Photos from the Vault

Whale Rock, the forgotten dam of San Luis Obispo County

San Luis Obispo city officials and state representatives in 1960 inspect the nearly completed multimillion-dollar Whale Rock dam near Cayucos. Two large cranes assist in the bridge work across the 1,040-foot spillway in the background. From left are Charles F. Beatie, Whale Rock dam construction manager; Robert Jansen, principal hydraulic engineer for the state Department of Water Resources; San Luis Obispo Mayor Fred M. Waters; City Council members Dr. J. Barry Smith, Gerald W. Shipsey and Donald Q. Miller. Published Oct. 5, 1960.
San Luis Obispo city officials and state representatives in 1960 inspect the nearly completed multimillion-dollar Whale Rock dam near Cayucos. Two large cranes assist in the bridge work across the 1,040-foot spillway in the background. From left are Charles F. Beatie, Whale Rock dam construction manager; Robert Jansen, principal hydraulic engineer for the state Department of Water Resources; San Luis Obispo Mayor Fred M. Waters; City Council members Dr. J. Barry Smith, Gerald W. Shipsey and Donald Q. Miller. Published Oct. 5, 1960. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The rains are back. Reservoirs are rising.

Paraphrasing a recent comment surfacing on social media: “California wastes its water, allowing it to flow to the ocean.”

Let’s leave without remark the idea that humans are the only critters entitled to use creek water. A more legitimate debate is how to allocate the immense amount of water California actually stores.

The reality is that California has built massive networks of water redistribution systems, unrivaled anywhere.

Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.

Mark Twain

Two quick examples among many: Los Angeles gets water from three major water projects drawing from as far away as Mono Lake (via Owens River aqueduct), Wyoming (Green River to Colorado River via Colorado River Aqueduct) and Klamath Mountains (Sacramento River to Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via California Aqueduct).

San Francisco flooded Hetch Hetchy Valley — once considered second only to nearby Yosemite in beauty — to provide tap water and power.

Social media commenters might take these and other projects for granted because they were built by their great-grandfather’s generation.

In 1872, San Luis Obispo built Reservoir Canyon, the first reservoir and pipeline to serve the city. In San Luis Obispo County, however, the four significant domestic water reservoirs were all completed within living memory: Salinas in 1942, Whale Rock in 1961, Nacimiento in 1961 and Lopez in 1969.

Of the four, Whale Rock Reservoir is the forgotten dam of the county. It’s the smallest public reservoir and doesn’t allow boating. The state Department of Water Resources designed it, began construction in October 1958 and finished it in April 1961 with a 30-inch pipeline that runs 18 miles to San Luis Obispo.

When it’s full, Whale Rock can provide San Luis Obispo with three years’ worth of water. It also serves Cal Poly, California Men’s Colony and the Cayucos Area Water Organization.

This water source has allowed both Cal Poly and the men’s colony to grow. For example, in 1966, Cal Poly enrolled 7,740 students; by 2016, that number had nearly tripled to 21,306 enrolled students.

Whale Rock usually fills slower than the other reservoirs because the watershed draining into the lake is a relatively small 20 square miles. By way of contrast, Lake Nacimiento drains just less than 372 square miles, including cloud-squeezing, high-elevation back country.

According to Mark Hall-Patton’s book, “Memories of the Land: Placenames of San Luis Obispo County,” Whale Rock was named for a site that whalers used to spot cetaceans swimming through Estero Bay. Locals had lobbied for the name Old Creek Dam.

Whale Rock offers fishing and hiking recreation, but the bucket canyon does not have the picturesque oak-lined shores that the other three lakes offer. It also has the smallest shoreline, and no camping or boating.

Some say the drought is over when the last dam spills. Whale Rock will likely be the last one.

But reservoirs aren’t the only water source. Some areas of the county depend on groundwater basins that are in overdraft. If all rainwater was sequestered in reservoirs, there would be none left to recharge these aquifers. It remains to be seen if the drought will end for those consumers.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

  Comments