California Sketches: Fountainhead of the Valley is found at Shasta

07/29/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:38 AM

First in a series

One fine spring day in 1875, John Muir hiked to the summit of Mount Shasta. In awe, he watched the weather change. "Storm clouds on the mountains – how truly beautiful they are! – floating fountains bearing water for every well; the angels of streams and lakes." He was surprised, unprepared for the blizzard that followed, and spent a torturous night surviving between snow and hot sulfuric springs in "the pains of a Scandinavian hell, at once frozen and burned." Two feet of snow had fallen in less than a day.

Snow melts and begins a migration into the cone of this ancient volcano, trickling and filtering through fragments of lava. Fifty years later, the snowmelt emerges from the mountain at a park in Mount Shasta City, as the headwaters of the Sacramento River, beginning a 447-mile journey as it flows toward the sea.

Pristine water gushes from three openings in the rock and pauses in a small pond. At its edge, I watched a fuzzy caterpillar arrive, a symbol of metamorphosis – like the water that has transformed this state from a semi-arid desert into our bountiful Central Valley. Sixty miles downstream, the river will merge with three others in the northern Sierra, each contributing to the largest reservoir in California – Shasta Lake.

Wedged into a ravine on the southwest side of the lake, Shasta Dam captures the rain and distributes the water. It's a massive structure, 60 stories high – a feat of human ingenuity and enterprise. Constructed in the late 1930s and completed in 1945, the dam is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Its primary purpose is flood control and water storage. Irrigation is second, often in conflict with the myriad needs of environment, municipalities, farmers, fishermen and power. Massive pipes transport water from the lake to five huge turbines in the powerhouse, an enormous white space saturated with the roar of electrical generation during periods of peak demand.

From the 30-foot wide curving road on top of the dam looking north, the surface of the nearly full lake appears somewhere between green, blue and vast. Looking south down the spillway to where the Sacramento River continues, perpetually seeping water creates a palette of vertical striations of moss, wet and dry, from chartreuse and orange to white to black.

Larger volumes of water are released in response to water temperatures and salinity levels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. A collaboration of state and federal agencies strives for a balanced system and flow for salmon and other aquatic species. All stakeholders in the diverse watersheds play a critically delicate and contentious dance.

We heed the words of Muir at Shasta, appreciating the blessings and perils that rain clouds bestow. His voice is a mindful murmur of fragile resources as the river flows south.

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