California: A Desert in Disguise

California: A Desert in Disguise

Use this map to teach students about water availability and usage in the California watershed.


5 - 8


Earth Science, Geography, Physical Geography

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Idea for Use in the Classroom

Explore California’s watershed by first analyzing precipitation patterns using the Supply map. Have students use the map key to identify geographical areas with the highest and lowest mean annual precipitation. Students can use this desert encyclopedic entry to estimate how much of California classifies as a desert. Focus on specific areas by using the map and chart to compare average and monthly precipitation levels between Palm Springs and Eureka. Direct students to the Delivery map and review how to read a topographical map. Students can identify trends between both maps and then use their observations to propose reasons for similarities and differences in precipitation between locations. Have students use the Delivery map to describe how drier areas, like Palm Springs, receive nonprecipitation water supplies.

Next, read through the Supply, Delivery, and Use sections. Identify the units used to measure water as acre-feet and explain that one million acre-feet of water is enough to cover a football field-sized area under one foot of water. Students can reference the Use map to identify which area uses the most total water. Then have students compare water usage (agricultural vs. urban) for different areas to highlight how much water is used for agriculture. Based on their analysis, have students discuss why California is sometimes referred to as a desert in disguise. Encourage students to cite evidence from the maps to support their claims.

Finally, challenge students to propose a fourth map visualizing some aspect of California’s watershed. Proposals should include how data would be visualized and why this information might be useful.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 18, 2024

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