In this excerpt from The Water-Wise Home, author and Greywater Action cofounder Laura Allen writes that knowing where your water originates is a first step in conserving it.
I grew up with a neighborhood water supply in Northern California. An artesian spring filled a storage tank that fed a dozen houses on our country road. If a neighbor left the hose on all night, or if a pipe broke, the tank would run dry and we’d have to wait for it to refill. I knew where the water came from, and where it went — into the septic tank and leach line under the front lawn.
When I left home to go to college, it took four years for me to wonder where my new water supply came from. Thinking back, I find it ironic that I graduated with a degree in Environmental Science from UC Berkeley but had no idea where my drinking water came from. I’m thankful for that first water bill and the effect it had on me and my household.
It didn’t take long for us to learn where Oakland water originates: 93 miles away from the Bay Area is the Mokelumne River, the source of our drinking water. Snow melting in the Sierra Nevada mountains forms rushing creeks that cascade into the river. The first time I went to see my drinking river, I savored the beauty of the clear, cold water, shaded by bay and maple trees as it flowed quickly by.
A few miles downstream the river stops, blocked by the Pardee Dam. The river that resumes on the other side of the dam bears little resemblance to the one upstream. The water district has rights to divert 325 million gallons per day. From that day on, I saw the flowing Mokelumne River in my mind’s eye every time I turned on the tap.
So, where does your water come from — what river, creek, or aquifer? Many people are as ignorant of their water supply as I was. A recent Nature Conservancy poll found that 77 percent of Americans (excluding people using a private well) don’t know the source for the water they drink, cook with, and shower in.
Getting to Know Your Watershed
We all know our street address, county, and state, but few of us know what watershed we live in. A watershed encompasses all the land that collects and drains water to a single outlet, such as a creek or river. Our drinking water may come from within a local watershed or be piped from a distant one. Our homes can be part of both a local watershed and a larger regional watershed.
Rainwater flows off our roof and into the street, where it mixes with rainwater flowing from all our neighbors’ homes and enters the nearest storm drain, creek, or river. Everyday pollutants impact the health of our local waterways: oil and brake-pad dust on the streets, fertilizers and pesticides from our landscapes, all of these are washed into the creek after a rain.
Our local watershed may be connected to a larger watershed; the creek flows into a river, and into the ocean. In Oakland I lived in the Temescal Creek watershed, a culverted creek that flowed to San Francisco Bay. We were also part of the giant San Francisco Bay Delta watershed, which receives water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, encompassing 75,000 square miles. Nearly half the surface water that falls as rain or snow in the entire state flows through this watershed, with every home along the way impacting the health of the bay.
There are many ways to get involved with your local watershed. Watershed groups, beach cleanups, restoration projects, and creek groups are found all across the country. Creek hikes, sunsets at the beach, and strolls along the river are great ways to get to know the land and water. Websites of national organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will help you discover the source of your drinking water and connect with local watershed organizations. Also check out your own water district’s website to learn about the local supply and history of your water source.