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July 12, 2014
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Water is the new gold

The four elements of life: earth, air, fire and water. The Native Americans understood the interrelationships of these and endeavored to educate foreigners on the relationship of all four in the balance of life. My European ancestors rewarded this gesture by severely reducing the Native American population.

So, after thousand of years of Native Americans living in Nevada County, my European ancestors “discovered” gold on and under the Earth! That discovery was about 164 years ago. Think about that for a minute. Native American’s lived here for thousands of years and had a reverence for the Earth, an appreciation for the air, a regard for fire, and an understanding that water is the foundation of life.

The new 1850s residents brought picks, shovels, pans, water cannons, and most disturbingly; eventually, chemicals to separate the gold from the rock. Science was not as advanced in the 1800s as it is now. The result is that our past is catching up with us. A chemical used in gold extraction was mercury (Hg). Mercury is a tasteless, toxic, almost invisible element that will not dissolve and will transmit throughout our ecosystem. What that means is that if we eat food (fish, meat, vegetables) that is contaminated with mercury, we will be sick and possibly die. Fortunately, our government recognized this problem many years ago and has taken steps to ensure we are not exposed to mercury in our food chain. Nevada County could qualify as a federal Super-fund Clean-up site due to the amount of toxins (mercury) in our rivers, creeks and streams.

The county is aware of the problem. The Nevada County grand jury just released a report, “Nevada County Water Quality - The Impact of Mine Water in Nevada County” Grand Jury Report: Impact of Mine Water in Nevada County issued on June 20, 2014.

Recommendations include: 1.) develop and implement policy and procedures for periodic testing of surface and ground water … and examine the Lava Cap Mine incidents of 1979 and 1997 and … ensure appropriate clean up of such incidents, 2.) … immediate enforcement of the 1979 Clean Up and Abatement Order concerning the area below the Lava Cap Mine. 3.) The City Council of the City of Grass Valley should direct the City Manager to:

“(1) … ensure immediate adherence by the defendant to the terms outlined in the 2009 civil settlement, (2) … ensure the safety of the public using Memorial Park from Magenta Drain toxins, … initiate meetings with representatives of the Empire Mine State Historical Park to develop and implement a plan to divert the contents of the Magenta Drain … which endanger the public.

On June 6, a workshop on water in Nevada County included representatives from Nevada Irrigation District, Nevada County Board of Supervisors, Grass Valley, Truckee, and Nevada City elected’s along with lawyers, planners, and maybe six “citizens.” The presentation was disturbing. Climate Change is real; the projections are for less snow-pack, more severe rainfall, higher average temperatures, longer summers with less rain, and a toxic cleanup that will be challenging for years.

The presenters at the panel have some very pro-active solutions. The town of Truckee has been working for over six years to comply with water quality standards. Truckee’s advantage over western Nevada County is that they have a vital aquifer to draw upon to replenish their water. The Nevada Irrigation District wants to increase its lower elevation water storage capability, expand the removal of forest undergrowth, clean up sediment and find solutions for capturing more snowfall within its vast watershed.

Nevada County, Grass Valley and Nevada City representatives appeared overwhelmed with the task in front of them. In fact, the representative on the panel from Grass Valley, Tim Kiser, spent his brief panel time explaining that the City of Grass Valley is actually appealing the order from the California Water Resources Board to clean up the discharge from its water treatment plants. The state considers the “greater” Grass Valley area as above the 20,000-person population threshold, thereby requiring compliance to the water quality standards. This is a big deal. The lawyer in the room stated that California would make its requirements for cities to clean up their water discharge from treatment plants more stringent in the future. Grass Valley is going in the wrong direction – again.

There is no simple, or inexpensive answer to this problem. If the City of Grass Valley leaders don’t get their heads out of the sand, residents and businesses could end up paying a much higher price when the State of California Water Resources Board orders the City to comply with treatment plant discharge requirements or pay even heftier fines until they comply.

Jim Firth lives in Grass Valley.

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The Union Updated Jul 12, 2014 12:37AM Published Jul 15, 2014 03:33PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.