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Field Trips

History + Water + Nature = FUN

California Dept. of Water Resouces

Information about Free Educational Resources can be found here.

Review by Jeffrey P. Oakar

California is famous for its grand, majestic natural wonders, and the mere mention of places like Yosemite National Park, Big Sur and Death Valley can strike wonderful images of roaring untouched coastline, soaring mountain adventures, grand hiking trails and spectacular wild flower displays. But the nation’s largest state has some well kept secrets, and one of them may come as a big surprise. The California Department of Water Resources gives free family field trips that will educate homeschoolers about our state’s water system. Along the way, the tour passes through old historic farming towns along the banks of the beautiful Sacramento River and takes in a good part of the Sacramento- San Joaquin River Delta region. It will knock your socks off! Although well concealed from most of the public, a tour through this wonderfully diverse area will more than stimulate the heart and soul especially for those who want to learn something new about California. Homeschoolers will especially find the trip rewarding because it provides a fun way to learn about history, nature and ecology. Most importantly, visitors should come away with a new appreciation of the fact that water is our most precious resource and it should never be taken for granted or wasted.

California Dept. of Water
Click to visit CA Dept. of Water's web site

When I heard about this program, I decided to fly up to the capital and check it out for myself. The person to contact is Associate Governmental Program Analyst and Tour Coordinator Michael Miller at the Office of Water Education in Sacramento, and reservations must be made in advance. From downtown, we headed North on Interstate 5 dodging the huge semis and traffic until it came time to turn off and hit the back roads. I imagine that thousands of commuters pass by each day without a clue of the beauty that lies right at their doorstep. As we made our first turn off Interstate 5 down a small back road, Mr. Miller’s voice began to rise a few octaves with excitement. This was his territory and although he was intent on making the tour fun, he was also going to make sure that we understood and had a better grasp on just how important the Delta area’s system of water is to our everyday well being. The fact that the nations largest water supply is located in such a wonderful setting was an added bonus.

Before we go further, let’s cover some of the hard facts and history. This vast area is only one of two inland deltas in the world (with the second one being the Amazon River Delta in Brazil). The total area covers 770,000 acres and is spread out over Sacramento, Solano, Alameida and Contra Costa counties. Over 23 of the states 34 million residents are served by the system and much of the population in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernadino counties drink from the water that has passed through the system. European explorers originally settled in the area, with the Spanish harvesting winter wheat. However, mining soon dominated and the water system took a bit of a beating with riverboat traffic and pollution. When gold was discovered, some of the waterways were diverted and farmland grew out of areas where the soil wasn’t really right.

The first town we passed through was the old river port city of Hood, where you’ll find a real time water quality monitoring station. The station is important because it measures organic carbon levels and salinity amounts. As we continued along the banks of the winding Sacramento River, we passed by beautiful houses and pear plantations. Some of the older houses are majestic Victorian style mansions and are built on elevated structures designed for flood protection. In fact, the best way to tell which houses were more modern was to simply note the location. Most of the newer houses lie closer to the river and eschew the flood protection! Our next stop was Courtland, which grew out of the pear plantations and mining traffic. You can still find the grand old roman-style courthouse dominating downtown.

The main attraction of the first part of the drive is obviously the simple charm of small town life, but one of the key features that defines this part of the tour is the legacy left by the Chinese and Italian immigrants. After Courtland, you can continue on where you will find Locke. Here you can see traces of the Chinese and Italian influence. The architecture of the main street is pretty wild and many of the old wooden houses are leaning forward seemingly ready to tumble! It’s easy to imagine yourself in a Steinbeck novel. While each little town has its own individual character, they all share their history with the water and the rivers they straddle. Historically, these small towns depended on the gold and agriculture trade, and they served as docking areas for river transport up and down to San Francisco. If you closely pay attention, you’ll notice that there are poles that measure the water elevation for given years. Flooding was not uncommon back in those days and the effects were devastating. As you continue up Hwy 160, the tour will then snake through charming Walnut Grove and more pear and asparagus farms. Another small town you should definitely visit is Isleton, which was one of the last “Wild Wild West” frontiers. Check out how many churches there are for such a small place!

From here, the tour leaves the quaint towns and heads inward to the water projects. Visitors will not only get a bird’s eye view at what makes the Delta area tick, but will be lucky enough to get Mr. Miller’s expertise and humor. One of the most important areas we went through was part of the great levee structures. After the disaster in New Orleans, much of what we were told struck an extra chord as to just how important our levees are to our safety and the drinkablity of our water. According to Miller, the levees are very susceptible to tremors and a monster earthquake could cause breakage, flooding and catastrophic damage to the water supply. In addition, much of the state agriculture would be affected and our drinking water would be contaminated by salt water from the sea. Part of the problem seems to stem from that fact that state and federal politics continue to be reactive as opposed to being proactive, but Miller also said that the cost to fortify the levees would be huge.

Irregardless of this daunting fact, the area is absolutely beautiful. We continued on, crossing the Sacramento River into Rio Vista for lunch. Afterward we headed west again along the river to survey the landscape and make our way to the Skinner Fish Protection Facility. Here, the fish are filtered out of the water system by an elaborate array of screens and relocated back down the river to their original habitat. They are also counted and surveyed by species and the pumps will shut down if a certain endangered species is found to be close to the screens. The Delta’s rare species include such endangered fish as the green sturgeon, the Sacramento perch and longfin smelt. From this plant, we traveled up to our final stop. We actually followed the fish free water up to the Harvey O. Banks pumping plant. Here we got a fascinating view of the 11 huge pumps in the plant.

The tour is pretty long but extremely worthwhile. You will set out at about 8:30am and finish around 4:30pm and will include stops for a coffee break and lunch (at your own expense). Of course, with a journey so all-encompassing, water isn’t the only thing that homeschoolers will learn. Enjoy!

Contact Information: Michael Miller Office of Water Education, at (916) 651-6947, FAX (916) 653-4684, or e-mail:,

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