The Tuolumne River runs dangerously high this year as it snakes between Modesto and Ceres. Thirty-five miles upstream, the Tuolumne is doing its best impression of Niagara Falls – spilling over the top of La Grange Dam, a horseshoe-shaped torrent crashing into boulders, throwing a dramatic plume of mist 100 feet heavenward in the rugged canyon below.
Don’t load up the car for a trip to see this awe-inspiring regional wonder, however. It’s off limits to anyone who doesn’t work at the Modesto or Turlock irrigation districts, or their fortunate guests.
The next best thing might be video captured by The Modesto Bee and posted at modbee.com.
$550,000Construction costs for La Grange Dam, in 1893
La Grange was the highest dam in the United States when the sister water districts built it in 1893. It’s now considered small, at 131 feet; by comparison, the districts’ much larger Don Pedro Dam just upstream rises 580 feet above its foundation.
Opening Don Pedro’s spillway gates became a media event in February. That water was released for four days to take pressure off the river, its dams and the San Joaquin Delta downstream, all of which are working overtime this year to drain mountain snowmelt after an unusually wet winter.
Right now, the action is at relatively tiny La Grange Dam, whose only real function is letting the Tuolumne back up a bit so that MID and TID can siphon much of the water into diversion tunnels, one on each side of the dam. That water flows into canals to feed crops further down in the valley; the rest becomes the Tuolumne River, a familiar sight to many as it flows past Waterford, Hughson, Ceres and Modesto.
As it continues to run high, swift and cold, we encourage all to be smart and safe when near the Tuolumne River.
Melissa Williams, MID spokeswoman
TID also operates a small power plant at the dam, producing 5 megawatts.
After irrigation season starts in April, the Tuolumne at La Grange typically runs through sluice gates at the dam’s base at about 115 cubic feet per second. It hardly ever runs over the top, often going many years between such events.
24 feet La Grange Dam’s thickness at the crest
When The Bee shot video on Friday, 6,336 cfs gushed over the top of the dam. And because of heavy snowpack melting to the east, water is expected to continue cresting the dam through late August.
No wonder MID leaders wanted to share the spectacle with other dignitaries.
In April, MID planned to show off their mini-Niagara Falls to the Modesto City Council and posted notice of a closed session. When The Bee asked why the public would be excluded from a rare joint session of the two agencies, MID – rather than justifying a cited “THREAT TO PUBLIC SERVICES OR FACILITIES” – abruptly canceled the private tour.
Access to La Grange Dam is unquestionably tricky. Rather than letting vehicles negotiate the windy canyon road running atop a long-abandoned, crumbling canal, MID blocks traffic with locked gates, and the curious are in jeopardy of trespassing.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390