Nina Gordon-Kirsch in front of aqueducts in Antioch, which she passed on July 5, a week into her walk.
Nina Gordon-Kirsch in front of aqueducts in Antioch, which she passed on July 5, a week into her walk.

Jewish ‘water warrior’ walks 200 miles to trace the East Bay’s water source

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Where does your drinking water come from? Berkeley native and self-described “water warrior” Nina Gordon-Kirsch wants you to know.

This month, Gordon-Kirsch, 33, is walking roughly 200 miles from her home in Oakland to the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, the source of drinking water for most of the East Bay. She aims to call attention to the knowledge gap between urban residents and their water, a resource she says is taken for granted.

Joining Gordon-Kirsch periodically to document the journey are two Bay Area filmmakers: Julia Maryanska and Marielle Olentine. Maryanska is directing and Olentine producing a short film they plan to screen in public schools around the Bay Area.

“[My goal] is to bring awareness to water in this day and age of drought and constant fires,” Gordon-Kirsch said.

She set out on June 28 and expects to arrive at Highland Lakes, the source of the Mokelumne River, on July 29. The lakes sit at an elevation of 8,600 feet close to the top of Ebbetts Pass, a corridor through the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

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Trekking along trails, beside highways and through undeveloped land, Gordon-Kirsch is following the water’s route to the East Bay, where it is stored in reservoirs to provide drinking water to some 1.4 million residents. “I’m actually following the natural course that the water takes, not the human-built one,” she said.

Gordon-Kirsch originally intended to backpack to Highland Lakes, but a back injury changed her plan. While she walks she is followed by a support van that carries her camping gear, food resupplies and emergency medical gear.

Having wound her way around the San Francisco Bay, on Friday Gordon-Kirsch trekked through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. She plans to visit the Pardee Reservoir in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, where she will meet with rangers to discuss the role the reservoir plays in supplying water to East Bay residents. After that, she will enter what she calls “wild waters,” following the Mokelumne River to its end.

Her venture is both crowd-funded and privately supported. Gordon-Kirsch is an expert in the world of water. In 2012, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to study wastewater filtration in Israel and Palestine, eventually earning her master’s degree in hydrology and environmental science from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She has worked a variety of jobs in the water sector, monitoring water quality in reuse projects for the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and installing grey water systems for Greywater Action and Backyard Permaculture Guild, an East Bay collective that designs eco-friendly backyard gardens. For the past six years, she has taught a class on water resources to 12th-graders at the Urban School of San Francisco.

“I dream about living in a time when people are more connected to their water sources so that they can think more holistically about California water systems and what our state should do with our water,” Gordon-Kirsch said.

Marielle Olentine (left) and Julia Maryanska (right) are documentary filmmakers working on a film about Nina Gordon-Kirsch's (center) walk. (Photo/Brian Nguyen of CBS)
Marielle Olentine (left) and Julia Maryanska (right) are documentary filmmakers working on a film about Nina Gordon-Kirsch’s (center) walk.
(Photo/Brian Nguyen of CBS)

The documentary being made about the trek aims to bring these issues to a wider audience. Gordon-Kirsch plans to use it to instruct students about water systems — and get them asking questions. Maryanska, who worked as a photographer on another water walk project, wants the film to be screened  at festivals and other venues. It was Gordon-Kirsch’s passion that drew Maryanska to the project, she said, and she believes it will draw others as well.

“These issues are relevant everywhere,” Maryanska stated, “I think that, rather than have a flyby or a picture of a crowd, it’s always these personal stories that really stick with people. I think zooming in on a personal story is a really powerful way to relay an issue.”

The documentary will consist of both film diaries shot by Gordon-Kirsch on her walk and footage captured by Maryanska and Olentine. The filmmakers check in once a week to walk with Gordon-Kirsch and offer an outside perspective.

Gordon-Kirsch’s trek is not a lonely one. She walks with her dog, Petey, and occasionally a companion who joins her for a stretch. A flag she carries reads “Where does your water come from?” and passersby often stop to ask her questions. She has reconnected with her Judaism on the trip, she said, carrying the Tefilat HaDerech, or Traveler’s Prayer, with her. When she camps on private land, she invites her hosts to mark Shabbat with her, and creates clay hamsas they can display in their homes.

“I feel grateful to have my Jewish heritage to pull from to make offerings and feel safe,” Gordon-Kirsch said.

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.