Water made California.
The statement is often made about what is arguably the largest and most complex water transfer systems ever created by mankind — the California State Water Project — and its kissing cousin the federal Central Valley Project.
California literally moves the precious liquid from the headwaters of the Sacramento River in the Mount Shasta City Park to the faucets of San Diego some 723 miles away. Along the way the water passes through no less than four distinct water basins. Its journey is aided by the 444-mile California Aqueduct.
A series of pumps — including the Edmonston plant that lifts water 1,926 feet to cross the Tehachapi Mountains — helps water to run uphill. The State Water Project is California’s largest single consumer of electricity.
Without the massive transfer of water by the state and federal water projects as well as a host of smaller water projects, Los Angeles and San Francisco would be a tenth of their size — if that.
And the San Joaquin Valley wouldn’t be the most fertile agricultural region on earth.
But what man has created is only fleeting. What nature is doing with water is transformative.
The Earth is 4.54 billion years old, give or take a few 100 million years. California’s geological roots date back 1.8 billion years to the Proterozoic based on the oldest rocks found within state boundaries in the San Gabriel Mountains, Mojave Desert, and San Bernardino Mountains. That said it is rare to find rocks over 600 million years old in California.
Nature has used everything from shifting tectonic plates and volcanoes to endless climate change to shape California into what it is today and what it will look like in the future.
While nature’s other forces create the canvas, water is what carves its intricate shapes.
Water literally wears down mountains. Frozen it can break slabs of rocks from mountains. It forms glaciers that carve valleys from granite. It grinds rock into sand. It fills lakes and inland seas with silt. And it wears down rugged coasts into sand.
We are literally living on what water has created.
The San Joaquin Valley started taking shape 65 million years ago during the Mesozoic Age. It appeared as a basin in front of a mountain range. It then became an inland sea eventually filled in by sediment.
Those who have visited Yosemite Valley have walked in what is one of the world’s most notable works of the accumulative and relentless power of water.
What is today Yosemite Valley 50 million years ago was rolling hills. It wasn’t until 10 million years ago that the upward tilting of what is now Sierra started in earnest.
That set the stage for three glaciations of Yosemite Valley with the first occurring 250,000 to a million years ago and the last 10,000 years ago.
The last glacier advance in Yosemite Valley created what you see today. The valley sits on top of 2,000 feet of sediment and glacial fill that have plugged what the first Yosemite glacial age carved into bedrock.
Water — in the form of frost — split rock fragments off the edge of cliffs to help create impressive waterfalls.
Frozen water is perhaps a more dramatic way to wear down rock but it is not the most prevalent.
Examples of “mere” water carving narrow canyons can be found throughout the high desert but especially in Death Valley.
There are seeming endless canyons water is helping create in a region that has the minuscule rainfall in North America that is coming under 2.2 inches a year during the modern period in Death Valley. By comparison the annual rainfall in the Mojave Desert as a whole is 5.5 inches while the typical desert rainfall worldwide is 10 inches a year.
Because it is so arid, the soil so dry, and rock formations so prevalent a fairly light rainfall can set the stage for powerful flash floods that move giant boulders and cut into canyon walks.
The four mountain ranges in Death Valley are dotted with imposing dry falls ranging from several feet to 80 feet; the taller ones are mostly smooth and narrow averaging perhaps five feet in width.
While we fret about having too much or not enough water, nature continues to use water to reshape the landscape aided by ever changing climate.