Nina Gordon-Kirsch at Highland Lakes on July 29, 2022. Credit: Theresa Martin

Update, Aug. 10 Nina Gordon-Kirsch is back home in Oakland after her month-plus journey to the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, the source of most of the East Bay’s water.

Upon arriving at Highland Lakes, after 32 days of going upstream, Gordon-Kirsch said she “felt like a salmon.”

“My mom drank Mokelumne River water when I was in her womb, and I was created by this water,” she said. “To arrive there was like arriving at my birth place, my womb, home. It felt really powerful to be so humbled by these waters who gave me life, in a way like salmon do.” 

Gordon-Kirsch is still in the process of reflecting on and recovering from the arduous walk, during which she backpacked in over 200 AQI smoke coming from the still-active Oak Fire, hiked directly in the burn path of the Electra Fire (“I would brush some leaves or branches, and ash would puff out,” she said), and encountered rattlesnakes and black bears. 

She plans to take fall semester off from teaching to focus on developing curriculum and producing a documentary film to show in schools. She estimated that the film will take at least six months to finish, but added that the fate of the film rests on the success of her crowdfunding campaign

She said she is grateful to the Chochenyo Ohlone tribe, activist Corrina Gould, and the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust for giving her permission to walk on their land during her journey.

Nina Gordon-Kirsch, 33, a high school educator, walks through Oakland in the first leg of her journey to the Highland Lakes in the Central Sierra Nevada, the source of the East Bay’s water. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Original story, June 30 Berkeley-bred Nina Gordon-Kirsch departed Tuesday on a 240-mile walk from her home in Oakland’s Longfellow neighborhood to the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, the primary source of the East Bay’s drinking water.

Gordon-Kirsch, a 12th grade teacher, will be bringing a two-person film crew and hopes her journey will inspire students to think about issues of water conservation and reuse. The trek is her attempt to show “all the steps it takes” for water to arrive at our faucets. 

And so with one hand on her dog Petey’s leash and the other holding a canvas sign reading “Where does your water come from?” Gordon-Kirsch set off on day No. 1 of an expected one-month journey. The path, a mere warm up for the much more strenuous day packing she’ll soon be doing, included a relatively flat four-mile route from her home to Tom Bates field near the Berkeley Marina. 

She won’t follow the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s aqueducts precisely; our water comes down from the mountains in underground pipes and over difficult terrain, and there’s no easy footpath to trace its route. Instead, she will make her way along the San Francisco Bay, up the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, through the Central Valley, and along the Mokelumne River, and will eventually end up in the Highland Lakes in the Central Sierra Nevada, where the river originates. 

Map showing EBMUD’s aqueducts from the Mokelumne River Watershed. Credit: East Bay Municipal Utility District

Along the way, she plans to hike by several PG&E hydropower reservoirs and will, toward the end of her trek, meet what she calls wild waters — that is, parts of rivers and streams like the North Fork of the Mokelumne that are neither “owned or manipulated by humans” to use as drinking water or for hydropower.  

“[There’s a] pivotal moment in a water system when the water isn’t controlled by humans, so I’m excited for that moment … to meet the wild waters and just feel the energy,” Gordon-Kirsch said.

Gordon-Kirsch is a 33-year-old Berkeley High grad who studied wastewater treatment in Israel and Palestine as a graduate student, and has since cycled through a number of jobs in the water sector. She spent three years as an apprentice with Greywater Action before becoming a certified greywater installer. She’s also worked as a watershed aid at the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. For three years, she worked at REI as an outdoor school instructor, leading hiking, biking and kayaking trips.

Nina Gordon-Kirsch in her Oakland kitchen with her 8-year-old rescue dog Petey. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

During the school year, Gordon-Kirsch teaches a class on California’s water resources at the Urban School, a private school in San Francisco. She’s found that many people rarely think about where the water comes from when they turn on the tap. In fact, she didn’t know where the Bay Area got its water until she was 26, after she had received both an undergraduate degree in environmental science and a graduate degree in hydrology and environmental science.

Gordon-Kirsch’s “Home 2 Headwaters” project is her attempt to bridge these knowledge gaps and bring greater attention to Bay Area residents’ role within the larger water cycle, especially the need to conserve freshwater amid California’s current severe drought.

Ordinarily, 90% of EBMUD’s water comes from Pardee Reservoir, which is filled by the Mokelumne River. But by April, following a second dry winter in a row, EBMUD reservoirs were at 71% capacity. This prompted the agency to declare a Stage 2 drought, mandate a 10% water use reduction and prepare to purchase emergency water supplies from other sources, including the Sacramento River. 

“People have seen and believe the drought,” Gordon-Kirsch said. “Now it’s a matter of finding solutions and ways we can continue living in California and manage the drought. What do we do with our water resources to make that happen? What changes do we need to make?” 

As she spoke, showed off her luscious backyard, which includes a chicken coop and is filled with kiwi vines, apricot trees and an angel trumpet plant, among other plants – entirely watered with greywater (water that’s already cycled through faucets, showers or bathtubs).

Family and friends gather in Nina Gordon-Kirsch’s yard at the start of her journey. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

She said her project is inspired by Samantha Bode’s 2017 documentary film “The Longest Straw,” which traces Bode’s 338-mile long journey walking the entire length of the aqueduct that brings water into Los Angeles. 

Gordon-Kirsch originally intended to backpack the entire way, but due to a back injury had to alter her plans. She’ll instead be day packing, and will later be joined by her brother, Andrew, who will be serving as a safety liaison of sorts while she’s camping in the Sierra foothills. At other times, her friends and family members will help drop off camping gear and shuttle her across unnavigable areas. 

Those interested in tracking Gordon-Kirsch’s progress can follow her via GPS tracker throughout the month. 

Nina Gordon-Hirsch in her backyard. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Once she returns from her voyage, Gordon-Kirsch said she’ll be designing a curriculum that includes the documentary being filmed, informational papers and toolkits for teachers to use in classroom lessons about her journey.  

At the start of her journey on Tuesday, she was joined by several friends and family members, as well as her film crew. It was a lively occasion, and at times they even broke out in song.

“Water is our life/water is our lifeline,” they sang repeatedly, to the mild befuddlement of passersby. 

On an Emeryville sidewalk, Gordon-Kirsch called out to ask a woman whether she knew where water came from. “Honestly, not really, but maybe I should,” she replied. Gordon-Kirsch, delighted, eagerly handed her a flyer with a link to her project.

Danielle Ullendorff, a recently retired third grade teacher at Love Elementary School in Alameda, showed up to support her. 

“I had heard what she was going to do, and I was really taken with it,” Ullendorff said. “This is a big issue, especially in the Bay Area, with water shortage. She’s really walking the walk … people talk and talk, but nobody does anything, and I feel that she’s put her whole body and soul into something that she really believes in.” 

Filmmaker Julia Maryanska is part of the travel crew and will join Nina Gordon-Kirsch at different points along her journey. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...