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Saving the disappearing Cascade Canal

“What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Most people do not so much age year by year, as trauma by trauma. The same is true of communities. Lamentably, Nevada County is about to experience a significant trauma that will irreversibly diminish it.



One of the most beautiful, peaceful and safest places to walk in all of Nevada County is along the ancient and well-established trail that meanders through the forest beside the Lower Cascade Canal. From downtown Nevada City, follow Broad Street east, (past the freeway it turns into Boulder and then forks into Red Dog) for less than five minutes and on the right side you will see the entrance to the trail. Park your car, and within another two minutes you will never know that a city, or traffic, or worries exist. Suddenly you are in the majestic forest, with a lovely brook gurgling beside you next to the trail. Other than the song of an occasional bird and the rustling of the breeze through the trees, you are engulfed in stillness. In most places, a layer of pine needles cushions your footsteps. You can walk for miles and often not see another soul. It is a place to pause, to think, to remember, and to dream. But if you want to experience it, hurry, for the NID is about to destroy it.




The canal is a part of the water delivery system built by gold miners 150 years ago and still utilized by NID to deliver water today. There are two very different plans for the canal. On the one hand, the majority on the board of NID has determined that future housing developments in the south county will need more water than the canal can currently carry. Therefore, they want to abandon, and thus destroy, the canal and the trail. In its place, they plan to divert the water into an underground pipeline, which will require that they cut a 40-foot-wide swath through the forested property of private property owners paralleling Idaho-Maryland Road at a cost of millions of dollars. Their engineers and accountants have determined that this is the cheapest and most efficient way (although certainly not the only way) to provide for this anticipated future development in the south county.

The minority on the NID board, and essentially every one of us who has ever walked the trail, have a very different vision, and hope and pray that NID will not do this. If the cheapest way to obtain water were by siphoning off Lake Tahoe, no one, I believe, would stand for destroying Lake Tahoe just to get cheaper water. On an admittedly smaller scale, the Cascade Canal is Nevada County’s Lake Tahoe. It, more than any other steam-side trail in a nearby forested area, is what makes Nevada County unique. It is a place to share with our visitors and a place to savor for ourselves. We believe that this canal system, built by our forefathers, handed to NID on a silver platter, and used by NID for decades, is a sacred trust that they have a duty to maintain-perhaps with some contribution from the county government-for the benefit of all of us.

A curious dichotomy exists among the people of Nevada County. On the one hand, surveys demonstrate that over 80 percent of us, both Republicans and Democrats, consider ourselves conservationists-people who are sincerely interested in conserving and preserving the forests, streams, wild life, and natural beauty that surrounds us. On the other hand, other surveys indicate that a majority today would vote against NH 2020, the very program designed to help preserve our forests and environment. An article appearing in The Union reported that Sierra Pacific Industries, the conglomerate that is notorious for clear-cutting and denuding huge sections of the forest, at their expense invited supervisorial candidates Robin Sutherland and Drew Bedwell to their headquarters, where their high paid political media experts trained them in election tactics. SPI will do whatever it can to see that anti-conservationists are elected. That did not surprise me. What surprised me is that so many people, who say that they are sincerely interested in preserving our forests, voted for them. So long as anti-conservationists control our boards, both at the NID and in our county government, our forests, streams and trails will continue to disappear.

Of course, few people will openly proclaim that they are anti-conservationists. Very few will admit that they advocate denuding the forest and covering it with housing developments and strip malls. They claim that they are just for protecting their “property rights”-which means, in plain English, that if they own a piece of the forest, they claim they have “the right” to cut down all the trees, develop it as they please, and make that part of the forest disappear. Furthermore, they claim that they have “the right” to do this, even if they are polluting or destroying the watersheds (which have now been identified by NH 2020) that are the very source of much of our water.

So we have to carefully distinguish what people say from what they do. I’m referring not only to the politicians, but to us, the citizens and the voters. Too many of us, I fear, have fallen victim to “the TV syndrome.” The tendency to sit on our comfortable couches and watch as others are the actors-people who are doing things that may deeply affect us. But we just sit there, watching, and think that if we continue to sit there, and simply flip the channel switcher when the things the actors (usually politicians) are doing displease us, that the bad things they are doing will go away. We give lip service to the concept that we want to preserve the wonderful natural beauty that still surrounds us, but do nothing, while our forests, streams and trails, piece by piece, continue to disappear.

Hank Starr, a divorce lawyer who lives and practices in Nevada City, writes a monthly column.


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