Water is something you come in contact with every day. All you need to do is turn the knob on the faucet and you have access to as much clean water as you need. This is not ground breaking news. City, state, and town municipalities have worked diligently for years to provide residents with a constant, healthy supply of water.
My name is Gitte Venicx, and I am a program manager for Earthwatch. I recently traveled to California on a new Earthwatch Expedition, The Riparian Zone: Protecting California’s Rivers, to work with Drs. Josh Viers and John Williams. They are studying the rivers in the California Delta region and how we can manage the land surrounding these rivers to maintain a healthy watershed.
Arguably the most controversial water system
Before getting my hands dirty in the field, I felt compelled to learn about the bigger picture of water and the issues facing it within the state. I was amazed to find hundreds of advocacy groups, researchers, government agencies, conservationists, and land owners with a passion for this issue. Clearly, I was only going to have time to scratch the surface of water in California – including the players involved, and the concerns of each party.
The basic situation is that the vast majority of naturally occurring surface and ground water is in the northern part of the state, while the demand for water is in the southern part. In response to this dichotomy in supply and demand, the state has built a series of dams, canals, and aqueducts to bring water to areas that need it. The predominant use of water is actually not for the residents in its cities and towns (which is the second highest use), but to support the state’s agricultural production. Agriculture is the primary industry throughout most of the Central Valley; it has even gained the nick name as the Fruit Basket and Salad Bowl of the US. This is exactly the region where I was headed.
Life in the California Delta
When you look at a map of California, there is a dark green swath nestled between the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Coastal ranges. This is the Central Valley. Within the valley there is a place where many rivers come together to form a delta, the California Delta. The tracts of land, surrounded on all sides by rivers and levees, are called islands, and are covered with row upon row of fruit trees, grape vines, and vegetables. The flows of almost all the rivers are regulated by a series of dams and locks to provide a consistent flow of water and reduce flooding. By controlling the water and setting this strict divide between the river and the land the natural process of rivers responding to storms by expanding into their floodplains is prevented.
If this isn’t happening, what are we missing out on?
This unique and critical habitat is known as the riparian zone. The rising storm waters bring in seeds and provide the water needed to awaken the ones that were blown in by the wind. This natural filter between the river and land provides a home for birds, such as the iconic Sandhill Crane, bees and butterflies that are essential to pollinating farms and wilderness, and fish, like salmon who seek cool rapidly flowing water to spawn. Organizations like The Nature Conservancy and scientists like Dr. Viers and Dr. Williams are working to actively restore tidal wetlands, floodplains, and riparian habitats.
I helped our researchers to measure plants, observe and record birds, and capture and identify pollinators to quantify the health of these ecosystems. This is a process that they will continue to do throughout the region and over the course of restoration. This data will help to decide how habitats will be restored in the future, and provide a convincing argument for restoration efforts to come.
It’s your turn
You have heard my journey to learn about water in California. I started with the challenge of reconciling supply and demand between the north and south, discovered a wealth of people concerned about water, found an agricultural region dependant on water to supply us with food, and traveled to the Delta to understand riparian habitats and why they are important. Now I challenge you to find out where your water comes from and the other lives it is sustaining.