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March 23, 2012 > That's the Tuolumne in my tap!

That's the Tuolumne in my tap!

By Miriam G. Mazliach

A group of students at Chadbourne Elementary School in Fremont recently had a chance to learn where their water comes from, something most of us take for granted. The fifth grade class of teacher Dondi Lorenzana participated in a presentation by Paige Norberg, an Education Intern with the Tuolumne River Trust.

The focus of the Trust is "to raise awareness about ecology and water conservation, and to inspire a new generation of environmental stewards, ensuring the long-term health of the Tuolumne River and those who depend on it."

Mr. Lorenzana's class has been studying about water systems so when Norberg posed the question, "Where does water come from?" students were ready with a response of "rivers, lakes, aqueducts, spring water, underground, and rain."

Norberg explained that some of Fremont's water is received from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and more specifically, the Tuolumne River. "It's located in Yosemite National Park. The land is set aside so you can't build. You're not allowed to feed the animals, litter, cut down trees or hunt there. It's a protected area to visit," said Norberg.

Elaborating, she detailed the movement of the water from Mt. Lyell Glacier where Tuolumne River starts out at 13,000 feet high, and explained how it pours into the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to be stored for human consumption. In the Central Valley area, the Don Pedro Reservoir is used for agricultural purposes. The Tuolumne then continues and meets up with the San Joaquin River and flows into the Delta ending in San Francisco Bay.

Mt. Lyell is part of the watershed - an area of land where everything flows into a central body of water. To help the students understand this concept, Norberg had them participate in a fun hands-on activity in which each took a sheet of scratch paper and blue marker. They were told to crumple the paper into a ball then carefully unroll it, noting various higher and lower points created. "The valleys where they meet is the watershed," added Norberg, who asked students to use their blue marker to trace where their watersheds would be on their papers. She then proceeded to walk around the classroom with a spray bottle of water, squirting the blue markings, causing the ink to run and form rivulets of water - a lesson brought to life! Excitedly, the students took a few moments to examine their resulting designs.

"Tuolumne is also a beautiful place to visit," Norberg said, "with lots of recreational activities and inhabited by various animals that live there and depend on the water."

Two amphibians specific to the area are the Foothill yellow-legged frog and the Mt. Lyell salamander. Norberg explained that these are among the "indicator species," important to the area's ecology. Essentially, they "show and tell" us about the environment they are living in. If an animal population is up, all is well. If not, or if their particular population is declining, it could be an indication that the river is having environmental issues.

Also of integral importance to the region are: deer, foxes, mountain lions, cougars, otters, bald eagles, black bears and fish such as trout and salmon. They drink the water or live in it; some are carnivores (meat eaters), or herbivores that depend on the grasses as part of their food chain, or omnivores that eat plants and meat.

Norberg shared some interesting facts on the life cycle of salmon and trout. If rainbow trout can get past a dam and into the ocean, they become steelhead (stronger) trout. Due to their unique life cycle, if stuck behind a dam, they are prevented from becoming steelheads or reproducing. As for salmon, although spawned in fresh water, they also need to make the trek beyond any dams as part of their maturation, to seek the ocean salt water before returning and reproducing.

So how far does the water travel to reach our taps? Well, it journeys through 160 miles of pipe! And, of note, 60 percent of the Tuolumne River is diverted for agricultural and urban use through these pipes.

The whole idea of obtaining Tuolumne's water began back in the early 1900's when people thought Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Dam would be a great way to store water for the San Francisco area. However, naturalist John Muir and the Sierra Club, suggested that the valley should be protected at all costs, and opposed the plan. At the time, it was a controversial issue and remains as such but after the 1906 earthquake, which caused many fires, the argument for sufficient water prevailed. Congress gave its final approval to proceed in 1913. The Dam was named after its Chief Engineer Michael M. O'Shaughnessy.

The last part of the classroom presentation centered around water conservation efforts and Norberg discussed with the students what people can do to help, such as: using more efficient showerheads, low flush toilets, drought-resistant plants, and expanding natural resources, to name a few.

To follow up on this theme, and with a bit of role playing, several students from the class were selected to enact how various groups utilize the Tuolumne's water supply: a Central Valley family, plants and animals, a corporation, a Bay Area family and farmers. Each student was asked to read a brief script indicating which group he/she represented before emptying out an amount of water from a large bucket, to indicate how much of this resource was being used up.

Over 4,500 Bay Area fourth through sixth graders have participated in this free educational program, "That's the Tuolumne in my Tap," during the school year. To date, according to Karen Gardner, Bay Area Education Director for the Tuolumne River Trust, the organization has presented to 248 students in eight classrooms in Fremont, 231 students in seven classrooms in Hayward (with 155 more students in five more classrooms scheduled), 160 students in five classes in Milpitas and one class of 31 students in Union City.

Through visits such as the one to Chadbourne Elementary, the Tuolumne Trust aspires to enlighten the younger generation and bring about a greater understanding of the importance of preserving and conserving our natural resources. The non-profit organization, which focuses on education, policy and agriculture, is headquartered in San Francisco with offices in Modesto and Yosemite.

Funding for "That's the Tuolumne in my Tap" is made possible through the generosity of donors: the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, the Tellabs Foundation, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Symantec, Morrison Forester, Patagonia, Union Bank, and the Clif Bar Family Foundation.

To learn more about the Tuolumne River Trust visit, or call (415) 882-7252.

Photo Caption:
Education Intern Paige Norberg explains the watershed concept to the students and their teacher Dondi Lorenzana.

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