Sam McManis

Discoveries: Grapevine’s Vista del Lago Visitors Center worth a pit stop

An exhibit at the Grapevine site touts the construction of Hetch Hetchy Dam.
An exhibit at the Grapevine site touts the construction of Hetch Hetchy Dam. smcmanis@sacbee.com

Some dubious source had told me there was a “water museum” off Interstate 5 along the Grapevine, a prospect that immediately grabbed my interest. Sounded post-apocalyptic, like something out of a Ray Bradbury story, or maybe that old Joni Mitchell song where they round up all the trees and charge you a dollar and a half just to see ’em.

Given this extreme and persistent drought, I figured, we might reach a point in which we have to visit a museum to remember those fond days before “drought shaming,” when you could take long showers without guilt, when lawns were green, actually by-Gawd verdant, instead of this parched, dung-colored abomination. I imagined grandparents tearing up at archival images of the good ol’ days, when Folsom Lake sparkled and brimmed, when the Delta runneth over, when an El Niño winter was seen as a meteorological nuisance rather than a godsend. They would tell the grandkids what it was like back in the days of easy hydration.

Turns out, I was misinformed. Sort of.

There is a handsome 18,500-square-foot Mediterranean-style building right off Exit 191 at the lip of man-made Pyramid Lake bearing the mellifluous name Vista del Lago Visitors Center. But it is, to be brutally frank, a combination potty pit stop and propaganda tool touting the gee-whiz wonders and utility of dams, hydropower facilities and the canals that carry water north to south. A big, wet kiss of a tribute to the 600-mile State Water Project, which plays “a vital role in the Golden State’s quality of life,” courtesy of our friends at the Department of Water Resources.

Actually, the exhibits and dioramas, slide shows and videos are quite professionally produced, as PR campaigns like this go. The DWR does its due diligence in explaining to visitors the importance of conservation and the many ways we can help – stuff we’ve been hearing, ad nauseum since spring, but important nonetheless.

It explains the history and complicated politics of water in California (albeit with the expected pro-damming-of-the-rivers slant) and goes in depth with 3-D models of how water is channeled through an elaborate series of tunnels and snaking aqueducts and then pumped nearly 2,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains so that Malibu moguls can have full and bubbling Jacuzzis. Environmental issues are addressed, especially in a section headlined in red letters, “Delta Threats,” with panels ticking off each – “Invasive Species,” “Potential Earthquakes,” “Climate Change,” “Human Activities” and “Pumping Operations.” (And, no, there was neither a mug shot of the Delta smelt nor Nancy Pelosi, both considered by some as threats to the livelihoods of Central Valley farmers.)

Best of all, as if to quell our unease, there’s an outdoor overlook onto the fulsome waters of Pyramid Lake, so robust you’d think the drought was merely a figment of Gov. Brown’s overactive imagination.

Unintentionally, though, my original premise – that this “museum” would be a repository for fond memories of when water was plentiful and people used it with impunity – came to pass when I reached the exhibit commemorating the construction and opening of the Oroville Dam in 1967. First, there are black-and-white Ansel Adams-knockoff aerial photos of the state’s tallest dam in all its splendor. Then a motion-detected screen comes on and plays a retro-cool five-minute video with the title sequence featuring the cursive heading “The Birth of Lake Oroville,” accompanied by soaring violins and heralding trumpets.

You see archival footage of a swollen Feather River, quite a contrast to today, and heroic actions scenes of bucket-wheeled excavators moving 3,500 cubic yards of earth per hour at the dam and bore-hole site. Then it cuts to the money shot: a sweeping aerial look at a completed Oroville dam, filled to the brim with impossibly blue water, every inch of the 3.5 million acre-feet capacity of water accounted for.

Your mind – or, at least, mine – quickly flashed on the photographs taken recently at Lake Oroville, depressing shots in which it looks as if only a few thimbles of water can be detected.

The Oroville images alone are worth stopping for at Vista del Lago – especially if, like me, you are overcaffeinated on your long trip and need to use the facilities.

In fact, when I pulled into the visitors center lot on a sunny Saturday afternoon in November, only three other cars were parked. When I stepped through the double doors and started veering left toward the exhibit rooms, the kind woman at the information desk piped up, “Bathrooms are over here,” pointing to where a man was just emerging wiping his hands on the sides of his denim jeans. I told her I wanted to see the museum, and she said, “Oh, OK. Enjoy.”

I found myself alone among the exhibits, and I remained the only visitor for a good 15 minutes. Then I heard voices behind me. Tonya Waechter, teenage son Trevor and Carol Madley, of Fairfield, were checking things out. They said they were headed to San Diego for a hockey tournament and saw the glittering lake and wanted to stretch their legs. I was fishing around for a quote to fit my preconceived, quasi-manufactured thesis, so I brought up the Lake Oroville exhibit.

Waechter nodded.

“Oh, I know, it’s sad,” she said. “Look at Folsom Lake. I remember when it was full.”

She said she wasn’t sure what to think about the whole Delta tunnels issue and said she wasn’t edified even after taking in the exhibits. (To be fair, the controversial Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a $25 billion proposal by the state of California to re-engineer water diversions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, was clearly outside the visitor center’s purview.)

“But we were just talking about that on the way down,” she said. “You see all these signs on the side of the road, ‘Congress Created Dust Bowl’ and you wonder, do they (farmers) really need more water? I just don’t know. I need more information.”

You won’t find it from the kind woman at the front desk. When I identified myself as a dogged, hard-nose, investigative travel writer and mentioned the D-word (drought), she shut off like a spigot and wouldn’t even give her name.

“I’m not authorized to speak to media,” she said, “but I can answer questions about the center. On Yelp, people say we’ve got the cleanest bathrooms around.”

I proceeded to check out the bathrooms. She was right. And I was heartened to see this sign above all the urinals, “NO FLUSHING REQUIRED: Saves 45,000 Gallons of Water per Year,” and that the motion-activated faucets stayed on for only eight seconds.

I expected nothing less from my now-favorite water museum.

Vista del Lago Visitors Center

Vista del Lago Road, Lebec

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily

Contact: 661-294-0219

Website: water.ca.gov/recreation

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