San Luis Reservoir-Looking Good at Fifty

2017 Marks the Golden Anniversary of the Completion of the Reservoir

People have used the San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County, California as a barometer of just how bad the drought was, or how intense the flow of melting snow pack from the Sierra Nevada Mountains has been.

The San Luis Reservoir in Los Banos, Merced County.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The San Luis Reservoir in Los Banos, Merced County.  Photo by Steve Newvine

I’ve always been impressed by this massive lake in the Pacheco Pass between Los Banos and Gilroy.  The visitor center at the Romero Outlook always made for a convenient and safe rest stops on trips to and from the coast.  

The Vista is impressive.

This spring and summer, friends and family who passed through the Reservoir along State Route 152 told us that the water level was at an all-time high. My wife and I made a visit there early in July to see for ourselves.

An up close look at the water in the San Luis Reservoir.  Photo by Steve Newvine

An up close look at the water in the San Luis Reservoir.  Photo by Steve Newvine

Display inside the center.  photo by steve Newvine

Display inside the center.  photo by steve Newvine

To a passing visitor not familiar with the Reservoir, it’s easy to lose perspective of just how high the current water table is.  

During the drought years, it was relatively easy to see little or no water down below from the observation point.  Now with water covering the Reservoir bed, it is clear that conditions have changed.

But to what magnitude that change has been felt, I had to ask the visitor center staff.

A staff person told us that at the peak of the California drought last summer, the Reservoir was at less than three percent capacity.  At the time we visited in early July of 2017, we were told that the water level was just over ninety-eight percent of capacity.

There’s no apparent danger that this Reservoir will exceed capacity as the water is controlled coming in through the California Aqueduct from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta.  

The water is held by the San Luis Dam or the B F Sisk Dam.  

Water from the reservoir irrigates over sixty-thousand acres in the Santa Clara Valley.  Electricity is generated as a result of all this water moving through the Reservoir.

The Visitor Center at the Romero Outlook of the San Luis Reservoir.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The Visitor Center at the Romero Outlook of the San Luis Reservoir.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The visitor center has a number of photographs and historical artifacts from its five-decade history.   

President John F. Kennedy visited the area early in his presidency when construction of the project began.  You can see that speech on You Tube.  

 

In his speech at the dedication ceremonies on August 18, 1962, the President greeted the crowd humorously by saying,

It is a pleasure for me to come out here and help plow up this valley in the cause of progress.
— President John F. Kennedy

The fifty-fifth anniversary of that visit is August 18, 2017.

One section of the visitor center features Ronald Reagan, who visited the project during his term as California Governor.   

Photographs of the two Presidents take up space along the walls of the visitor center.  

Then Governor Ronald Reagan’s image covers part of a wall at the San Luis Reservoir.  Photo by Steve Newvine

Then Governor Ronald Reagan’s image covers part of a wall at the San Luis Reservoir.  Photo by Steve Newvine

There’s a room with chairs and a loop of video that explains other details of this man-made wonder.  The Reservoir is now moving into the sixth decade of operation to provide water and hydropower.

There’s a lot of history of how this western Merced County’s engineering and construction marvel was conceived, built, and maintained.  It’s worth an extended visit the next time your travels take you through Pacheco Pass.

The vista of the Reservoir footprint is impressive.  At times, it has taken my breath away. It may do the same for you.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.  He’s planning on releasing a new book about California in the coming months.