The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Lakes of the Mojave


The CLUI conducts many research and documentation programs in the Mojave Desert, a region of national importance, that harbors many extremes of American technology, industry, and culture.  An ongoing research program concerning the lakes of this arid environment was presented as a public lecture by CLUI director Matthew Coolidge, during an event at the CSU Desert Studies Center, in Zzyzx, California, sponsored by High Desert Test Sites, out of Joshua Tree, California.

THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF lakes in the Mojave, wet ones, and dry ones. Depending on how far you stretch “Mojave” and how small you measure the lakes, there are maybe as many as a hundred of the dry variety, each at the bottom of their localized drainage basins, indigenous creatures of the desert—and each is interesting in its own way.

The wet lakes, however, are another matter. There are a few dozen of them and they stand out anomalously, perilous products of pumping along an artificially recharged aquifer. Their connective tissue, in this most dry land, is sometimes hard to see, but is very much there. Despite all appearances to the contrary, a river runs through it: the Mojave River, running through the Mojave Desert.

The very name of the place, Mojave, comes from a native word meaning “beside the water,” suggesting both that there is water to be next to, and that there is something besides water—dryness. The Mojave River, therefore, is a river beside the water of the river, which is very much the case.

The Mojave River begins in the San Bernardino Mountains, the range that divides the Inland Empire of the Los Angeles region from the eastern Antelope Valley, and the desert communities to the north (Hesperia, Apple Valley, and Lucerne). Its origins thus appropriately are in the fulcrum between urban and rural, wet and dry, and flowing decidedly northbound, into the latter.

These are the origins of the river, but this is not the source of the water. The primary reservoir for the river’s water is Silverwood Lake, in the San Bernardinos. It was constructed in 1971 to hold water coming down the California Aqueduct from northern California. The source for the Mojave River is therefore more than 450 miles away, in the northern Sierra Mountains. The water is pumped out of a canal up to Silverwood Lake, the highest reservoir in the State Water Project. Water flows downhill—yet again—from here into municipal water supplies and local agriculture, and, some of it, into the Mojave.

Silverwood Lake, CA

A headwaters of the Mojave River is Silverwood Lake, a reservoir in the San Bernardino Mountains. CLUI photo

The riverbed itself though is dry, mostly. The river flows slowly, through groundwater, underground. This groundwater is enhanced by injections of Northern California water from buried pipelines at seven points along the river, starting at the base of the hills below Silverwood Lake. Downstream the intravenous pipeline follows along the river bed all the way to Newberry Springs, more than 60 miles away.  

Consistent surface water appears first, pumped into the ponds around Jess Ranch and its golf course/housing development. The first true lake along the Mojave River is Spring Valley Lake, constructed from scratch in the middle of an eponymous housing development in Hesperia. This is the largest lake in the Mojave, and on the Mojave, a development with 4,000 house lots, hundreds with water frontage on constructed promontories that look like gloved fingers, or saguaro branches.

From there the river enters a parkland, where it comes close enough to the surface to produce some greenery, then gets pinched to the surface for real in the Mojave Narrows next to Victorville, one of two places on the river where the river flows like a river.

Along old Route 66 north of Victorville, the underground river passes cement plants  that pull water from it, and sewage treatments plants that put water back in. Then there is the second of the big lakes of the Mojave, Silver Lakes, another housing development built around two artificial lakes of pumped water, North Lake and South Lake, at Helendale.

The dry river flows onward, arcing eastward through Barstow and Yermo, then kind of splays out in a V-shaped valley, bounded by Interstate 15 on the north, and Interstate 40 on the south, as the highways radiate outwards from their convergence in Barstow.

Great Lakes, CA

CLUI photo

This valley, around Daggett and Newberry Springs, is where most of the wet lakes of the Mojave can be found, among sporadic central pivot alfalfa farms and desiccating ranch ruins. The lakes are all private constructions, part of small developments, or single private homes. Most are intended to be recreated upon, and not to simply be ornamental.

The lakes fall generally into two types, linear and nonlinear. Both types usually have small islands and are just a few acres in size. Most have names, and are behind gates. On linear lakes, the islands tend to be on either end, as these lakes are mostly constructed for waterskiing behind motorboats, and the islands serve as turning points on either end of what is essentially a wet track.

CLUI photo

CLUI photo

There are about a dozen of these types of lakes in the region, most with more than ten homes along the shores, usually with docks, including: Silver Dunes Lakes, on Dune Road, set diagonally within its square property perimeter; Great Lakes, a water ski tournament lake with two parallel adjacent lakes; Wet Set Village, a single lake, with a waterski jump; and Cheyenne Lake, which is similar and next to the twin Sundown Lakes.

The second type of lake is more irregular in shape, and often has islands in the middle. They are meant to be used for a wider variety of watersports, in the middle of larger settlements (up to maybe 50 homes), such as at Lake Jodie, where counter-clockwise rotations are the rule, and a 35-mph speed limit, and only 5 boats at a time, please.

dry lake

Most of the man-made lakes and ponds in the Newberry Springs area have been allowed to dry out once their owners stopped maintaining them. CLUI photo

All told there are around 20 wet lakes in this valley, though many more have been abandoned, and have dried out. The lakes are inherently unstable, and need to be continuously maintained to ward off the desiccation that dominates the Mojave.

One notable victim of the forces of desiccation is Lake Dolores, on the north side of Interstate 15. It was developed into a recreational water park in the 1960s, with water slides and cement-lined ponds in addition to its large artificial water ski lake. Known over the years as the Discovery Water Park and the Rock-A-Hoola Water Park, it closed for the last time in 2004, and much of its recreational apparatus was sold and shipped off. After the security guards left, the park’s remains were transformed by passers-by, on this the “desperado highway” between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, into a blasted theme park ruin, a spray-painted skateboarder’s paradise, and a kind of anything goes open space, a manufactured and deconstructed dry lake.

former Rock-A-Hoola Water Park

The former Rock-A-Hoola Water Park at Lake Dolores is now a dry lake and a battered abandoned amusement park. CLUI photo

The Mojave River, meanwhile, continues eastward, between the interstates, a riverbed of dry sand above the pumped out aquifer. It enters Afton Canyon, a mountain pass, the second place where rocks squeeze the underground river to the surface, briefly.

On the other side of the canyon, the river splays out into a wide valley, at the bottom of which is the vast plain of Soda Lake, a dry lake bed that, during occasional flood events, serves as the terminal lake at the end of the Mojave River. There is little in the way of development on Soda Lake, just a few dirt roads across it, and the town of Baker, on Interstate 15 near its northern tip. On its western shore is Zzyzx, at the end of the alphabet, and the end of the Mojave River. ♦

the Mojave River

The Mojave River, a river of sand through the desert. CLUI photo