Water: Amazing new map shows the path of every raindrop that hits the United States – Pacifica Tribune

Water is like electricity. Most people don’t think about it much until it’s gone.

Now, as California and other Western states find themselves heading into a severe and worsening drought, a new interactive map is providing a breathtaking journey that shows where America’s water comes from and ends up.

The project is called River Runner. It allows anyone to click on any place where a raindrop would fall in the United States, and then track its path through watersheds, into creeks, rivers, lakes and ultimately the ocean.

“It has implications for where our pollution goes, and how everyone lives downstream of somewhere else,” said Sam Learner, a 27-year-old web developer who built the map in nine days using massive databases from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“People seem to be pretty surprised by how far water travels,” said Learner, who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “We are upstream of a lot of people. The way you take water out, or what you dump into it, affects other people. Our watersheds are really connected. The small creek near you eventually turns into the Mississippi River.”

The map —  located at river-runner.samlearner.com — zooms across detailed 3-D topography showing natural features, buildings, highways and other landmarks.

A few clicks reveals that rain falling on Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County flows 39 miles to San Francisco Bay. Rain that lands on farm fields in Gilroy has only 28 miles to travel down Llagas Creek to the Pajaro River to Monterey Bay.

But precipitation falling in other places takes an enormous journey, like the snow in Denver that melts and flows 2,400 miles to the the Gulf of Mexico, through the Platte River, the Missouri River, the Mississippi River and Louisiana bayous.

The water pouring over Yosemite Falls right now flows 243 miles from Yosemite Valley down the Merced River, through Yosemite National Park to the San Joaquin River to San Francisco Bay near Antioch before eventually flowing out under the Golden Gate Bridge.

A new website called River Runner, shown here on June 8, 2021, follows the path of every rain drop that hits the United States, including the route from Shasta Lake near Redding to San Francisco Bay. (https://river-runner.samlearner.com) 

Learner said hydrologists have been excited to see the open-source project, which he built as a hobby, and which went live last month. High school and college teachers have shown interest as well. Learner has built similar data visualization projects to show the extent of police misconduct in Philadelphia, evictions in Cleveland, high school sports participation nationwide, and campaign donations in the 2020 election.

He said he got the idea for the project while thinking about the famous spot in the Rocky Mountains that defines which direction water flows. “I was thinking about the Continental Divide and how water falling on the east side of it travels hundreds or thousands of miles, and what that looks like. As I started looking at it, I realized I could really expand the project.”

Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, said the maps can help the public gain a better understanding of how watersheds and water systems work.

“I often hear people in the water profession say things would be a lot easier if people knew where their water came from,” Lund said. “Most of us don’t know where our water came from and where our water goes.”

“When you flush your toilet, where does it go? When rain runs off your roof, where does it go? When your house gets flooded where does it go?” Lund said. “These maps are just beautiful. You can see the extent of the cities, the remaining forests, the huge extent of agriculture, and how water fits into all of it.”

Watershed1 MtHamilton
A new website called River Runner, shown here on June 8, 2021, follows the path of every rain drop that hits the United States, including the route from Mount Hamilton east of San Jose to San Francisco Bay. (https://river-runner.samlearner.com)