Pardon me, do you have a minute to talk about water? I really think this conversation is long overdue. When you turn your tap, have you ever considered where the cool clean miracle that comes out of it came from? Go ahead. Get a glass. Fill it up and take a drink. Feel it slip down your throat and become part of you.
Thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act, we in the United States have the right to know where our drinking water comes from, and what exactly is in it.
Tap water is a blessing. Water is a gift from the earth and the sky. Tap water in the United States is more rigorously tested than any bottled water, and it is available to all. It is subject to laws that are getting better and better at using it sustainably, for the good of all while bottled water is a product of profitmaking companies, who take without any thought for the amount, and the effect on the land they take it from. That pretty picture on the label is likely a lie. Major brands like Aquafina (Pepsi) and Dasani (Coca Cola) are basically tap water. Spring water is not required to come from a spring to bear that label. These companies are damaging the land I live in, and our already overstressed aquifers. They are doing this all over the world. There is a campaign in my state, as a matter of fact, to get people to trust and drink tap water. The idea that it isn’t safe is yet another set of lies by companies who want to sell us water filters and–you guessed it–bottled water. I won’t go into the waste and hype any further here because that isn’t my main point, and the information is readily available. I hope I’ve inspired you to go and seek it out for yourself because it is an illuminating exercise.
Where does your tap water come from? Mine comes from the Mokelumne river and is stored in Pardee Reservoir. From there, the trail back to the source leads to the Sierras, and the snowmelt that feeds the river. The water that runs from my tap is piped from the reservoir, and across the Central Valley to Oakland, where I live.
The story darkens from here. Pardee Dam was built in 1929 to supply the fast-growing East Bay with water. In the process, the salmon runs were forced downstream. The downstream Camanche Dam was added in 1963. The fish managed to make the adjustment at first, but now, between population growth, destructive water management practices and climate change, the salmon and steelhead runs are nearing extinction.
Mokelumne is a Plains Miwok word meaning “people of the fishnets.” Their connection to the river and their means of existence are encapsulated in that name that we don’t think about. The people were long gone before the dams were ever built, having been removed to the missions. There are few left today. The Ohlone, of which the Miwok are a part, are not federally recognized tribes, and live on meager allotments while they fight for recognition. Their ancestral waters have thus been appropriated for our use.
All this information flowed from one simple question: Where does the water I drink come from? Now my questions are many, and answers few. What can I do to help the salmon? To support the people who have lost their river and their way of life in their quest for recognition? The other Native Californians who deserve recognition, and respect? What are their land spirits, and how can I respect them as well? Scattering tobacco and saying thanks is nice, but it doesn’t change anything for the people and the land, it only means I have manners.
I don’t know any of this yet, and I do know that respect for water is only a beginning. I know that connection to this land that I live in is something that begins with simple things like knowing where my water comes from, using it with awareness of its scarcity, and not wasting it. Knowing the plants and animals that share this land with me, and respecting the people who took care of it before I was born is not only manners, it makes my own life more meaningful. I know that the more of us who do so, the richer our lives will be, and the more likely it is that we will find ways to make connections that will bring us together in truth. Together we can pass the land to the future in better condition than we received it.
I began this post with a simple way to appreciate and connect to water. Here’s a more challenging way to do it in my area. On a hot day go to the hills, where in my tradition, Lugh reigns right now. Walk in the heat and the dust, smell the dry, golden grass all around you. Touch the powdery dry bark of the live oaks and feel their waxy leaves. Listen to the hum of heat, and feel your own sweat run down your body as you hike in the heat and glorious sunshine. Feel yourself getting parched and overheated. At the top of a hill, where you can see the glorious Pacific, or San Francisco Bay spread out before you, open your pack. In it you have packed a water bottle, wrapped against the heat, beaded with condensation and filled with cool water. You won’t be able to resist running that bottle over your body, holding it against the back of your neck, feeling the beads of moisture on your skin, cool and wonderful. Hold it in your hand and open it, and when you drink, you will feel every molecule of coolness as it slips down your throat and becomes part of you. You will feel every cell in your body open to the giver of life, the gift of California’s rains and her living heart, depending on where this water you drink comes from.
When you go home, take a shower, wash yourself clean, and think about the miracle we all have installed in our homes; an ever flowing waterfall, that runs at any temperature we choose. What has it been? Seventy years or so since showers became a regular part of our lives? We are so wealthy. We would do well to appreciate what we have, and give thanks for it.
What is the story of water in your land?