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Thirsty to know where her water comes from, CA Jewish activist hikes to its source

Thirsty to know where her water comes from, CA Jewish activist hikes to its source thumbnail

On June 28, Nina Gordon-Kirsch picked up her backpack, opened the door to her Oakland, California, home and started walking. The 33-year-old activist and teacher was curious: When she turned on the faucet in her house, where did her water come from?

To answer her question, she decided to trace the route of her water — on foot — from the faucet in her kitchen to the headwaters of the river that supplies her city’s drinking water.

“As a young person in California, I never thought about my water, even though it’s the arid west,” said Gordon-Kirsch. “It always just came out of my tap. I never thought about where it was from.”

After 33 days of walking more than 240 miles (386 kilometers) propelled by pounds of fresh-picked blackberries, free ice cream, Gatorade from strangers, and a lot of conversations about infrastructure, drought, and water systems, Gordon-Kirsch arrived at the Highland Lakes in the Sierra Nevada mountains — the headwaters of the Mokelumne River.

“People asked me, ‘Why are you going uphill? Why not do it with the flow of the water?’” Gordon-Kirsch recalled.

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“But going uphill slowed me down. I was able to walk and be in relationship with the water, not be moving fast or thinking fast. My whole day, for 33 days, was just walking and singing next to a river. It allowed me to just open myself and be in a much deeper relationship with this water,” she said.

Nina Gordon-Kirsch hikes near Salt Springs in California on July 14, 2022. (Courtesy/ Sky Richards)

A dried-up relationship with water

Gordon-Kirsch first started thinking about “walking her waters” five years ago. She was inspired by a similar journey made by Samantha Bode, who filmed the documentary “The Longest Straw” about her backpacking trip tracking the aqueducts that provide Los Angeles with drinking water from Mono Lake.

“The relationship that we currently practice on a day-to-day basis with water feels broken,” said Gordon-Kirsch.

Despite being raised in an environmentally conscious family in Berkeley, California — one of the most environmentally conscious cities in the United States — Gordon-Kirsch had no idea of the journey the water took before coming out of her tap.

“I thought to myself, ‘How am I so disconnected? How did that happen?’… I didn’t even know how to say ‘Mokelumne,’” she said, referring to the river that supplies her city with water.

Nina Gordon-Kirsch and poses with her film crew, Marielle Olentine and Julia Maryanska, on the first day of her trip on June 28, 2022. (Courtesy/ Brian Nguyen)

The more she learned about water systems, the more she saw her own disconnect amplified around her — no one, not the green activists in her circle, or the wider community in the Bay Area — knew where their water came from. That disconnect, Gordon-Kirsch said, makes it easier for people to ignore water issues and treat water as a limitless resource.

Right now, people look at water as a “commodity to be manipulated,” she said. California is currently in the midst of the worst drought the state has seen in the past 128 years of record keeping. More than 40 percent of the state is in extreme drought, with 58 counties under disaster designation. Previously in human history, people were painfully aware that a drought meant no water. But today, water continues to flow out of the tap in California households despite the emergency. Due to this, despite knowing about the drought, people have a hard time internalizing it, Gordon-Kirsch explained.

“I don’t see this as a long-term sustainable way to be in a relationship with water. If we want to have water on a day-to-day basis, what needs to change?”

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Flowing from Israel to Oakland

Although Gordon-Kirsch’s journey is about the path of the California river that leads to her hometown, it was the Middle East that first caused her to ask questions about her own water system. Starting in 2012, Gordon-Kirsch spent three years in the region doing water systems research. She spent a year as a Fulbright scholar working with environmental activist Alon Tal, currently a member of Knesset with the Blue and White party, and a team of Israeli and Palestinian researchers.

Nina Gordon-Kirsch finished her 240 mile walk on July 29, 2022 in Highland Lakes, California. She said finishing the trip made her feel ‘like a salmon coming home.’ (Courtesy/ Theresa Martin)

Her team researched whether the wastewater recycling process removes plastics and hormones from water that is reclaimed for agriculture. The project focused on both Israeli and Palestinian wastewater recycling processes, and because Gordon-Kirsch could enter Palestinian territories that are not open to Israelis, she worked frequently in cooperation with Palestinian researchers to gather samples from the field. Afterward, she stayed for a masters degree at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, studying hydrology and environmental science.

Israel leads the world in wastewater recycling, reclaiming approximately 90% of water for use in agriculture and industry. California recycles 23% of its wastewater, much higher than the rest of the United States, which currently recycles less than 1% of all water. For Gordon-Kirsch, the research was eye-opening because of the different approaches to water and Israel’s approach to squeezing every last drop out of the precious resource.

“Living in the Middle East had me thinking about not how fragile water is, but how water is so important and something could happen to that resource at any time,” she said.

Bringing the river to the class

After returning to California, Gordon-Kirsch started working on installing greywater systems in peoples’ homes, allowing them to recycle water locally, and teaching about water systems at the Urban School in San Francisco.

Because the Urban School is a private school, it has the resources to take the students on trips to see where their water comes from, something that Gordon-Kirsch said is incredibly impactful for the students. Previous students have told her years later that the course inspired them to study water hydrology or environmental science in college.

But Gordon-Kirsch wanted to bring that same connection to public schools that don’t have the resources for those field trips.

“Those two pieces came together, it felt like, ok, I could walk my waters, and let’s bring the river to the class,” she said.

Gordon-Kirsch is now working on fundraising an additional $50,000 to allow the film producers, Marielle Olentine and Julia Maryanska, to edit two versions of the film. They hope to make one 25-minute version for students that will fit into a 50-minute class period, and one longer version to bring on the documentary film festival circuit. She’s also working to develop a curriculum for teachers to accompany the film.

A community to walk with

When Gordon-Kirsch first envisioned her water walk years ago, she assumed she would carry all of her supplies on her back, as she was accustomed to doing after years of leading Outward Bound backpacking trips. But a herniated disc last year and long recovery process made her understand that if she wanted to walk this route, she’d need to ask for a lot of help.

Instead of carrying supplies herself, she coordinated with an army of friends and supporters who ferried her gear from campsite to campsite in a van. In areas of the river that were inaccessible by road, friends joined for a backpacking trip and carried most of the weight. Her dog, Petey, also joined for some stretches, though emergency surgery before the trip kept him from accompanying the full route.

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In the end, Gordon-Kirsch said, having to ask for her community’s help was both humbling and spiritual, and she felt buoyed by their support along the way.

“What I see now, post-journey, is that we built community for the walk, and each of the people who were involved were touched by this story,” she said. “It was so hard to ask for so much help, but it brought in more people. And those people told their people, and the ripples just go out from there.”

Nina Gordon-Kirsch with her trusty flag on day 3 of her hike on June 30, 2022, near Oakland, California. (Courtesy/ Theresa Martin)

Gordon-Kirsch also reached out to the leaders of the indigenous tribes who were the original owners of the land she walked, including the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, receiving their blessing and permission. Some leaders asked Gordon-Kirsch not to photograph specific areas which are considered holy.

As she moved from each tribal area to the next, she left an offering on the land to say thank you — a hamsa, or palm-shaped amulet from the Middle East that is a symbol of luck. Malcolm Margolin, a Jewish scholar and activist in California who has been involved with many indigenous empowerment initiatives, encouraged Gordon-Kirsch to find a way to incorporate her own Jewish roots into the spiritual journey, and her choice to make an offering of a hamsa was part of that effort.

Saturday was always the time when Gordon-Kirsch took a break from walking, which meant she was always looking forward to Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Her journey, too, ended on a Friday afternoon, and dozens of friends and family members gathered at a campground near the headwaters for a community Shabbat full of stories and reflection.

The waters were there to give and receive

Gordon-Kirsch hopes her journey and the film about it will inspire more people to ask themselves where their water comes from and to rethink their own relationship with a resource that is essential for human life. She also hopes that people might start to build a more spiritual appreciation for the bodies of water that support their communities.

“I feel so grateful to the waters, during my whole journey the waters were there to give and receive,” said Gordon-Kirsch, speaking from her home in Oakland during an unseasonable summer rainstorm that provided a brief respite to the punishing drought.

Nina Gordon-Kirsch and two others using the natural waters of Highland Lakes as a mikveh, or ritual bath, at the end of her journey on July 29, 2022. (Courtesy/ Sky Richards)

Many faiths have a spiritual connection to water. Water is sacred to indigenous tribes, Christianity has baptism and holy water, Muslims wash before prayer, and Jews have the tradition of ritual purification in the mikveh, or ritual bath.

Surrounding the Jewish New Year, many Jews participate in the ritual of tashlich. Tashlich is about casting sins from the previous year into a moving body of water, and is sometimes symbolized by tossing bread crusts, though increasingly there is a movement towards throwing pebbles to avoid adding contaminants to water.

Illustrative: Los Angeles Temple Knesset Israel community members gather on the first day of Rosh Hashanah to recite the Tashlich prayer. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

When Gordon-Kirsch thought about doing the ritual this year, she started to cry.

“For tashlich, it feels like, how beautiful that the waters are willing to take my yuck away, to be the receptacle of what I want to get rid of,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to put my yuck on a person or put in the earth somewhere that’s stationary, but the water is fluid.”

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“Water is in constant motion, and that allows for water to continue to feed me and relieve me of what isn’t serving,” she added. “There were so many times when I needed to let go of something, like I had a really hard day but I needed to keep moving forward, and the river would say, ‘Give me what you don’t want to hold, and I will float it away from you.’”

Who knows where their water comes from?

The journey included moments of sublime beauty interspersed with hardship. Gordon-Kirsch tried to stay true to the route of the river, meaning she did not follow a hiking trail or established route. Day 12 was Gordon-Kirsch’s lowest point, trudging through private property as the temperature in the Central Valley soared to 105 degrees.

“I was walking on private property, trespassing over fences and barbed wire and gates,” she said. “I was so afraid, my nervous system was through the roof with anxiety, thinking, am I going to get shot? Are people going to call the cops on me?”

But when she stepped into the river to cool off, all of those worries melted away. Rivers cannot be private property in California, so as long as she was in the river itself, she wasn’t trespassing.

“The beautiful thing about California law is that if I was floating in the water, I’m okay, no one can call the cops on me, so I’d just be soaking up this relaxation before putting my shoes back on and stepping onto the bank,” Gordon-Kirsch said.

Nina Gordon-Kirsch and friends finish the first day of her hike on June 28, 2022 in Berkeley, California. (Courtesy/ Theresa Martin)

The most stunning part of the trip was a four-day backcountry stretch in the north fork of the Mokelumne, an area so isolated it’s not even named on the map.

“We were in this remote river canyon, and the river was so wild, there were green and turquoise pools of water with so many waterfalls,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many waterfalls while backpacking.”

Even when the vistas were less scenic, when she was trudging along a rural highway next to a stagnant reservoir with the sun beating down, Gordon-Kirsch took solace from the conversations she had with people along the way. She carried a flag that asked “Do you know where your water comes from?” and tried to engage people she met.

One thing that surprised Gordon-Kirsch is that in rural areas, many people knew exactly where their water came from because they were not connected to large water systems and maintained their own wells.

“They know where their well is, the well’s level, and they monitor their well for any contaminants,” she said. Because it wasn’t provided to them, they had a much closer relationship with their water, keenly aware of dropping water tables and droughts.

But in the larger towns and cities she walked through, most people had no idea. On her first day, walking along the well-trafficked Bay Trail that hugs the shore in Oakland and Berkeley, an exuberant Gordon-Kirsch tried to flag down a woman exercising who didn’t look too keen on having a conversation.

“I asked her, ‘Do you know where your water comes from?’” Gordon-Kirsch recalled. “She kind of ran by me, but then she turned around and said, ‘I don’t, but maybe I should.’”

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