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RECREATION : Pyramid's Pipeline to People : The lake's Vista del Lago visitor center offers user-friendly displays to inform the public about the state's water system.

June 23, 1995|REBECCA HOWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Rebecca Howard writes regularly for The Times

During a drive through the seemingly arid hills along the northbound Golden State Freeway between Castaic and Gorman, Pyramid Lake suddenly appears, almost like a mirage.

Pyramid Lake Recreation Area is more like a miracle--of engineering. Its waters have traveled from Northern California via the California Aqueduct since 1974, when the dam was completed. Among its roles, Pyramid Lake stores water for delivery to Los Angeles and other Southern California cities.

The name Pyramid comes not from the shape of the lake itself but from a giant boulder nearby, Pyramid Rock, which stands as a landmark just south of the dam. Resembling an Egyptian temple, the free-standing rock was carved out of the mountains by engineers building Highway 99 in the 1920s.

Just about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Pyramid Lake and its 21 miles of shoreline abound with recreational possibilities. But a new attraction of the area provides an opportunity to learn about the waters as well as to enjoy them.

Perched above Pyramid Lake, Vista del Lago (View of the Lake) is a hexagonal, Mediterranean-style visitors center that's more than just a vantage point for scenery. It offers an education on California's water system, presented in creative, modern, user-friendly displays and interactive exhibits.

Completed in November, 1993, the visitors center cost $8 million and was funded jointly by the Metropolitan Water District, Castaic Lake Water Agency, Ventura County Flood Control District and the U.S. Forest Service.

Historian Jerry Reynolds, now tour coordinator for the facility, served on the committee planning the project and continues to play host for those who come by.

He said visitors, numbering nearly 300,000 in the last year, have been quite complimentary of Vista del Lago. A number of schools from all over Southern California have taken the tours. "Groups from preschoolers to senior citizens come in for tours," Reynolds said. "They all seem to get something out of it. A lot of people come in just to use the bathroom, then they wind up staying a while to check the place out."

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What visitors learn about as they travel the circular route through Vista del Lago's six rooms of exhibits, each with a different theme, is water's influence on California's history, where the state's water originates, how it is transported and treated, how much water is required for living and how it can be conserved.

"Many people from L.A. don't know where their water comes from. They think it comes out of the walls or something," Reynolds said, adding that he enjoys playing a part in enlightening visitors on the subject.

The first room to the left of the large lobby uses lively displays to feature eye-opening facts on water usage. A scale--which Reynolds said some folks shy away from--lets visitors know their weight and how much of that is water. Other facts amaze people, Reynolds said. About 92 gallons of water go into producing a single serving of butter; 14 gallons are required to create a Sunday newspaper from start to finish.

In the next room, a relief map flickers with light from images projected from a videodisc. The map shows, among other things, the course of the lake's water, which makes a 600-mile journey beginning above Lake Oroville in Northern California, down the Feather and Sacramento rivers to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and is then pumped through the 444-mile-long California Aqueduct.

Passing through a circular archway, one of two built in the shape of a water pipeline 13 feet in diameter, visitors enter a room profiling the aqueduct process. There they learn that the highest water lifting point is 1,926 feet at the A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant, which carries water over the Tehachapi Mountains. A hands-on display with a crank gives visitors a chance to simulate the lifting process.

A historical timeline of water in California fills the adjoining room. Here, one can also step out on Vista del Lago's balcony to appreciate how the center was named.

This room also showcases a short film, "Wings Over Water," which dramatically flies viewers over the lakes included in California's State Water Project.

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Water conservation and recreation are examined in the next room, where displays show types of water-saving sprinklers and a video screen highlights water-conserving measures, such as planting trees and plants requiring little water.

The process of water filtration, examined via a tall, see-through model of a water filter, is the theme of the next area, created by the Metropolitan Water District. On one wall is another map where different aqueducts around the state are highlighted in glittery lights with the touch of a button.

The final room, operated by the U.S. Forest Service, depicts a replica of a watershed with trees, a brook and the sounds of songbirds.

A 130-seat theater, also used as a meeting room, is set up to show movies, which can be chosen from a list and played by Reynolds or other staff members. The films run from six to 19 minutes. Some, such as "The Day the Water Stopped," were created specifically for children.

Where and When

What: Vista del Lago Visitors Center.

Getting there: Take Vista del Lago exit off the Golden State Freeway and follow signs to center.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Price: No admission fee.

Call: (805) 294-0219.

What: Pyramid Lake Recreation Area.

Getting there: Exit Smokey Bear Road off the Golden State Freeway, follow signs to Pyramid Lake.

Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Price: $6 per vehicle; $7 for RV. Fishing pole and boat rentals available. Campground per night is $7.

Call: (805) 295-1245 for general information, (805) 248-6575 for camping, (805) 257-2892 for boat rentals.

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