California Water 2 of 7 600x400 Wet Your Whistle: Do You Know Your Water?

Nicole, Kim, Jeanne and I at the biggest earth dam in the U.S.


“Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.” ~~Noah Cross… Chinatown

While the east of the country gets pummeled by Hurricane Sandy and whole towns are devoured by tons of dirty, churning water, I cannot recall if we even had a few days of rain here in southern California since last winter. I remember the worried faces of Serbian farmers as they looked at the skies early in the morning this summer when I was there, shaking their heads in desperation, resigned to the fact that a few random clouds would disperse by noon and the cracks in the thirsty soil that did not see the rain in months would just get deeper.

But for us city dwellers, it takes a natural disaster to get us to start thinking about water as something different than a routine shower in the morning and a reliable stream that comes out from the state-of-the-art faucet in our custom-made kitchens. We take water for granted and it takes a tsunami in Java, the earthquake in Japan, and the disasters caused by Katrina and now Sandy to bring home the fact that water is our friend and our enemy. But the deep concern we feel is fleeting and we easily fall back to our old ways.

Most of us have become so distanced from the origins of our food, that we do not give a second thought to the relationship between the abundance of  produce in our grocery stores and water. So how does all of this work? California Farm Water Coalition has a motto: Food grows where water flows, and a few days ago I witnessed that in ways I had never experienced before.

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Glenn-Colusa Irrigation System

My consternation over noticing enormous fields flooded with water was dispersed when Bryce of Lundberg Family Farms assured us that the actual depth of water in rice fields does not exceed 5 inches, due to a layer of hard-packed clay underneath. The wetlands are not only great for suffocating the weeds, mulching the stalks, and germinating the rice seeds, but also they make for excellent wild bird sanctuaries which are often much better than the natural refuges. Between 300 and 400 different avian species find food and shelter in flooded rice fields.

We learned that all water is measured in acre feet (1 acre foot is the volume of water that would cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot; I am sure that my fellow Europeans, educated on simplicity of the metric system, will find it fascinating that there are 325,851 gallons of water in an acre foot – good to know if you ever end up as a contestant on Jeopardy!). Rice plants consume only 3.3 acre feet of water in their growing process.  It takes only 16 gallons of water to grow 1 serving (1 ounce) of rice, which is comparable to tomatoes and other vegetables.

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Feather River feeds the second biggest man-made lake in the U.S.

Driving away from the Sacramento airport, following the Sierra Nevada foothills, we stopped at Oroville Dam, the tallest earthfill embankment dam in the U.S. Built by the California Department of Water Resources, this 770 feet tall dam is a main feature of the California State Water Project , one of two major projects that  California’s water system consists of.  Construction started in 1961 and the dam on the Feather River started generating electricity in 1968. Oroville man-made lake is the second largest in the U.S. The river is fed by rain and snow melting off the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Besides generating power, the dam warms the water and regulates irrigation in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. When the reservoir is full, it contains three and a half million acre feet, which is enough to supply water for thirty million people.

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Glenn-Colusa District pump and fish screen in real size

The intricate irrigation system is what attracted many Midwestern farming families to migrate west and in retrospect it allowed California to prosper and offer the abundance of produce to the nation and abroad. Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District is the largest district in Sacramento Valley covering over 175,000 acres. The 65-mile long irrigation canal feeding off Sacramento River has over 900 miles of laterals and drains which provide water for agriculture only. That makes it possible for water to be used and reused over and over.

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Glenn-Colusa District pump system

To keep fish from entering the irrigation canals, fish screens were built back in the 1920s. With Chinook salmon being on the endangered list, the District had to reconstruct the elaborate system of screens, employing the U.S. Engineers Corps. To learn more about this project, click on the YouTube video link:

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Glenn-Colusa fish screens are the biggest in the country

To find out how California deals with water, where the water comes from, and how it is dispersed, visit Jolly Tomato and let Jeanne educate you. She has years of journalistic experience behind her and her two adorable sons motivate her to explore the origins of food available to us.

2 Responses to “Wet Your Whistle: Do You Know Your Water?”

  1. Fascinating post! Water is indeed a serious issue in California. We all need to know more about how our food and lifestyle choices impact the water supply.

    • Rachel, I also took water for granted, even though I patted myself on the shoulder whenever I turned the faucet of to save a few precious drops. This tour was an eye-opener!

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