The Colorado River Aqueduct System Field Trip with California State Metropolitan Water District and San Diego County Water Authority

This trip stems from me reading an article in the newspaper asking for citizens who are interested in learning about the water distribution system in San Diego County.  I’m only going to use two acronyms, SDCWA for the County and MWD for the state.  San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) wants informed citizens who understand how complex the water system is for those of us living where rainfall averages 10” year.  They need to raise rates and we need to understand why.  In exchange, they created a Citizens Water Academy and they feed us fabulously to keep us engaged.  This allows us to network with fellow attendees from every conceivable profession and workplace in San Diego.



Freda Siding Siphon on California Highway 62. A siphon is a structure that forces the Colorado River Aqueduct water into a smaller diameter structure and directing the water underground so it is driven up under pressure thereby moving the water using gravity rather than a pump.


Besides teaching us and feeding us, they make available “field trips.”  This one was 800 miles by bus to learn about the Colorado River water distribution system.  So 36 of us visited reservoirs, dams, pumping stations, a siphon, and the actual Colorado River.  The next trip, in October, flies us to the Sacramento Delta to learn about the Sacramento (Feather) River water distribution system.

The rocks were great.  The desert was vast.  The water was fascinating.  But what struck me the most was the history I learned—General Patton’s Desert Training Center, the Poston Internment Camp for Japanese people, the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservations along the river, and the hospital built by Dr. Sydney Garfield using money from Henry J. Kaiser for the workers who built the aqueduct in the 1940s—i.e., the beginning of Kaiser Permanente. 

Tour leader was a public relations specialist for California Metropolitan Water District (MWD) (I think he also said he was originally an engineer).  He was really respectful of all the people’s stories and issues; he also knew plants, animals, and birds.  First stop was San Vicente Reservoir.  I’ve been doing some work there on the iron and sulfur bacteria, so I’ve boated around the lake with the Reservoir Keeper.  But on this trip we drove to the reservoir to watch how they are filling it for storage of water from the reservoirs from the north.  The dam was recently raised from 220’ to 337’, so now it can send water by gravity feed to other reservoirs in San Diego County that used to be lower than San Vicente.  This is the main water storage if we get cut off by motion on the San Andreas Fault.  And this is the main distribution to my house—I drink this treated blended water!



Filling San Vicente Reservoir with Colorado River water coming down the chute from Aqueduct #2


Back on the bus—off to Diamond Valley Reservoir/Lake to the north.  This is a new dam, so the lake wasn’t even on my topographic map.  This reservoir is filled with the more salty Colorado River water coming from the east and the freshwater Feather/Sacramento River water coming from the north.  The high viewpoint at the lake looks out west over the Elsinore Fault.  The importance of this reservoir is that it is south of the San Andreas fault, although it could get hit by motion on the Elsinore Fault.

It wasn’t too long before we saw Mt. Baldy in the San Jacinto Mts.  There was snow on top.  Of course, the San Jacinto Mts. follow the San Jacinto Fault 

Back on the bus—off to fabulous lunch in Indio (remember I said these County and State people really feed us well), and then off to the Salton Sea.  Oh yeah, every stop with or without food had someone from MWD lecturing us, as well as along the entire bus trip.  TMI (too much information) for the non-technical attendees!  We learned about the Salton Sea issues which included agricultural and residential runoff from Mexico, blowing dust, geothermal plants, and dying stinky fish.  Nah, the fish were long dead, so they didn’t stink—but I tried to walk barefoot on the “sand” around the lake and discovered it was primarily pokey fish bones.  Of course, the Salton Sea fills the basin created by the San Andreas Fault—so I got to see all three major faults of Southern California all in one day.  A geologist’s heaven!

We were following the Colorado River Aqueduct the whole trip.  Later I learned that there are five aqueducts.  I guess this is why I get confused when I pass over an aqueduct.

We finally got to the Colorado River!  We drove Indian Highway US 1, which is land of the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT).  On the bus was my friend Jan Tubiolo, whose vision created the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College near our house.  She and I took Kumeyaay ethnobotany together; so sensitized, we talked on the bus about the tribes whose land got taken—the Chemhuevi and Mohave people.  It was interesting to learn that the Federal Government also placed Navaho and Hopi people (traditional enemies, makes sense, right?) there in the 1940s.  

The next history lesson was told as we passed by Poston, AZ.  It was an Internment Camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.  We saw no monument to mark this sadness.  But we did learn that the Japanese who were interned there were primarily highly successful farmers and they taught the Indians techniques that turned them into successful farmers also.

On to Gene Village, which is five miles west of the Colorado River.  Gene Camp was built by MWD to house the thousands of people needed to build the aqueduct.  Now it is a retreat for MWD activities.  Great food—thick roast beef for the meat eaters.  We slept in simple rooms that have two beds, no TV, but wi-fi access of course.  When I awoke, I went outside to greet the sun and I talked in my head to my mom who died two weeks ago, just two months short of her 103 birthday. 

Back in the bus, off to Copper Basin Reservoir.  This place was really important for me.  I needed a sample of Colorado River water for a research project I am working on.  The Board Director who was representing San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) made it happen.  We got on a boat to go visit the dam, and as everyone else went to climb onto the dam, I was able to take my sample!  Tour guide said he has seen bighorn sheep along the cliffs in the past, but none chose to make themselves visible to us. 



Norrie Robbins sampling Colorado River water at Copper Basin Reservoir


Back in the bus, off to the Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant—it’s on the California side of Lake Havasu (i.e., the Colorado River) and it begins the Colorado River aqueduct.  We got to see all sorts of giant equipment that turned on all the engineers in our group.  Another friend who was with us, Pete Evaristo the artist, pointed out the art deco all around the outside of the plant—a touch from the 1940s when artists were put to work by the Federal Government.

Back on the bus, off to Parker Dam, which dammed the Colorado River to create Lake Havasu.  Its function is to create hydroelectric power.  As far as I understand, each reservoir either creates hydroelectric power or is being analyzed to do so—this helps offset the cost of carrying water to San Diego.

The history lesson we heard while driving east on our way home on Interstate-10 blew my mind.  At a place along the aqueduct near Iron Mountains we passed a tiny marker.  On my topographic map I saw a grid of dotted straight roads straddling the San Bernardino and Riverside Counties line there.  This was General Patton’s Desert Training Camp—he trained over a million men right there to fight Rommel in North Africa.  He decided that the soldiers and nurses needed to learn to deal with desert heat and desert sand.  He chose this stretch of Mohave and Sonoran Desert which includes part of Joshua Tree National Monument.  In 1942, soldiers built camps, went on maneuvers, and learned how to shoot and bomb from airplanes in the 18,000 square miles of desert that extended from southern California to western Arizona and as far north as the Nevada border.  And then the camp closed down and is now pretty much wiped off the map and lost to history.  But gridded dirt roads remain in the desert to mark the spot. 



Patton's headquarters for the World War II Desert Training Camp (along I-10 in California)


The next history lesson was only about 30 miles south of there, in a place with nothing but named Desert Center.  In the 1940s, the city was swarming with 5,000 men building the aqueduct.  Dr. Sydney Garfield decided to start a hospital for the workers, using Henry J. Kaiser’s money, and taking five cents a day out of their company paychecks to prepay health insurance.  This was to be the beginning of Kaiser Permanente.  The story impinges on my life, because when I got polio in 1946, I was treated at the Kabat-Kaiser Institute in Washington, DC, which became part of the Kaiser Foundation Rehabilitation Institute.  I think Kabat was another MD with a vision funded by Kaiser.

Last stop before home was off to lunch at the Classic Golf Club in Palm Desert near Palm Springs.  Artist Pete had gone online to read the pricey menu at the Bellatrix Restaurant there.  Instead, we got buffet style, sorry Pete—but the brownies with dark chocolate chips were to die for!


Norrie Robbins

May 25, 2016

return to protecting the earth