Russell Patras is a great tour guide for the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the MWD Colorado River Aqueduct Inspection Trip, sponsored by the Desert Water Agency (DWA) of Palm Springs. With Russell as our guide, our tour began at the DWA offices in Palm Springs. For the next three days, we visited many of MWD’s facilities along the 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct between its intake at Lake Havasu and its termination at Lake Mathews. The concrete-lined canal is an impressive feat of engineering, with the capacity to move more than a billion gallons of water a day through desert and mountain terrain. Five MWD pumping plants along the canal elevate the water a total of 1,617 feet. Ninety-two miles of tunnels ranging in length from 338 feet to 18.3 miles move the water through solid rock. Remarkably, it only takes about 72 hours for water to make the 242-mile journey.
Along our tour, we visited Diamond Valley Lake, built by MWD in the late 1990s to provide an additional 810,000 acre-feet of offstream storage for its member agencies. The lake is unique in that three dams were used to close in a valley for storage. Although no river existed in the valley, the reservoir is gravity fed through the Inland Feeder pipeline from Lake Silverwood. Additionally, we visited with Ed Smith, general manager of the Palo Verde Irrigation District. Ed talked about the successful water sharing program his district and MWD have developed to pay farmers to temporarily fallow their lands. We also had a presentation by Tom Kieley, a DWA board member, on DWA’s aquifer storage program for Colorado River water delivered by MWD. The aquifer is managed by agreement between DWA and the Coachella Valley Water District, and has an estimated storage capacity in the millions of acre-feet.
A consistent observation of the MWD facilities is the architectural effort and detail. The pumping and hydrogeneration plants could have simply been large, utilitarian concrete structures; however, they are beautiful, well-designed buildings with clay tile roofs and terrazzo floors. Attention to detail and design around doorways and light fixtures is everywhere. The quality of craftsmanship is impressive. As an example, members of our party noticed the perfection of the copper tubing joints at the Hinds pumping plant. Not the smallest hint of solder was visible. The maintenance of the facilities is impressive as well. Surfaces are exceptionally clean and tool and work areas are very organized; even the oil rags are neatly folded. Great pride is taken in the smallest of maintenance tasks. To the interested observer, these structures are designed and maintained more like churches or temples than as part of utility infrastructure.
Throughout the MWD tour, one is struck by the enormity of the engineering, the harsh natural conditions endured by the workers over the eight-year construction period, and the indivisible relationship of water and power. The project underscores the tremendous importance of a reliable source of water and the power to move it. Built mostly in the late 1930s, the canal and the many MWD facilities stand as a great example of what can be done to solve a problem. That engineering and problem-solving spirit lives on at MWD with Diamond Lake, the Palo Verde Water Sharing program, and the DWA/Cochella Valley Water District aquifer storage project of more recent years.
It is that same creative thinking that must now be employed to develop the next generation of hydropower generation for irrigation districts and municipal water suppliers, to capture the energy within our existing dams, canals, and pipeworks. This issue of Irrigation Leader magazine is dedicated to the efforts and ideas of irrigation district and municipal water managers, Members of Congress, and federal agencies to make the next generation of hydropower a reality.
Kris Polly is editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader magazine and president of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He may be contacted at Kris.Polly@waterstrategies.com.