May 4, 2010

I just finished a two-day Colorado River Aqueduct Facilities Inspection Tour hosted by the San Diego County Water Authority and sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (many thanks to SDCWA’s Scott Robinson for inviting me!). I went on this tour to get a closer look at the infrastructure that contributes a large amount of water that San Diego needs to import to stay alive.

San Diego imports about 90% of its water and a good deal of that comes from the Colorado River. It’s one thing to casually acknowledge our dependence on the river, but there’s nothing like getting a close look at some of the engineering that goes into maintaining this immense system.

Stops along the way included San Vicente Reservoir, Twin Oaks Valley Water Treatment Plant, Diamond Valley Lake, Copper Basin, the Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant, Parker Dam, the All-American Canal and Palo Verde Irrigation District farmlands.

On to the pictures (clickable for enlargements).

We began the tour at San Vicente Dam, where a project to raise the dam by 117 feet using a roller-compacted concrete technique is underway. When the dam raise is completed, the dam’s capacity will increase from 90,000 to 242,000 acre-feet.

I took this shot a few months ago, when they were water blasting the dam's face to prepare the surface

Surface is all clean now, ready for new concrete. The scraped rock on the right side shows how much higher the dam will be.

Our next stop was the Twin Oaks Water Treatment Plant just north of Escondido. This plant uses a specialized submerged membrane technique to filter the water as opposed to more traditional chemical-based water treatment methods.

Untreated water intake area


Submerged membrane facility

Biological Activated Carbon Contactors

Next stop, Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet. This immense reservoir was built to provide an emergency 6-month supply of water for Southern California districts in case of a catastrophic cutoff of imported water supplies. We drove across the top of the dam in the bus (it is 1.9 miles wide!), but had to stay in the bus.

The whitish bathtub ring across the reservoir shows how low the water level is

After a stop for lunch at the East Marina of the reservoir, we set off driving east across the desert towards the Colorado River, roughly following the route of the aqueduct. As we began on Interstate 10 east, there was a stretch where for about 10 minutes at freeway speed we could see nothing but wind turbines for electricty. It seemed like they would never end. Later, in middle of nowhere, we caught a view of the Julian Hinds Pumping Plant in the distance.

Shot from the bus while on the highway (using telephoto lens)

At the end of the day we arrived at the Colorado River and jogged north to the Gene Pumping Plant located in the mountains just above Parker Dam.

Gene Camp where we spent the night

Pump housing and power supply

Pushing water up towards Copper Basin Reservoir

At Gene Camp we had dinner at the lodge and spent the night. Someone told me there would be wi-fi internet at the camp, but they wouldn’t let me access it. They did have several hardwired PCs on the net so we could check email and the news, although they were running a parental-control censorware product on it…it wouldn’t even let me access my blog!

No problem…I didn’t feel like blogging anyway. The next morning we headed to Copper Basin, where water begins its journey across the desert. We were treated to a boat tour of the reservoir and dam.

The steep canyon walls show geologic uplifting

Approaching the dam across the narrow canyon. Water is over 200 feet deep here.

One of our tour guides casually (or bravely) leans back above a spine-tingling abyss

Next stop: Parker Dam and the Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant. The pumping plant is located about two miles upstream from Parker Dam which creates Lake Havasu. Water is pumped from here up the mountain to Gene Reservoir, where the Gene Pumping Plant takes over and pushes it higher to the Copper Basin reservoir.

Just a quick look at the dam from inside the bus

Giant air-cooled transformers on the electrical grid next to the plant

Pump house control room

Inside the pumphouse

Pipes emerging from the pumphouse

A long lift

Stainless steel turbine

The spinning shafts are super quiet and vibration-free

Intake side of pumphouse facing Lake Havasu

From here a long drive following the river to the south, stopping at the Palo Verde diversion dam. This dam slows the river just enough to allow some water to be diverted into the Palo Verde Irrigation District lands.

From behind the dam, some water is diverted to the right while the main flow continues straight ahead

The main flow coming out of the dam

Flood irrigation on alfalfa (?) field

Continuing south to the Mexican border and then to the west, we followed the newly lined portion of the All American Canal as it runs through the Allagones Sand Dunes. The canal lining prevents seepage and the conserved water figures into the water transfer agreement between the San Diego County Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District. We saw some of the measures being taken to assist persons who have fallen in (yes, we heard about the 60 Minutes story). In addition to people, I wonder how many critters end up in the canal and aqueduct lines. Here’s additional info on the safety improvements.

From the bus window...wondering how they keep the sand dunes at bay

A closer look at the sand dunes

There's a buoy line here to grab hold of if you're unlucky enough to be in the deep and rapidly moving water.

They also have grab bars for climbing out every several hundred feet

From there we continued west on I-8 and finished our trip at our starting point, the San Vicente Dam.

If you can get on a future tour, I recommend it. The tour guides were well-informed and personable, my travel companions were an interesting collection of people with professional and personal interests in water, and the tour was well-worth the two-day journey.

Further information about some of the stops:

Tom Pfingsten, a columnist for the North County Times also participating in the tour, has a nice writeup of our trip: Before you twist the cap or turn on the tap.

P.S. We had a small video with DVD setup on the bus. One of the shows we saw was from Huell Howser’s California’s Water series. I know a few people on the bus were wondering if they’re online…his videos are now being loaded on the Association of California Water’s website and will be viewable for free at


2 Responses to “Colorado River Aqueduct and All American Canal inspection trip”

  1. Mark said

    Yep, great trip you learn a heck of a lot about how we get our water from the Colorado River. You didn’t mention anything about the home cooked food at Gene Camp though…how did you like it?

  2. George said

    Hi Mark. The food? Definitely worth a repeat visit.

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