Understanding How Our Water Works


Unlike geographical landmarks, water doesn't stay still. It rushes, curves and ripples. It sneaks under ground and bubbles up to the surface. Its changeability makes its effects on the environment sometimes difficult to grasp, so much so that I've started looking into the many tools available online to understand mankind's relationship with water. Here are three online resources that have provided a bit of illumination.

Rivers of any other name


Have you ever wondered why rivers are called marshes in places, but sometimes washes in others? Cartographer and designer Derek Watkins was similarly stymied. In answer to this question, he created a beautiful illustration of the different generic names the United States uses for its rivers.

Illuminated in bright green, neon yellow, aqua against a black backdrop, Watkins' illustration almost looks like a crayon etching many of us have done as kids. More than that, the map reveals how even our understanding of place is reflected in our immediate culture.

In his post, Watkins explains, the map, "illustrates the range of cultural and environmental factors that affect how we label and interact with the world."

Watkins' lime green-colored lines represent bayous that follow French settlement patterns along the Gulf Coast and Louisiana. The dark blue-colored kills in New York came from the Dutch colonial settlements of "New Netherlands." This is also where we get the name Catskills Mountains. Those that call their waters rio, arroyo, and cañada are colored orange. These names echo the influence of conquistadors. In the southwest, washes reflect the intermittent rainfall in the region.

Story continues below

Tracing your trash

Every year, Los Angeles groups organize clean-up days in its waters. If you have ever worked along the river and fished gunk out of the rivers, perhaps it's occurred to you to ask, "Where does all this trash come from?"

The National Atlas has the answer. The agency has released Streamer, a website that allows users to track where the water flows. As writer James Brasuell points out, it provides Californians a means to figure out where all that trash they find in the river comes from.

The site is easy to use. Simply zoom in to your desired location and click over the spot you wish to track. The site will automatically highlight its downstream path in red (see top image). For example, clicking anywhere on the Los Angeles River brings up a red line that ends down at its mouth in Long Beach. The site also accommodates tracking upstream. By highlighting the Los Angeles River, you can trace its origins to Verdugo Wash, Tujunga Wash, and Pacoima Wash up on the San Gabriel Mountains. The next time you're up on the mountains and spot a stream, just imagine those waters rushing out to the oceans. Like the blood running throughout our bodies, waters circulate throughout the earth crossing borders and negating any boundaries we may impose on the land.


Beyond the tap


For many of us, water is simply there at our command. We twist the handles on our sink and water rushes into our pitchers or pans. Pipes are buried all over the city and water flows without our notice, and sometimes to our detriment.

As Kelly Coplin of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) points out, "In California, 78 percent of residents do not know what the [San Francisco] Bay Delta is." Yet, it supplies about two-thirds of the state's water supply.

In the interest of transparency, NRDC has come up with a new tool that breaks down our water sources. In Los Angeles for example, if you're served by the Los Angeles Water and Power, only 12 percent of your water comes from local groundwater. About 71 percent of your water travels great distances, as far as Colorado, to get to your faucet.

The site also flags some water concerns that everyone with a household to run should be aware of. In Los Angeles, it warns that water drawn from the Colorado River and the San Francisco Bay Delta is already dwindling. It gives some additional information on how the city can become more resilient to droughts and water instability by becoming more efficient with their local water supplies. It also sends readers off to other informative sites that can help them take action.

Find out where your tap water comes from here.


We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes