Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Colorado River Aqueduct Inspection Tour
A long black motor coach loaded with tons of water, sodas, and snacks departed from City Hall early on Saturday morning October 26, and ferried 30 participants on a recent inspection trip of the Metropolitan Water District’s Colorado River facilities. The trip was distinguished by the participation of Mayor Jésus Silva, Councilmember Ahmad Zahra, and County Supervisor Doug Chaffee. The rest of the participants included members of various Fullerton Commissions, and the trip overall was remarkable in that about half of the participants were under 35. We were also joined by several municipal and school officials from Buena Park.
As a member of Fullerton’s Infrastructure and Natural Resources Committee, and as someone who has almost a nerd-like curiosity for how things work, the Colorado River Aqueduct inspection tour was right up my alley… How do they get water from the Colorado River to travel all the way to us consumers in Los Angeles and Orange County? The short answer? Giant electrical pumps, gravity, and good old-fashioned engineering.
The Colorado River Aqueduct is a 242-mile system of aqueduct, tunnels and siphons. The tunnels vary in length from 338 feet (just over the length of a football field) to 18.3 miles (the distance from Fullerton to Irvine), comprising 38 percent of the aqueduct’s length. The CRA also has about 63 miles of lined canal, which is approximately 55 feet wide at the top, 20 feet wide at the bottom and 11 feet deep at the center. At strategic locations, the canal bottom is lowered about 8 feet, forming sumps (traps) that catch sand that blows in along the way and also to protect the giant pumps that help move the water to Southern California.
Our first stop: Yorba Linda’s Robert B. Diemer Water Treatment Plant, which is notable for its two giant 1-million gallon storage towers that can easily be seen if you’re driving on the 55 N and take the 91 W transition ramp and you look northeast toward the hills of Yorba Linda. This treatment plant blends and treats water from the State Water Project (SWP) and the Colorado River Aqueduct (CRA). This water treatment plant was retrofitted for ozone in 2015 and can treat up to 520 million gallons of water suitable for drinking each day. Ozone has a greater disinfection effectiveness against bacteria and viruses compared to chlorination, all without adding chemicals to the water.
We were then treated to a nice lunch in Palm Desert on our way to Palo Verde Valley and the Palo Verde Diversion Dam (approximately 9 miles northeast of Blythe, CA). In August of 2004, Metropolitan and the Palo Verde Irrigation District entered into a 35-year agreement for a land fallowing, crop rotation and water supply program. This mutually beneficial program is among several other programs Metropolitan has implemented to help California meet its water needs and at the same time reduce its use of Colorado River water. This program will extend through July 31, 2040 and increase reliability of drinking water supplies to nearly 19 million Southern Californians.
Last stop for the day: Gene Village, (near Parker Dam) which acts as Metropolitan’s Field Headquarters. This is a multi-use facility which includes a dining hall and dozens of hotel-like rooms for visitors and guests. Before dinner, we were given a presentation on what we had seen that day (and what to expect to see the following day) and learned a little more about each attendee as we went around the room and introduced ourselves and how we came to be on the tour and how each of us were involved in our cities. Afterward, we were served a delicious steak dinner (vegetarians and vegans were well accommodated), with all the fixings… everything was top-notch. Some of the group stayed up and socialized after dinner, but most were tired from the traveling and called it an early night.
Breakfast was at 7:30 Sunday morning and I had trouble waking up… I wasn’t expecting to sleep so well in a strange bed but did manage somehow to join everyone for the breakfast buffet. Then we headed off for another packed day of information and travel- our first stop was Copper Basin, set in the midst of copper-stained and red sandstone mountains. A ferry boat took us across and around the 24,000 acre foot reservoir which is the second such reservoir on the CRA system. From here, water flows from the outlet where it enters Whipple Mountain Tunnel and begins its long journey across the desert. (For reference, 1 acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons and is enough to meet the household needs of two typical Southern California families for one year)
Next, we were driven to the Whitsett Pumping Plant, two miles north of Parker Dam, which is the starting point of the Colorado River Aqueduct, and is on Lake Havasu. It is the first of five CRA pumping plants that together lift water over 1,600 feet to deliver it to Lake Matthews in Riverside County (the terminus of the CRA system). The day we were there, not a single one of the nine giant 9,600 volt electrical pumps was in operation due to low water demand. The tour guide remarked how unusually quiet it was at the facility, and none of the group needed any hearing protection. From there, we were taken back to Gene Village, where we were served a delicious lunch before departing back to Fullerton.
The dams, reservoirs, pumping plants, canals and tunnels were all ingeniously designed and constructed in the 1930s and nearly 100 years later, continue to act as an intricate water system that takes water from the Colorado River, ultimately making its way to your kitchen tap, your showerhead, and every flush of your toilet.
Even with all this technology and know-how, and despite being the richest state in the country, there are nearly one million Californians who currently do not have safe tap water to drink, even though they’re paying for clean water. How would you feel if you turned on your tap at home and couldn’t drink, bathe, or even wash a dish with the water that comes out of it? This is a shocking reality, and something I will explore in my next article.
The inspection tour was sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District, and is a fantastic way to learn more about the infrastructure of the water you drink and use. If you are interested in a tour, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or Cshaffer@mwdh2o.com.
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