Magazine article Sunset

Water Wonders at Vista del Lago

Magazine article Sunset

Water Wonders at Vista del Lago

Article excerpt

"If you really got people to understand water," the woman behind the information desk tells me, "they would be in great awe." We are standing inside the California State Walter Project's new Vista del Lago Visitors Center, up in the Tehachapi Mountains just off Interstate 5.

I tell the woman that I agree with her. Water is why I'm here. Despite its architectural blandness, Vista del Lago is a fascinating place, because it devotes itself to explaining California water.

I often think that people in other parts of the country can never really understand the importance water has to us in California. Water has been at the center Of almost every big fight waged here: north versus south, rural versus urban, wild versus tamed. No other force has inspired such mammoth feats of engineering. And nothing has given California more comic, tragic, or weird historic figures - like engineer William Mulholland, who died a broken man after the collapse of his St. Francis Dam.

"So many interesting people become attracted to water," Norris Hundley told me when I paid him a call before going up to Vista del Lago. Hundley, a history professor at UCLA, is the author of The Great Thirst, an unusually clear and evenhanded picture of California water history. "Underneath it all," Hundley said, "what you're dealing with are human values and people's struggle to survive and make a living - in some cases make more than a living, to become very rich. In an arid land, survival is more difficult. The struggle is greater."

I thought about that struggle as I wandered through Vista del Lago. As its name implies, the visitor center does have a view of a lake: Pyramid Lake - 179,000 acre-feet - is visible from its windows. Water comes to Pyramid from the Feather River, 450 miles to the north. From Pyramid it flows 150 miles south to the project's southern terminus, Lake Perris.

But I spent less time looking down at the lake than I did looking at the center's exhibits. Whoever designed them did a good job. Relief maps light up at the push of a button, a model of the state water project zigzags across the rooms like a giant playground slide, and much factual information is slipped to you in bright, primary-colored doses. It takes 15 gallons of water to produce two slices of wheat bread. Agriculture uses 80 percent of California water. Households account for 15 percent.

But even at Vista del Lago, water wars sometimes interrupt the good cheer. "People are very protective of where they come from," said the woman behind the information desk. "We have people coming down from Redding and Red Bluff and saying, 'You people in Southern California are stealing our water. …

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