GrokSurf's San Diego

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

San Diegans get a close look at their Northern California water lifeline

Posted by George J Janczyn on February 28, 2011

Last weekend I joined a group of over 30 people from a variety of professions and occupations in San Diego County participating in an inspection trip of the California State Water Project and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Our visit came just as a major storm had finished moving through the area Feb 26-27. It was nice to see lots of fresh snow accumulating in the Sierras.

The two-day educational trip was sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and hosted by the San Diego County Water Authority. The tour helped us gain a deeper appreciation of the complex system that supplies much of Southern California and gives San Diego about a third of its water (the Colorado River is the other primary source of our imported water) and a better understanding of the challenges faced by the system. The Delta plays a critically important role for California’s economy and energy and water, but for many San Diegans it’s a faraway place and easy to take for granted, so these informative tours provide a valuable experience that locals should take advantage of.

Diagram of the Delta

After our flight to Sacramento, we boarded a bus for a trip north to the Oroville Reservoir and dam. Oroville, on the Feather River, is the main water source for the State Water Project and is thus an important place for San Diegans to keep an eye on. Snow was visible in the nearby hills and it was quite chilly.

Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the United States — nearly as high as the Eiffel Tower — and can hold about 3 1/2 million acre feet of water and is the fourth-largest source of hydroelectric power in California. Oroville’s reservoir level had been dropping alarmingly over the past few years but with the wet storms that we’ve had this season the reservoir is well over half-full and still filling.

During our bus ride, Phyllis Ortman from Metropolitan and Keith Lewinger from the County Water Authority plied us with details about environmental, political, legal, and logistical factors in the management of the Delta and the State Water Project. Phyllis is apparently well-known for having lots of handouts and it’s a good thing we were given sturdy bags to carry them all!

After lunch we took a brief drive across the dam and proceeded to a tour of the nearby Feather River Fish Hatchery where we saw a barrier dam, fish ladder, rearing raceways, and other mitigation facilities for spawning salmon and steelhead trout.

You can click any of the following photos for an enlargement.

On top of Oroville Dam looking west

On top of Oroville Dam looking east. Note the bathtub ring is greatly reduced.

Feather River Fish Hatchery

Next we returned to the Sacramento MWD offices across the street from the Capitol where legislative representative Kathleen Cole gave us a briefing on the Delta crisis and the latest developments with legislative efforts to improve statewide water management.

We were treated to dinner at the Rio City Cafe in Sacramento’s Old Town and spent the night at the Embassy Suites Hotel.

Bright and early after breakfast the following morning we were treated to an excellent in-depth Delta presentation by Curt Schmutte, Principal Engineer of MWD’s Water Resource Management Group. Then we boarded the bus and headed south into the Delta. Passing through the town of Hood, we stopped at the Delta Cross Channel, where gates control water flow through a man-made channel that runs between the Sacramento River and the Snodgrass Slough and the Mokelumne River System. The gates are closed at this time.

Crossing the Sacramento River near the town of Hood

Delta Cross Channel

Delta Cross Channel gates

Curt Schmutte explains the layout at the Cross Channel gates

We then continued along levee roads to Twitchell Island and Sherman Island, passing through the town of Isleton. As Schmutte pointed out, “islands” is something of a misnomer since islands are actually “bowls” of subsided land below sea level surrounded by levees that hold back the waters of the rivers and channels in the Delta.

Driving on a levee road

Ice cream shop in Isleton just beneath the levee

Levee road along the San Joaquin River

We continued along the levee road and on to the Skinner Fish Facility which intercepts and relocates fish so they won’t be sucked into the Harvey Banks Pumping Plant.

At the Skinner Fish Facility

The group explores the Skinner Fish Facility

Inside the Skinner facility

A fish transport truck at the Skinner facility

We then stopped at the Banks Pumping Plant, the starting point for the California Aqueduct.

Weathered signage at the Banks 'Pumpin' Plant

Inside the Banks Pumping Plant

Control panel inside the Banks facility

Overlooking the Banks Pumping Plant

The beginnning of the California Aqueduct just above the Banks Pumping Plant

The County Water Authority sponsors educational tours of the State Water Project, the California River Aqueduct, and other water facilities several times a year . If you are interested in getting a better appreciation for our water delivery system and an understanding of why the Delta is so important to the entire state, you are encouraged to contact Scott Robinson with the San Diego County Water Authority at or 858-522-6705 and ask to participate in a future tour. It’s an opportunity to learn a great deal and meet lots of very interesting people too.

Our group assembled for a picture by another photographer to my right. Unfortunately I couldn't get a better vantage point before the group broke up...huge apologies to hidden Doug Emery from Helix Water District :-(

See also this nice four-part series on the history of the California Delta. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.


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