By Lauren Woodfill
Every morning, one of the first things I do is turn on the tap and fill a glass. Clean, clear drinking water comes bubbling out in a seemingly endless supply into my glass. It is easy to turn off the tap and walk away, sipping water but not thinking about the long journey the water took to reach my home.
Where does our East Bay water come from? The story begins a nearly 100 years ago and crosses nearly the full width of the state to provide water to East Bay cities in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
Those little drops that fill our kitchen sinks begin their journey as snowmelt in the Sierra Nevadas, melting to fill the creeks and watershed that feed the Mokelumne River. The Mokelumne River starts in the foothill of the Sierras to the south of Lake Tahoe. The Mokelumne River watershed drains over 2,100 square miles, including the high elevation crest of the Sierras at 10,400 feet above sea level. The upper watershed is mostly federal designated and protected land, including the Mokelumne Wilderness, and the Stanislaus and Eldorado National Forests. The name Mokelumne comes from the Miwok word for “people of Mokel”, likely a name of a nearby Miwok village. The area around the Mokelumne River has been inhabited by the Yokuts, Miwok, and Wintun Native American people for generations.
The Mokelumne River flows down from the headwaters to the Pardee Reservoir, which the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) created when they built the Pardee Dam in the 1920s. The water now makes the long, over 80 mile journey through the Central Valley in open air aqueducts. The three aqueducts bring the water to local reservoirs or to water treatment plants before being piped out to our homes and businesses. At the water treatment plant, chloramine and fluoride are added, chloramine to disinfect the water and fluoride for its benefits to tooth decay. And finally, the well traveled water flows into our sinks.
What is the significance of this journey? Water is a scarce resource in California, with people and agriculture requiring clean water to thrive. Over the past century, extensive infrastructure has transported massive qualities of water across our state and transformed the ownership structure of water and land, yet when I open my tap, this is invisible. The complex power struggles over water, over access, safety, and ownership is worth exploring, so we can more fully understand, and appreciate, the water in our tap.