Saturday, May 17, 2014

Water in the Antelope Valley (Part 2)

A Continued Look at the Infrastructure That Makes Life Possible

To follow up from the previous post, when you go to take a shower, where did that water come from?

In a previous blog we looked at some of the ponds and dams around the Antelope Valley. It was suggested that while people often say, "Oh, I live in the desert," for many of us, judging just by our houses and lifestyles, we don't really. We're as "wet" as any other suburb in America.

Now, let's connect up the flow (pun intended). If you fill a glass of water at the sink, where does it come from? (Well, out of the faucet, but where, before that?)

Well, okay, it came to the house from the street, via a water main --- unless of course you're not "on the grid." Some local families use wells on their own property, and that means they need storage tanks. This homestead site near mine seems ready to forgo the usual options and remain self-contained, even though housing tracts on each side have normal water lines.

 And just because a government agency provides water, that doesn't mean we always can use it for showers, cooking, and drinking. One problem with our current distribution networks is we lack easy ways to use secondary-levels of treated waste water for gardening.

But let's stick to just the main experience that most of us have. We live in a traditional neighborhood with a traditional water supply. The water goes from the main supply into the house and hence into our hot tubs and ice makers. Before that? To the mains it came from a treatment plant and pumps and distribution networks. Here is part of the treatment plant for Palmdale Water District, where I live. They spend a million and a half dollars a year just on activated charcoal alone.

Sure, fine, but where did THEY get their water?

In Palmdale, some of it comes into Lake Palmdale from Littlerock Dam, which means the water starts as snowfall in Angeles Crest. From Littlerock Dam (shown in the previous blog), it flows down the partially-underground, partially above-ground Palmdale Ditch. This only happens when the Dam is full, so it runs just in spring usually, but isn't this fun? Look at it shoot along, like a flume ride at an amusement park.

This is drinking water (though it has not yet been treated) and as such, part of "critical national infrastructure." Don't mess about with it, or I am sure you face ten consecutive life terms in the worst jail in the world. Still, just as an object of visual beauty, doesn't it seem like a miracle?

Even when it's dead calm, there's a certain strange, inexplicable charm.

Another way we get our local water is through wells. Sometimes this is called drawing down fossil water: it is pumped up 200+ feet from the water table, which in essence means it comes from an aquifer that was 10,000 years in the making. In banking terms, we are spending down principal, not interest. In pioneer times, the water table was much higher --- hence the term, "Barrel Springs Road": there were springs many places in the Antelope Valley. Now one has to go deep and use a pump to get the water under our feet.

As a guess, and I may be misremembering my tour of the Palmdale Water Treatment Plant, but in Palmdale between 10% and 20% of the drinking water comes from wells. There also are other districts and authorities, such as the large water storage tank recently refurbished by the onramp to the North 14 from near the mall. If I am way off on my numbers, please somebody send me a cranky email. Here is a shot of a well close to my house. Which one is it? Apparently it is Well 16.

As far as I know, most agriculture in the Valley is using pumped well water also. If I am wrong, let me know on that, too, at the address below. As part of a conservation program I once hand-watered newly planted oak trees all summer, using buckets of water filled from a swamp and carried up a steep hill. Looking at this monster of an irrigation system below, I am a touch envious. (This shot immediately below also reinforces my thesis that in many ways, the Antelope Valley is NOT a desert.)

Looking out more broadly, some of Southern California's water comes from the Colorado River --- or past tense, it used to. This body has always been over-allocated, and recent droughts make the fight worse. I quote from The New York Times, January 05, 2014:

These new realities are forcing a profound reassessment of how the 1,450-mile Colorado, the Southwest’s only major river, can continue to slake the thirst of one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions. Agriculture, from California’s Imperial Valley to Wyoming’s cattle herds, soaks up about three-quarters of its water, and produces 15 percent of the nation’s food. But 40 million people also depend on the river and its tributaries, and their numbers are rising rapidly.

The labyrinthine rules by which the seven Colorado states share the river’s water are rife with potential points of conflict. And while some states have made huge strides in conserving water — and even reducing the amount they consume — they have yet to chart a united path through shortages that could last years or even decades.

I wrote my MFA thesis on John Wesley Powell, a manuscript that became my first book, Red Sky, Red Water. Civil War hero John Wesley Powell was the first person (Anglo or Native American) to follow the Colorado River down its whole length, and helped establish Grand Canyon National Park with his reports. In researching the book, I spent a lot of time hiking off trail and exploring the Colorado River drainage and its tributaries, as the shot below shows. The Colorado is many things, but what it can't be is an endless faucet for Los Angeles.

Most of the local water though comes not from Littlerock Dam or from wells, but from the state aqueduct system that flows down the western side of the Sierra and past our Valley. (That one is not to be confused with the one that drains the Owens Valley; that aqueduct is for Los Angeles.) This is water that collected as snow in the High Sierra and made its way as meltwater down into the Sacramento Delta, from which it is diverted towards us. Here is our aqueduct from the air.

Although bike riding is banned, it's a great place to walk, think, fish, or just watch colors change as twilight merges with true dusk. Most people take it for granted, yet it's a special place, and one of the hidden treasures of the Antelope Valley

At times the gravity-powered aqueduct needs to cross a valley and so goes underground for a while, regulated by sluice gates and helped by electric pumps. Here, the early-evening lighting at one of these transfer stations looks a bit like the moonrise in an Ansel Adams photograph.

The water at times leaves the system in ways not usually intended. During the terrible Station Fire in Angeles Crest, fire crews refilled their helicopters directly from the aqueduct.

This of course is an unusual circumstance. More typical might be the fire that comes from a vivid sunrise. I took this picture of the California Aqueduct in Palmdale earlier this year.

So from the aqueduct it goes to a treatment center, is processed and filtered and supplemented with well water and local snowmelt, and from there it goes to your faucet. After you do whatever it is you do with it, it goes to the sewage treatment plant at Ave. D, and from there, Piute Ponds or Apollo Park. It evaporates, joins the clouds, falls as rain or snow, and circles back around again. We will close with a brief suite of pictures from Piute Ponds, the marshland on Edwards Air Force Base. (Caution --- this is military property; permission to enter must be given by the Base Commander. It's worth knowing about though, and they have a good website.) Water in the desert? Yes indeed --- and often in surprising and visually stunning ways.


Photographs not credited to an outside source were taken by the blog curator, Charles Hood, Language Arts. He can be reached at This blog does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees nor the District as a whole. To leave comments, you need to be logged into some kind of blogspot or gmail account, or so it seems. Sorry about that: it's just how the system is set up. Hood also can forward comments through email.


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