One Room to Rule Them All

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Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger looking at the map board in the Project Operations Center in Sacramento. Photo Courtesy of the Water Education Foundation.

“…you need water. Whatever it costs you have to pay it. It’s like oil today. If you have to have oil, you’ve got to pay for it. What’s the value of oil? What’s the value of water? If you’re crossing the desert and you haven’t got a bottle of water, and there’s no water anyplace in sight and someone comes along and says, ‘I’ll sell you two spoonfuls of water for ten dollars,’ you’ll pay for it. The same is true in California.” Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (b. 1905 – d. 1996), Governor of California from 1959-1967, in an interview he gave in 1979. Quoted in Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.

Thirty years ago in his seminal book Cadillac Desert, author Marc Reisner described California’s State Water Project Operations Center as a room in which a “hydrologic ballet” took place to move water from north to south, a distance twice the length of Pennsylvania. At the Water Resources building in Sacramento, he noted the Univac computers were “punched and fed floppy disks by a team of programmers.” Univac, whose machines filled entire rooms, was the same company the United States Air Force used to operate the ground guidance computers for its Titan Missile program.

I wanted to see what had changed since 1986, so my Nature Conservancy team and I took a tour of the facilities last fall. For one, the State Water Project now shares a building called the “Joint Operations Center” with a host of other state and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project (the other big water project in the state, servicing the San Joaquin Valley farmers, who receive about five of the seven million acre-feet of water that the project delivers), the California Nevada River Forecast Center, the National Weather Service and the Flood Control Center. You could pass this nondescript building a thousand times and never know the powerful data sets and computer models being used to predict flood risk, river levels, snow pack, aviation weather and extreme storm events. You would also never know that in this three-story brick building the oversight of dozens of dams, reservoirs, and power plants is all possible through remote control of myriad knobs, gates, canals and valves. The Joint Operations Center is probably the most important place in California. But given that California grows half of all produce, nuts and fruits in the United States, is home to transformative biotechnology and aerospace industries, and has created the computing and materials innovations that have revolutionized technology – one could argue that the Joint Operations Center is one of the most important buildings in the world. For none of the things we take for granted, be it an iPhone or a handful of almonds, is made without water. Yet the Joint Operations Center is miles from downtown Sacramento next to a Walmart and a Chipotle.

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California on its side, showing the state’s facilities that comprise the State Water Project. Courtesy of the Water Education Foundation.

The tour guides said we could see where the state’s water project is controlled, and so we followed them into a small conference room with a few windows looking into the Project Operations Center where a couple of people worked that afternoon. No photos allowed. Also, our guide said, pointing to a closed set of vinyl blinds, “there’s window into the federal side. We can’t show you that.”

Despite our disappointment, we appreciated gazing into the Project Operations Center, especially the decidedly analog map board, which former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger loved as a dramatic setting for some of his press conferences, according to our guide. While not as sophisticated as a Hollywood touch-screen monitor seen in television shows like CSI and Hawaii Five-O, where images on a computer can be transferred to a glass wall display with a single touch, it is nonetheless impressive. Running the entire length of the control room, the map board traces the path of what would be the longest river in California– if it were natural. According to the state, in an average year about 47 percent of the water goes to “environmental water”, about 11 percent goes to cities and 42 percent goes to farms.

The State Water Project begins at Lake Oroville in Northern California, the location of the tallest dam in the United States and the world’s eighth largest dam, and runs through about 700 miles of aqueducts, encompassing 34 reservoirs and more than a dozen pumping stations, to terminate at Lake Perris, another human-engineered lake, in Riverside County. With nine power plants, the operators in the control center move water and control hydropower output based on loads to the system. They wheel and deal, purchasing and selling power day and night like Wall Street traders. Only I cannot imagine Leonardo DiCaprio ever playing the role of a state water trader talking about power purchases and sales in a room with green and yellow lights akin to a 1980s board game of Battleship.

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The State Water Project, built in the 1960s-1970s, is the nation’s largest water development project, delivering 2.5 million acre-feet of water per year. One acre-foot covers a football field in one foot of water. Courtesy of Maven’s Notebook.

But why does the state need to buy power when they have hydropower plants that can create power? Because moving water down to Southern California has one obstacle – a mountain range. The Tehachapi Mountains are right in the middle of the path where the water must travel to reach the city of Los Angeles. The A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant must raise the water up nearly 2,000 feet. To some engineers, according to Reisner, the pumping is “the ultimate triumph, the most splendid snub nature has ever received: a sizable river of water running uphill.”

Thus, the largest energy user in the state, as it turns out, is the state. The water project needs anywhere from four to eight billion kilowatt hours per year to pump water; the State Water Project produces almost six billion kilowatt hours per year. Any surplus power is sold, while any required power is purchased from other sources. Power purchases are made when power is less expensive (for example, not during a hot spell when power usage is high and everyone’s running their air conditioner). Some of the power used is regained when the water runs downhill. There’s a lot of addition, subtraction and algebra involved. The bottom line – “In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money,” wrote Reisner in his introduction.

Our tour lasted several hours and included time with the snow survey office, the people who inspect the levees in the Sacramento River Delta region and the personnel who gather to coordinate during an emergency flood response. These individuals collaborate to share information in order to save lives, as the state has a history of catastrophic floods that have destroyed farms, cities and injured and killed people. Between the power purchasing and selling, the National Weather Service and the river and flood forecasting, these desks must be staffed around the clock every day of the year.

We now know that California’s water systems were conceived, designed and built during wet years when rain and snow were plentiful. Yet researchers who study the long pattern of climate in this part of the world suggest that drought is not a one-time catastrophe or emergency. It’s normal and part of life in the arid West. The ridge of high pressure keeping precipitation out, and pleasant, unseasonably warm weather in California, reminds us that drought is never far from our hearts. Perhaps, as California publisher Lindsie Bear said to me recently, we do not live in a semi-desert, a place lacking in rain. We live in a climate with an abundance of dryness.

Back at the Joint Operations Center, yellow lights indicate that a pump is offline, power sales ramp up, the National Weather Service updates its informative Facebook page and computer weather models run all night trying to figure out what kind of El Niño event we might experience. I just hope the Chipotle stays open late when the graveyard shift employees get hungry.