On the tip of a windy peak 40 miles north of Los Angeles, the Castaic Dam Visitors Center, a sometime destination for Southland weekenders, tells the story of the California State Water Project.
Looking down over a world of mountains and water, its gray-tile roof, like a huge bird stretching its wings, sweeps down to cover a wood, steel and glass octagon, where plate-glass windows afford a panoramic view.
Far below, the Castaic dam rises 425 feet, holding back 323,702 acre-feet of glistening blue water. Sailboats tack back and forth in the sunshine, fishermen cast their lines into water up to 330 feet deep, and water skiers carve white trails behind powerboats.
The long fingers of the lake stretch far into mountain canyons. The eye, scanning 29 miles of coastline, travels up distant canyon walls toward jagged peaks. Behind these, more rows of jumbled mountain ranges rise to meet billowing cloud banks.
Perfect for Photos
Outside the Visitors Center several photographers adjust tripod legs and attach telephoto lenses to their cameras. The overlook is perfect for taking pictures.
Below the dam lies Castaic Lagoon, the lake's little sister, its 5,701 acre-feet of water and three miles of shore edged with sand beaches, grassy picnic grounds and plenty of parking. Within a roped-off swimming area, dot-like people splash near white lifeguard towers; beyond, sailboats flash red-and-yellow spinnakers.
But Castaic Lake is much more than a recreational oasis in this dry inland valley where 100-degree summer days are common and the grassy hills are baked dry and yellow in the heat.
As the last reservoir on the West Branch of the State Water Project, Castaic Lake holds water that has been sent 400 miles south from Northern California rivers. The lake is the source of half of the 1.25 billion gallons of water used each day by folks in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties.
How It Works
And the Visitors' Center shows how it happens, with wall-size photographs of pumping stations and canals, colored charts explaining successive stages of dam construction, and maps of the Water Project chain of facilities.
Staffing the information desk inside the center, tour coordinators Jerry Reynolds and Bill Brown answer questions, explain the displays and help you select from a variety of free booklets.
Knowledgeable about both the technical and organizational aspects of the project, Reynolds and Brown conduct tours for groups to learn how Los Angeles gets its water. Among the most frequent visitors, they say, are senior citizens and grade-school children.
Special interest groups can arrange tours of the Visitors Center grounds, Reynolds explained. Paleontologists searching for fossils, geologists collecting rock samples and bird watchers are among those who visit regularly. Tour appointments can be made for any day of the week.
On display at the desk are rock samples and Indian artifacts found in the vicinity. Booklets and pamphlets with a wealth of detailed information on water conservation tips and techniques, reclamation plants, recycling and reusing water are available.
Brochures on each lake and dam in the Water Project system provide data about recreational facilities, hydroelectric power, physical characteristics and pumping plants.
In a small but comfortable theater, Brown or Reynolds will show, upon request, an 18-minute color movie. Any unanswered questions you may still have by this time will probably be satisfied by the film.
You'll learn how Northern California water from the Feather and Sacramento rivers rushes down to the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and from there to the Water Project's main channel, the California Aqueduct. Then the water is transported more than 400 miles to Southern California through a complex system of dams, reservoirs, pumps, canals and pipelines.
As the water flows southward, seven pumping stations along the aqueduct lift it over high ground. When the water reaches the Tehachapi Mountains at the San Joaquin Valley's southern end, the A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant raises it nearly 2,000 feet, the biggest single lift in the world.
Power Is a Plus
Once over the mountains, the West Branch carries part of the water to Pyramid Lake. Leaving Pyramid, it rushes on to Castaic Lake through a tunnel 30 feet in diameter. At the Castaic power plant the falling water spins great turbines, generating electricity.
Meanwhile, the East Branch of the aqueduct carries the remaining water east through Pearblossom on the edge of the Antelope Valley, on to Silverwood Lake and finally to Lake Perris.
From Castaic Lake the Metropolitan Water District, water wholesaler for many Southern California communities, distributes supplies to homes and businesses.
A trip to the Visitors Center makes a good half-day outing. Drive north on Interstate 5. A few miles after the intersection with California 126, turn right on Lake Hughes Road and follow the signs.
If you visit the center before Labor Day, plan to return to Castaic Lagoon for a picnic and swim. Drive back down the hill and around to the other side, where the entrance booth and parking are.
Open to Labor Day
Operated by the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department, which charges $2 a vehicle, the park and beach are open every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The lake water is warm and the bottom is sandy. If you go on a typical hot valley day, you'll be popping in and out of the water.
Facilities with running water and changing rooms overlook the beach. A fast-food stand sells hot dogs, potato chips, hamburgers, French fries and cold drinks. For picnickers, tables on grassy lawns with trees provide shade and comfort.
To reach the boat launching area (sailboats only; no motorboats allowed on the lagoon), do not enter the park. Follow the signs to an adjacent parking area and ramps. There is a $4 fee to launch your boat.
The Castaic Dam Visitors Center is open every day, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., all year. For more information or to arrange a tour, call (805) 257-3610.