Pruning the Parks: Millerton Lake Recreation Area, 1945-1957

Sailboats dot the surface of Millerton Lake in this 2003 photo by Kjkolb (via Wikimedia Commons).

Millerton Lake near Fresno, California is a 1940s era impoundment resulting from dam construction on the San Joaquin River for the Central Valley Project. The National Park Service administered Millerton Lake as a (National) Recreation Area from May 22, 1945, to November 1, 1957, and then turned it over to the state of California, which now manages it as the Millerton Lake State Recreation Area.

The “discards pile” of National Park System units includes a number of reservoir-based properties the agency shouldn’t have had and got rid of at the first available opportunity. California’s Millerton Lake, which was a national park for a dozen years, is a good case in point.

The San Joaquin River is the primary source of irrigation water for the southern part of California’s great Central Valley (and the Sacramento River is the main source for the northern part). In 1944, the Bureau of Reclamation completed the Friant Dam (proper name Friant Dike 1) on the San Joaquin River as part of the massive water redistribution system known as the Central Valley Project (CVP).

The CVP has various functions, but its main one is to move water from where it is abundant (the northern end of the valley) to where it is not (the southern end of the valley). This is mighty important, since the Central Valley is one of the most important agricultural regions on earth.

After the Friant Dam closed in 1944 and the impoundment reached full pool, Millerton Lake was in business. The main job of the dam and reservoir system was to store nearly 521,000 acre-feet of water, make some of it available when it was needed, provide 25 megawatts of hydroelectricity, and control downstream flooding. A fish hatchery is also on the premises, and there are two small hydropower facilities operating off the discharge that maintains minimum flow in the river.

The Madera and Friant-Kern Canals distribute impounded water to the San Joaquin Valley. The SJV, renowned as America’s leading cotton producer, is now a major producer of grapes, raisins, nuts (especially almonds and pistachios), citrus, vegetables, cattle, and sheep.

Every time I see this area, I marvel at what irrigation water can do for a place that has flat land and good soils. Historian Kevin Starr was probably not far off the mark when he called the San Joaquin Valley "the most productive unnatural environment on Earth.”

Creating the Millerton Lake didn’t just address water and electricity needs. It also produced an abundance of flatwater, 40 miles of shoreline, and a fine batch of reservoir-based recreation opportunities. This is what got the National Park Service involved.

By the mid-1940s, when the great western dam building boom was still gaining momentum, the federal government had gotten into the habit of thinking that managing the recreational resources of dam and reservoir systems in the western states was something that the NPS should do by default. America was on a war footing, too, and it was no time to be messing around with bold new directions in recreational resource management.

The Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that built the dam and reservoir system turned the management of its recreational resources over to the National Park Service through an administrative agreement signed on May 22, 1945. The Millerton Lake Recreation Area was now part of the National Park System. But it really shouldn’t have been, and the Park Service did not rest easy with that knowledge. This is a park that would be gotten rid of at the very first good opportunity.

That happened on November 1, 1957 when the NPS used a lease arrangement to transfer its recreation management responsibilities for Millerton Lake to the state of California. Had you been a fly on the wall in the NPS inner sanctum, you might very well have heard sighs of relief and a muttered (maybe shouted?) “good riddance.”

This is certainly not to say that Millerton Lake SRA lacks recreational appeal – far from it. It is rather to say that Millerton Lake was not, is not, and never will be of national park caliber.

Today, the Millerton Lake State Recreation Area is a popular destination for many thousands of recreationists. Accessibility is a prime asset. The SRA is situated in Madera and Fresno Counties just 15 miles north of downtown Fresno, California’s largest inland city (population 486,000).

Lake recreation centers on swimming, fishing, and boating, but the hills surrounding the lake provide good picnicking, camping, and hiking. The watchable wildlife includes such charismatic species as mule deer, badgers, and eagles (both bald and golden). During winter, the SRA even has special boat tours for viewing bald eagles.

To view an area map that shows Millerton Lake SRA and its major recreation facilities, visit this site.

Traveler trivia, no extra charge: Some of the boaters, waterskiers, and fishermen plying the lake surface may not be aware that the lakebed was the site of the town of Millerton, Fresno County’s first county seat. The original Millerton County Courthouse, built in 1867, is on the SRA premises.

Comments

Your article was very informative. I usually come to California during the summer and love spending my time at public parks. Your article really gave me a perspective of how beautiful Millerton Lake State Recreation is. I also have a website that focuses on public parks. Hope you have the time to check the site out. You can go here to go to my website.

To Whom It May Concern:

My ancester, Merritt S. Johnston was (I believe) the last superintendent of the Millerton Lake National park. He was transferred to Capulin Volcano National Monument Park on 11-12-1957. I was wondering if there would be stories /articles/photos of Mr. Johnston. He had worked at the Friant Dam in the early 1940's and had been an assistant superintendent at Yellowstone Park before coming to Millerton for one year...

I thank you in advance,

Carla Wittenburg-Porath

Emmett ID

California has a lot of dams built and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and managed for recreational purposes by the federal government or California State Parks.

Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area is rather strange since it's generally considered one park, but the management was divided into the Forest Service for Shasta, Lewiston, and Trinity Lakes, but NPS for Whiskeytown Lake. I'm not sure why, since all have a similar character and frankly all would seem to be NPS caliber areas. I'm thinking it was just a bone for the Forest Service so they wouldn't feel like their jurisdiction was being taken away. I think Whiskeytown was also never part of Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

I spent time in my youth visiting Lake Berryessa in Napa County. Reclamation actually operates the recreational uses directly. The same goes for New Melones Reservoir.

http://www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/berryessa/index.html
http://www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones/index.html

Folsom Lake is closer to urban centers, and Reclamation got into an agreement to have California State Parks manage it.

http://www.usbr.gov/projects/Project.jsp?proj_Name=Folsom%20and%20Sly%20Park%20Units%20Project