While many a poet has opined on the beauty of its emerald translucence, the South Yuba River is too mercurial to be pigeon-holed into one static scene.
According to the season, the river can turn muddy, brown and torrential and balloon into a destructive flood, while its gentle flow also can coddle the recreational swimmer looking to beat soaring temperatures in the swell of summer.
Equal parts destroyer and source of inspiration and creativity, the river is the most distinctive aspect of this particular region of the Sierra foothills, adorning the covers of countless magazines and travel brochures and photographs hanging on the walls of area restaurants and shops.
No matter the political stripe, religion, gender or other point of differentiation, western Nevada County has aligned in defense of the South Yuba River, asserting the need to protect it from the encroachments of development, overuse, litter, environmental hazards and other dangers.
For the past 30 years, the South Yuba River Citizens League has emerged as a guardian of the beloved Yuba.
The organization sprung from an effort to halt a series of dam proposals that would have significantly altered the river landscape often taken for granted, with its evolving charter centered on keeping the river canyon as pristine as possible for a place that receives nearly a half-million visitors annually.
Today, we explore SYRCL’s eventful three decades of existence, along with detailing the several prongs of its current mission, as it has morphed from once stopping dam efforts to restoring salmon into the upper reaches of the Yuba River watershed.
If not for a loosely associated band of environmentalists that began informally meeting to oppose the construction of two dams on the South Yuba River, the carved canyon that runs through western Nevada County would likely look vastly different.
“Without SYRCL, you would have a brown muddy series of reservoirs,” said SYRCL Executive Director Caleb Dardick. “We would have lost all the sparkling pools, the waterfalls. The sound of water falling off of rocks, the natural waterslides, the big beautiful warm boulders that heat us up after we crawl out of the cool water would all be submerged, muddied and lost without SYRCL.”
SYRCL was formed in 1983 and Roger Hicks, who quickly rose to the forefront of the organization and acted as its spokesman and president during its early years, said the beginning was marked more by good intentions than competent follow-through.
First, it’s important to understand the energy climate and how the reverberations of global economic and energy trends threatened to significantly impact comparatively provincial western Nevada County.
In the 1970s, civil and political unrest in the Middle East, which delivered much of the oil that fueled North American economies, caused a widespread energy crisis that witnessed soaring petroleum prices, prompting steep recessions in most regions of the United States. To counter dependency on imported sources of energy, the United States Congress ratified the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, which was designed to promote greater use of domestic renewable energy, including hydropower.
An unintended consequence of the law, which provided tax credits to investors on renewable energy projects, was the creation of a climate where monied investors raced to establish hydroelectric plants throughout the nation and particularly in California.
“It was a gold mine for private investors,” Hicks said.
Consequently, a San Francisco-based energy company called Northwest Power proposed the construction of two hydroelectric dams on the South Yuba River, one at the popular recreation destination, Hoyt’s Crossing at the Highway 49 bridge, and another two miles upstream at Excelsior Ditch.
In 1983, Vince and Mary Haughey, Linda Miller and Vince Ferry began meeting to protest the project.
However, when Hicks, who is a physician, completed his degree in Sacramento and moved to the Nevada City area in 1984, he found the group lacked cohesion and organization, missing a critical deadline to file a formal protest with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which authorizes licensing relating to dam hydroelectric projects.
Hicks then assumed the helm as the leader of what would become the South Yuba River Citizens League and along with local attorney Joe Bell, began a full frontal attack on the Northwest Powers dam proposal.
At the time, the two proposed dam sites were owned by California State Parks, but the area had yet to be fully minted as a formal state park.
“Northwest Power was set to use eminent domain,” Hicks said. “Now, I was in opposition to this because eminent domain always meant to take private land for the public good, whereas this proposal would’ve taken public land for private profit. It was a total perversion.”
Bell and Hicks piggybacked on the Sierra Club’s formal protest of the dam proposals, wrote letters alleging the company failed to follow environmental protocol relating to its proposal and began SYRCL’s characteristic effort of mobilizing the community’s love for their scenic river to accomplish specific political goals.
“Very quickly, I became the spokesperson,” Hicks said. “The meetings were at my house and the first bumper stickers had our phone numbers printed on them.”
The story of the first 16 years of SYRCL is largely one of persistent and dogged attempts to prevent the South Yuba River from being dammed. After Northwest Powers’ proposal, several more proposals were floated, including one by Nevada County, which sought to cash in on the same fiscal benefits being offered by PURPA that others noticed.
Hicks and his cohorts quickly realized the only way to prevent ceaseless and onerous fights with various private and public agencies seeking to establish lucrative hydroelectric projects on the river was to secure permanent protection for the Yuba.
The straightest path toward protection was via a piece of environmental legislation called the National Wild and Scenic River Act, which sought to preserve rivers that possess “remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic or other similar values.”
Designated rivers are kept free of dams or other impediments to a free-flowing condition.
While the federal legislation was passed in 1968, California enacted a similar law in 1972. Hicks and his associates determined getting approval on a state level afforded the same ironclad protection for the river — and would likely be easier to achieve from a potentially sympathetic legislative body.
In 1986, Hicks went before the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, represented by Todd Juvinall, Joel Gustafson, Jim Weir, Bill Schultz and Crawford Bost, and gave a presentation regarding the importance of permanent protection. While SYRCL asked for protection of a 39-mile segment, the board of supervisors agreed in January of that year to pass a resolution expressing support for the designation of a 20-mile stretch, asserting a compromise was necessary to ward off complaints from a segment of the community opposed to any type of official intercession. Two weeks later, the League of Women Voters declared the agenda item had been improperly noticed, the board rescinded the resolution and never again picked it up. The state bill that would have awarded the designation for the river, taken up by Sacramento Assemblyman Lloyd Connelly, was rejected by the legislature, largely due to the perceived lack of local support.
While the defeat was a short-term blow for SYRCL, those associated say it proved to be the organization’s greatest blessing. Rather than accept defeat, those involved with SYRCL steeled themselves, employed resolve and geared up for a long-term fight.
Hicks conceded that had Wild and Scenic status been granted in 1987, those involved in the movement likely would have slapped each other on the back, circulated congratulations and folded the tents.
Instead, SYRCL incorporated as an official nonprofit in 1988, hired its first executive director and opened offices in space above what is now Sushi Q on Commercial Street in downtown Nevada City.
“We battened down for a longer fight,” Hicks said.
Back to the battle
SYRCL remains a diversified organization that advocates for a myriad of positions it believes are in the interest of the South Yuba River watershed and its surrounding ecology.
In the years following the Wild and Scenic defeat until the 1990s, SYRCL helped with other issues, including gathering thousands of signatures on a petition that led to an allocation of $2 million to help establish the South Yuba River State Park, which features more than 2,000 acres of land spanning a 22-mile stretch of the river and attracts an estimated nearly half-million visitors per year.
Nevertheless, SYRCL’s core charter continued to be rescuing the river from the prospect of becoming a series of dams and reservoirs. In 1999, nearly 12 years after its initial unsuccessful effort to secure Wild & Scenic status, the stars aligned for SYRCL, Hicks said.
The political climate in Nevada County, historically of a stridently conservative political base, was becoming more centrist, as an influx of new residents, attracted by the scenic beauty and diverse recreational opportunities, brought progressive politics in tow.
In the mid-1990s, Nevada County embarked on a highly contentious update to its General Plan, the critical planning document that essentially guides county land use decisions. Fearing that some of the proposals favored the resource extraction industries such as timber and mining, many constituents conscientious about the need to protect the local environment became politically active.
Hicks said SYRCL representatives attended political campaign events in order to force candidates to clarify their position on Wild and Scenic.
In the late 1990s, a seismic shift occurred in the local political landscape, as four out of the five supervisors had avowedly progressive and pro-environment views.
“Growth was a huge issue,” said Izzy Martin of the political climate at the time.
Martin is the current executive director of The Sierra Fund, whose central mission is to analyze and address the heritage of mining in the Sierra Nevada. She won a seat on the board of supervisors in the late 1990s as a write-in candidate.
Martin said the Wild and Scenic designation was very much on the mind of many of the constituents she visited with during the campaign season.
“Nobody ever spoke in favor of putting a dam on the river,” Martin said. “But one of the reasons I won was that I said I would do everything within my power to prevent dams on the Yuba.”
Martin credited SYRCL’s consistent campaign with creating a wall of information so thick that it couldn’t be pierced by opponents to the designation, many of whom believed it would make the area somehow beholden to the state and would reduce local control.
In the late ’90s, Martin joined Bruce Conklin, Sam Dardick (the late father of Caleb Dardick) and Peter Van Zant as progressive supervisors, leaving the more conservatively oriented Karen Knecht in a distinct minority. Knecht was the only supervisor to vote against approval of a Wild and Scenic designation.
Further bolstering SYRCL’s efforts, Shawn Garvey, who had considerable experience running political campaigns, joined the organization as its newly minted executive director and began a persistent public relations campaign. Janet Cohen, who was deputy executive director under Garvey and succeeded him, remembers writing letters, distributing pamphlets and placing phone calls in an era that preceded email and social networking.
John Regan, another experienced political operator, who is the current SYRCL board president, also joined the organization and began stalking the halls in Sacramento, lobbying various lawmakers regarding the need to protect the distinctive Sierra river, Hicks said.
But despite the state legislature featuring slight Democratic majorities in both houses, the ensuing effort to get the law passed was far from a walk in the park, Cohen said.
Part of the difficulty was prompted by a devastating flood in 1997 that affected property owners flanking either bank of the river, particularly downstream in Yuba County, where widespread and expensive damage occurred as a result of the high, rapid waters. The Yuba County Water Agency began a campaign claiming a Wild and Scenic designation would prevent agencies from including important flood control components in the watershed that would prevent similar damage in the future.
In January of 1999, the YCWA proposed four new dams on the Yuba River watershed, including one at Oregon Creek, which would have submerged the popular picnic area just outside North San Juan under hundreds of feet of water. Another proposed dam was to be located at Edwards Crossing, which would have submerged everything north of Edwards Crossing Bridge, including the town of Washington.
The tenor of the debate increased in stridency as more and more people entered the fray.
Success in Sacramento
“There were all these letters to the editor in The Union about how black helicopters were going to swoop down, and there were loose attachments to the (United Nations) and people were going to tell you what color to paint your house,” Hicks said.
Cohen said the private property rights advocates took an ironic position, in that without Wild and Scenic designation, the federal government was free to approve and implement a dam regardless of local opposition. In other words, a Wild and Scenic designation didn’t compromise private property rights in the river canyon, but was effectively the only way that several of the historic properties along the corridor could be permanently saved from inundation, Cohen said.
Nevertheless, concerns abounded, and local state representatives, including then-Assemblyman Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, and Tim Leslie, R-Lake Tahoe, opposed the designation. Garvey, Regan, Martin, Cohen and others, including a procession of school children and concerned residents, journeyed to Sacramento in an effort to circumvent local representation and get the designation done.
Another wrinkle materialized when then-Gov. Gray Davis vowed he would not sign the bill into law unless about $90 million was allocated to study flood control on the lower portions of the Yuba River to alleviate concerns of residents in Yuba County.
SYRCL simultaneously facilitated lobbying for that bill and on Sept. 11, 1999, with the legislative session drawing to a close, the 80-member Assembly took a vote on the bill written by State Senator Byron Sher, a Democrat from Palo Alto.
The bill needed 41 votes to earn the majority and SYRCL’s vast repertoire of volunteers, staff and supporters gathered in Commercial Street, where large speakers were broadcasting the dramatic vote from the capital building as the evening wore on.
Just before midnight, the congregated stakeholders listened as the vote was counted, with 42 people voting in favor of the bill, resulting in a narrow victory that provided punctuation to a 16-year fight.
It was a fight that gave birth to an organization that would evolve as the guardian of the South Yuba River and the surrounding environment, while giving rise to a piece of legislation that would permanently prevent the construction of dams on a 39-mile stretch of one of the nation’s most beautiful free-flowing rivers.
Since the unprecedented victory, SYRCL has not gone away, instead turning its attention to a myriad of issues relating to the river, including restoring salmon to the upper reaches of the Yuba River, leading annual cleanup efforts, advocating for two regional state parks that were threatened with closure in recent years and building consensus among federal and state agency land managers, water agencies, private property holders and environmentalists.
Contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 530-477-4239.