California water story materials list

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A flat relief map of California showing major water routes

Map of major waterways of California (shows reservoirs, canals etc.)

Map showing rainfall by area (WCV-5)

2 maps of SF bay

books with maps in it

CA water map

Large blank map of CA (you use to illustrate main points)

Dry erase markers

Blank maps, one per student to fill in major waterways and topo features

Bottle of water/small cups

Tape/pins (for holding up maps)

Pens and pencils for drawing water pathways

Outlines of CA

Outlines with water on it and labels to place on them


FALL 1994 WC – 05

Nancy Lenihan


To understand the water supply of California and how it has changed over time


3 – 6


Tell the California Water Story: (If you do this as a station, you have about 20 minutes, as an introduction or closing you have 10 minutes, so you will have to decide how to modify this to fit the time allowed.)

DO: Hold up a bottle filled with water, it represents all of the fresh water available

in CA.

DO: Have a student pour some water into one of the small cups.

ASK: What does the cup represents? It is the amount of fresh water used by

individuals in CA; the remaining water is that used by agriculture (big amount) and industry.

DO: Pass out the blank maps of CA to each student. As you tell the story, students

are to fill in the geographic features and waterways. You will be able to use the large blank laminated map to fill in areas to illustrate what you are discussing and so the kids can follow along on their smaller maps.

SAY: Seventy percent of the earth is covered by water. The remaining 30% of the

earth's surface is land, and of that land 1/3 is covered by deserts.

A large number of people are living in areas where water is scarce.

Most of California is considered desert or semi-arid.

ASK: What does arid mean?

ASK: Where do Californians get their drinking water? (Wells, CA Water Project, Hetch Hetchy).

Where did Indians in CA get their drinking water? (streams, springs, lakes).

Have things changed? How? (land development, more people, dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, draining wetlands, ask students for their ideas.)

DO: California's natural water system consists of two main rivers and several mountain

ranges. Let's draw in our eastern-most mountain ranges named: Sierra Nevada and Cascade, and now the coastal mountain ranges.

ASK: Who knows the name of the river that runs from Shasta in the north to San Francisco Bay, passing our state capital (of the same name, Sacramento River)?
EXPLAIN: The other large river that flows in the valley between our mountain

ranges is called - San Joaquin - this river gives its name to the valley it flows through like its sister in the north: these two fertile valleys are - Sacramento and San Joaquin.

Hundreds of smaller rivers flow out of these mountains into these two large rivers. Let's add some of them. (Include the American River.)

There are two other rivers that play an important part in our water story. One of these cuts across the southwest corner of our state, after running through the magnificent canyon it created in Arizona. (Grand Canyon)

ASK: Do you know its name? Colorado.

DO: The other river flows through a small valley on the eastern side of the Sierra. This river is the Owens river and the valley is the Owens Valley. Draw it in.

ASK: For thousands of years the Ohlone and other Indian tribes lived in California. Where do you think they lived? In villages that rimmed the bay and other water ways. In our area, they constructed their boats from tules. They gathered acorns, shellfish and hunted a wide variety of wildlife. Some tribes farmed in Southern California and dug ditches to water their crops. Draw in villages.

DO: Then in 1769, the first permanent Spanish settlements were established in California. San Diego. Use a bell symbol to represent this and the missions.

EXPLAIN: In 1776, and the thirteen original colonies were declaring their independence from Great Britain, Juan Bautista De Anza reached San Francisco Bay with 247 colonists and founded Mission Dolores and the Presidio. (Draw in missions at San Francisco and Monterey.) The Spanish built missions all along El Camino Real (the King's Highway). They planted orchards, food crops and vineyards.

Their arrival marked the beginning of major changes in our water story. With the Spanish came cattle, horses, exotic (non native) grasses and plants. Our native bunch grasses were replaced by non native grasses which required more water, and became very weedy annuals as the cattle increased. The elk and antelope were hunted for food, but also for sport. Grizzly bears and wolves were hunted to extinction in CA. Why?

Then in 1849, something very exciting was discovered in California on the American River. That changed a lot of things. (Who knows what happened?) Near Sacramento, on the American River, gold was discovered at John Sutter's mill. The gold rush was on. Thousands of miners descended on California to comb the Sierra Nevada foothills seeking gold. At first the miners found chunks of gold, but later these fortune seekers built the state's first hydraulic works and reservoirs, and 4000 miles of ditches and flumes to sluice out the gold. They used huge hoses that they filled from the reservoirs and rivers to blast away the hillsides to get at the gold. Debris of rock, silt and mud washed down from the mountains, choked the rivers and washed in to the bay. All of this silt caused problems for navigation, plants and animals, as well as for down stream water users. A law was needed and was passed to stop this kind of mining. Soon the gold began to run out and became more expensive to mine. Some of the miners went home but many stayed on and sent for their families.

By 1900, huge numbers of people had come to California. More people meant more water was needed. Many of these people were farmers and a large farming industry was building up in the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys along the river. (Draw in Imperial and Cochella Valleys.) This land was very dry because rainfall was small and the weather hot (90 to 100+ degrees in the summer). (Draw in trees to represent farms.) Irrigating crops took a large amount of water and most of it came from the underground water supply (aquifers). How was that done? (Pumped from the ground and diverted from rivers and streams.) The Colorado River aqueduct was built to bring water from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley. The Valley was producing fruits, nuts, grain and cotton; the farmers needed more water. (Draw in Colorado Aqueduct.)

Los Angeles was also growing and a serious water shortage was inevitable. To solve the problem the City of Los Angeles bought all the land along the Owens River and constructed a pipeline that crossed 250 miles of mountains to LA. (The Los Angeles Aqueduct.) This was a very controversial project, and people in the Valley "shot it out," you could call it a "Water war." Lovely Mono Lake has been effected by having the Owens River water diverted. California continued to grow. Land, jobs and good weather brought more and more people. For every 400 people who came to California, 100 went north and 300 settled in the south. (Draw in population dots 3 to 1).

Remember that 75% of the rain and snow are north of Sacramento and most of the people (70%) live in Southern CA.

The population in the north was also growing. The East Bay Utility District was formed and San Francisco looked north for more water. The S. F. Bay is salt water and not a source of usable water. Where could they get more water? (The Sierras). A dam was built in a valley in Yosemite Park. Water coming down from the mountains from melting snow and glaciers created a lake in what was once a valley. Pipelines were built to carry water to San Francisco. This was called the Hetch-Hetchy project. Water deliveries were started in 1934.

In the opinion of the settlers, in the south the rainfall was not enough, but in the north it was sometimes too much. The farmers along the Sacramento River built levies to protect their land from flooding, and pumped water from behind these levies to reclaim land for farming. Farmland was created from natural swamps and wetlands. Dams and more levees were built to save Sacramento from devastating floods, and the Sacramento valley agriculture prospered.

The San Joaquin valley was running out of underground water. Salt water was seeping into aquifers and the salt caused crops to die. The U.S. Government built a high dam on the Sacramento River at Mount Shasta and built a canal that became the beginning of the largest aqueduct system in the world. (The California Aqueduct.)

By looking at your map of California you can see how much the people of California have changed the natural water supply, to bring water to people who need it.

We also have to import our water into Santa Clara Valley because we do not have enough. Santa Clara Valley is semi-arid. Do you know what our annual average rainfall is? (10 to 20 inches per year and often less.)

  • Most of the water in California is used for agriculture - about 80%.

  • California has the largest water transport system in the world.

  • All of California except the northern most areas import most of their water.

  • Southern California imports 80% of theirs (and much of that falls as snow in other states).

  • Dams provide water storage, hydroelectric power, flood control and recreation.


ASK: If you were going to say, in one sentence, what the water problem is in

California - what would you say?

What do you think we should do to keep our water supply adequate in the face of California's water problems?

The CA population keeps growing. Is this good or bad? What can be done to save us from not having enough water? Solicit thoughts and be sure to add that there are many answers. Point out that in the near future they will probably vote on measures or propositions that will affect their water supply. How will they make wise choices?


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