From the Headwaters to the Tap

By Christopher Sindt

A story from the Wintu tradition goes like this: “Water says this, ‘Wherever you put me, I’ll be in my home. I am awfully smart. Lead me out of springs, lead me from my rivers, but I came from the ocean and I shall go back into the ocean. You can dig a ditch and put me in it, but I go only so far and I am out of sight. I am awfully smart. When I am out of sight I am on my way home.’”

Every bit of the water we encounter in our lives is in the midst of a cyclical adventure. Most storms that feed the water cycle in California begin over the Pacific Ocean. The ocean is heated by the sun, evaporation collects over this vast body of water, and a jet stream sweeps the moisture eastward over the land where it falls as rain and snow. Eventually this precipitation gathers in watersheds and, under natural circumstances, gravity pulls the water back down toward the ocean.

And so where in the California water cycle does Saint Mary’s College come into play? About 10 percent of Saint Mary’s water comes from local streams and drainage, but the remaining 90 percent delivered by the East Bay Municipal District (EBMUD) comes almost directly from the distant Mokelumne watershed, more than 100 miles away in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The headwaters of the Mokelumne can be pinpointed at Highland Peak, at an elevation of 10,934 feet, not far from the town of Markleeville. The flow begins as melted snow cutting through shallow, glacier-carved spillways before descending into deeper, v-shaped valleys lined with pine, fir and oak. On a given day, our water may encounter mayflies or mosquitoes, waterbugs and diving beetles, rainbow trout and Chinook salmon; in the canyons of the upper Mokelumne, the river may flow past a black bear or a spotted owl, a peregrine falcon or a golden eagle.

In 1929, the Mokelumne’s natural journey to the sea was radically changed when the Pardee Dam was completed to create the expansive reservoir of the same name. As the water descends past live oaks and fields of wild oats through the Sierra foothills and toward the great Central Valley, the main branch of the Mokelumne is led into the reservoir, about 50 miles from its headwaters and about 35 miles northeast of Stockton.

Pardee Lake now has a maximum surface area of 2,222 feet and 37 miles of shoreline. It has a capacity of 197, 950 acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is about 360,000 gallons). All of the water collected in the reservoir falls as rain or snow in the watershed east of the Pardee Dam.

The Mokelumne River water that is delivered to Saint Mary’s and East Bay households requires very little water treatment to meet health standards because it comes from the remote, mostly undeveloped watershed of the Mokelumne and is transported in steel pipes for most of its journey.

And here at the Pardee Dam, the water owned and delivered by EBMUD breaks away from any semblance of the natural waterway of the Mokelumne. Some of the water flowing into the Pardee is released into the Camanche Reservoir a few miles below, used for local consumption and irrigation, then directed westward until
meeting the San Joaquin River in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. EBMUD’s water begins a 90-mile, 40-hour journey in a southwesterly direction away from the river channel and across the fields of corn, wheat and grapes in the southern delta region of the Central Valley.

The water travels first through the Pardee Tunnel, a two-mile horseshoe structure that moves the water into the Mokelumne Aqueduct system near Valley Springs in Calaveras County. The Mokelumne aqueducts are three steel pipelines that transport the water past the towns of Holt, Bixler, Antioch, Pittsburg, Concord and Walnut Creek. The water moves in the imposing shadow of Mount Diablo, and then finally along to the Lafayette Treatment Plant near Lafayette Reservoir. From there, the treated water travels through a series of local water mains to Saint Mary’s, and the journey is complete.

But as the Wintu story reminds us, the journey is never complete, and water is always going home, no matter how many dams and diversions we put in its way.

Christopher Sindt is SMC’s associate dean of liberal arts graduate and professional programs. For seven years, he was the director of the College’s MFA in Creative Writing progam.