Sometime around 10:30 this morning, a laser-guided, 220-foot-long tunneling machine will poke its ugly head, adorned with 36 whirling steel blades, through a scrubby bluff east of Redlands.
"It's not going to be like some Jules Verne thing," said Dan Tempelis, project manager for the Metropolitan Water District. "It's not going to be that dramatic."
It is, however, a long time coming.
Today's breakthrough will mark completion of an 8-mile water tunnel that has been excavated for the last 19 months through the Badlands, a hilly area on the Riverside-San Bernardino county line.
The tunnel is a significant step in finishing the $1.2-billion, 44-mile-long Inland Feeder project, which will double the amount of water Southern California can import through one of two lines that bring it south from the Sacramento River Delta in the Bay Area.
Water fed through the Inland Feeder project will be piped into the new, 4,500-acre Diamond Valley Lake reservoir in Riverside County. From there, it will be doled out throughout much of the Metropolitan Water District, from northern Los Angeles County to the Mexican border.
With California's population expected to balloon over the next 25 years, the project is billed as one of the most significant engineering feats in Southern California since completion of the Colorado River Aqueduct in 1941.
Two more tunnels, shorter than this one, still must be dug. Construction won't begin on them until 2003, and the entire project won't be up and running before 2007.
Still, the completion of the longest component of the plumbing signals new hope that Southern California will be able to provide water to homes, businesses and farms for years to come, MWD engineers say.
"This is going to give us the ability to move water when it's available, when it's plentiful," said Phillip J. Pace, chairman of the district's board of directors. "That has been a problem over the years."
That problem could worsen in decades ahead with climate changes, experts say, increasing the importance of the Inland Feeder project.
No one is quite sure what climate change will mean in coming years. But the average temperature in the Los Angeles Basin has risen five degrees in the last 100 years, said William C. Patzert, a research oceanographer and climate specialist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The best guess for the effect of climate change in California is that mountain snowfall will arrive later and melt sooner.
That melted snow is the source of most of Southern California's water, which means large urban areas, especially dry areas near Los Angeles, will need ever more powerful methods of importing water from areas that have it, Patzert said. The Inland Feeder will help store water that otherwise would run into the ocean.
"Many people think that what really opened up California was the Gold Rush," Patzert said. "But what really opened up California was what I like to call liquid gold--and that's water. California, however, is a dry state, and the water is not really where the people are. This is what we need and what we will need in the future."
The project also is expected to improve Southern California's water quality. The last three years have been lean when it comes to water. A small snowpack in the Sierra has reduced water that collects in nearby basins by more than half. California's State Water Project, which provides water to 20 million people, is expected to offer just 30% of the water requested.
Low water levels mean higher salinity, which means corroded pipes and bad taste, engineers say.
The Inland Feeder project will enable engineers to blend low-salinity water with salty water, improving its taste, reducing the threat of corrosion and cutting costs.
"We're getting poor water quality," said Adan Ortega Jr., the MWD's vice president and group manager for external affairs. "The costs are incredible."
At 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, a dozen miners loaded onto a train at the southern entrance to the tunnel near Moreno Valley. At first they were jovial, ribbing each other that the train had no brakes, but as the last natural light faded into a pinpoint behind them, the group grew silent, their faces lighted only by the blue flashing strobe on the front of the train.
For most of the 40-minute trip, the miners were silent. It smelled ripe and heavy, like a pile of wet clothes left in the washing machine for two weeks. Water trickled down the walls of the 16-foot-wide tunnel--perfectly natural, perfectly planned and perfectly disconcerting when you're 800 feet underground.
Then the train arrived at a scene of controlled chaos. Steam filled the air, and the temperature soared, making it difficult to breathe. The group had reached the end, nearly eight miles from the portal, and was now inside the custom-built boring machine. The sound of the 250-ton machine, backed by 5 million pounds of thrust and 1,500 horsepower, was deafening, and its blades shook the walls, sending hunks of dirt cascading on the miners.