SYRCL began late in 1983 as a group of concerned local citizens seeking to prevent the destruction of the South Yuba River by commercial interests. The group’s goal was the ultimate preservation of 39 miles of the South Yuba River recognized by the US Department of Interior, in an inventory of the nation’s waterways, as one of California’s best remaining free-flowing streams.
At the time, the county was looking at developing a hydroelectric plant in the middle of this stretch of river at a place called Miner’s Tunnel. Local citizens caught wind of the plan and decided they wanted to know more. The group soon discovered that the county wasn’t the only player interested in hydroelectric development on the South Yuba. A private company from San Francisco, called Northwest Power Company, had also filed applications to dam the river and build a power plant on the same site.
Meeting throughout the winter, SYRCL brought together people who thought the river deserved better than yet-another dam. Included in the group were people who had previously organized clean-up efforts in the canyon, people who helped bring the South Yuba to the attention of the Nationwide Rivers Inventory, people who had lived near the Yuba all their lives, and others who had moved to the area because of the river.
Meanwhile, Nevada County officials found the Miner’s Tunnel venture too risky and pulled out, leaving Northwest Power as the sole applicant for that site. Another site, only two miles upstream from Miner’s Tunnel, was proposed as the location for another power plant by the Piedmont Council Campfire Girls/Lake Vera Mutual Water Company.
As its first official action, in January 1984, SYRCL filed a protest with the California State Water Resources Control Board opposing this latter project, known as the Rock Creek-Meyer’s Ravine project. SYRCL subsequently filed a similar protest with the state against the Miner’s Tunnel project, as well as protests at the federal level against both projects.
In March of 1984, SYRCL convened a public meeting to gather support and soon asked the county Supervisors to get involved on behalf of the river. The Supervisors, who only a few months before had been directing their own hydropower studies, eventually agreed to help intervene on the Rock Creek-Meyer’s Ravine project, giving the county a voice in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) deliberations. FERC is the federal agency ultimately responsible for approving permits and regulating non-federal hydroelectric dams.
The fight was long and arduous. But the effort did eventually pay off. In 1991 the developer finally gave up its construction permit for the Miner’s Tunnel project. The same developer had a third license for a project known as the Excelsior Ditch project. It, too, was finally surrendered in 1993.
The South Yuba was not to be forsaken in the name of "renewable energy;" at least not yet.
In between all of its community activity, SYRCL held fundraising events, generated letter-writing campaigns, started a newsletter, collected signatures on petitions, and worked to educate the community about the real threats to the river. Over time SYRCL established a Board of Directors, applied for and received state and federal tax-exempt status and, in 1989, hired its first paid executive director to run its programs and coordinate its outreach efforts.
Why are developers interested in damming the South Yuba?
Primarily for economic gain through the sale of water to other parts of the state. This practice is commonly known as "water ranching" or "water wheeling." For example, neighboring Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA) made more than $35 million selling excess Yuba River water during California’s seven-year drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s. YCWA has over the years identified various sites on the Yuba as "potentially buildable" and in 1997 voted to set aside $7 million for additional studies, licensing, and permitting procedures for a series of dams and diversions on the Yuba River.
The history of the Yuba River is a microcosm of America’s environmental awakening and growing environmental conscience. The river basin was stripped during the California Gold Rush: hydraulic mining washed away whole mountainsides, processed some 700 million cubic yards of debris, and created tailings piles hundreds of feet high. At Malakoff Diggins – formerly one of the largest hydraulic mining operations in the world and now reclaimed as a state park – miners blasted an 8,000-foot-long tunnel 200-feet deep to carry wastewater back to the Yuba River.
Such excesses led to enlightenment. Repeatedly threatened by mucky, tailings-laden floods, downstream residents filed a lawsuit against the upstream mining operations. In 1884, Federal Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Sawyer dramatically ended hydraulic mining in the Yuba Basin in one of the first environmental rulings in the nation. The last century of "benign neglect" has witnessed a dramatic recovery of the Yuba River. The South Yuba has been named a California State Park and is currently a leading candidate for possible federal Wild & Scenic designation.
As part of its effort to oppose the Miner’s Tunnel dam project, SYRCL launched a new offensive strategy in January 1986 aimed at protecting the river from future dams – state Wild & Scenic designation. The state Wild & Scenic Rivers system is an offshoot of a federal program of the same name which protects free-flowing rivers from dams or other water development projects that would degrade the river’s natural values. The federal program, known as the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, was passed by Congress in 1968 to balance the long-standing national policy of dam development with a complementary means of protecting the few truly outstanding rivers that remained free-flowing.
To help secure state Wild & Scenic protection for the South Yuba, SYRCL volunteers began attending hearings, meeting with legislators, and presenting their views before the Nevada County Board of Supervisors and others. At SYRCL’s urging, Sacramento Assemblyman Lloyd Connelly authored a bill in April 1987 calling for the addition of the South Yuba to the state Wild & Scenic Rivers system. The bill was ultimately rejected in the State Assembly. But the effort brought SYRCL back around to seeking more proactive ways to protect the river.
One such venture involved gathering 9,000 signatures in support of California’s Proposition 70, a voter initiative designed to provide more funding for creation of and protection of state parks and wildlife habitat. Proposition 70 included $2 million for acquisition of lands along the South Yuba River to help establish a South Yuba River State Park. The proposition qualified for the ballot-thanks in part to SYRCL’s signature-gathering-and passed by a healthy margin in 1988. The State Parks Department has used the money to purchase important parcels from willing sellers within the South Yuba river corridor.
Never at a loss for creative ways to achieve river protection, SYRCL helped State Parks in another effort to acquire 400 acres of river-front property put on the market by Santa Fe Pacific Realty Company. When the land first became available, State Parks didn’t have the money to purchase it. SYRCL stepped in with volunteers’ money and leased the property until the State Parks Department could assemble the needed funding from Proposition 70 to purchase the land and improve public access at this particular river crossing.
Unfortunately, just as SYRCL was beginning to make major headway toward protecting the South Yuba from outside commercial interests, a local threat reared its ugly head. Neighboring Yuba County Water Agency announced plans to sell $8 million worth of Yuba River water to other parts of the state.
Local Water Wars
How could Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA) get enough water to do this? By building more dams on the Yuba River, of course. And who would build a dam without including a hydropower component to help defray the cost? Since non-federal hydropower dams require federal licensing by FERC, they would not be constrained by state Wild & Scenic protection. A preliminary report released by YCWA in 1989 highlighted up to four new dams on the Yuba, costing taxpayer money and possibly burying up to 21 miles of the South Yuba under additional reservoirs. In August 1989, YCWA formed a committee to identify and start purchasing key parcels along the South Yuba to hold for future dam-building plans. At the same time, the Army Corps of Engineers began an official study of potential Yuba dam sites.
SYRCL redoubled its efforts to inform local residents of YCWA’s plans for the South Yuba. The group organized presentations and public testimony at a variety of hearings advocating preservation of the canyon.
Wild & Scenic Revisited
Even in the face of this newest threat, SYRCL never gave up on the dream of permanent protection for the Yuba. In fact, the organization again set its sights on federal Wild & Scenic designation after the defeat of the state Wild & Scenic legislation in 1987. If anything, the attempted Yuba County water grab simply strengthened SYRCL’s resolve. The group approached the Tahoe National Forest in 1989 to find out why the recently released Tahoe National Forest Land & Resource Management plan failed to include any rivers suitable for further study as possible Wild & Scenic rivers. Agency personnel looked at the process used to determine which rivers to study and agreed that they had not followed proper procedure. After agreeing to take another look, the Tahoe National Forest revised its report to include the South Yuba, Middle Yuba and 28 others for further study.
Never one to sit back and wait for someone else to do the work, SYRCL launched its own South Yuba Wild & Scenic suitability study. Thanks to individual donations and foundation grants, SYRCL was able to hire professional researcher and writer Tim Palmer to conduct the study and write the report. Palmer’s research resulted in a 180-page bound document, The South Yuba: A Wild and Scenic River Report, examining the river’s suitability for federal Wild & Scenic designation, including its important values, ongoing threats to the river, future water and power needs and other protection options.
At the same time, SYRCL staff and volunteers sought endorsements from local residents, property owners and business owners who supported Wild & Scenic designation. California Department of Parks & Recreation-Gold Mines District, the city councils of both Nevada City and Grass Valley, the League of Women Voters, Federation of Neighborhood Associations, Searls Historical Library, and Gold Country Flyfishers, among others, along with 155 business owners, 83 realtors, 30 attorneys, more than 50 educators and 109 owners of property in the river corridor signed petitions endorsing Wild & Scenic protection for the South Yuba. SYRCL presented this list to the County Board of Supervisors in April 1993 with a request for County support of Wild & Scenic designation. The Board voted to defer its decision until the Forest Service had completed its suitability study.
When it became clear that SYRCL was making progress toward achieving Wild & Scenic designation for the South Yuba, local opponents sought outside assistance to derail SYRCL’s efforts. A local developer attended a "Wise Use" conference in Montana and came back with plenty of ideas, including setting up a local property owners opposition group called the California Landowners Alliance. This group was seemingly modeled after an East Coast version called the New Hampshire Landowners Alliance which had already worked to defeat attempts to secure Wild & Scenic designation on rivers in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Delaware. Shortly after the local debut of the California Landowners Alliance, an anonymous caller – who would identify himself only as "a member of a local property owners group that opposes Wild & Scenic for the South Yuba – began calling business owners on SYRCL’s endorser list and threatening a boycott of their businesses if they continued to support SYRCL.
Someone opposed to Wild & Scenic also approached the Nevada City and Grass Valley City Councils and asked for a rehearing of the Councils’ original vote to support such designation. The Nevada City Council chose not to revisit the issue, letting their original vote stand. After hours of public testimony, the Grass Valley City Council voted for a second time to support Wild & Scenic protection for the Yuba.
A petition against Wild & Scenic designation circulated by the Nevada County Republican Central Committee rounded out the opposition’s initial efforts, all of which were based on misinformation and scare tactics regarding potential property condemnation by the federal government, alleged tax increases and other unfounded arguments.
The Need for Community Stewardship
SYRCL continued its outreach and education activities by speaking before community groups, soliciting letters to potential sponsors of Wild & Scenic legislation in Congress, and working through the County General Plan Update process to strengthen the County’s own policies relating to river protection. Thanks in part to SYRCL’s efforts, the General Plan Resolution Committee voted unanimously to restore wording previously deleted and to add a new sentence calling for the county to "encourage the protection of the South Yuba River from dams." The County Supervisors followed with a unanimous vote in 1996 to keep this new language in the final General Plan update document.
Although we rejoiced at these votes, especially because they marked the first time the County had taken an official position supporting the idea of no future dams on the river, the unfortunate truth was that the river was still not protected. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of a dam license to a private developer supercedes most County and State laws including County General Plan policy statements. So SYRCL kept on pursuing long-term protection through Wild & Scenic designation.
Working as part of a statewide coalition of river groups, SYRCL helped identify sponsors for possible introduction of an omnibus Wild & Scenic rivers bill for California. Congressman George Miller, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, agreed in early 1994 to carry a California rivers bill to Congress that year. Senator Barbara Boxer was a likely candidate to sponsor the companion bill in the Senate-that is, until the November 1994 election brought with it a new Republican majority. Due to the resulting changes in committee structure and make-up, it became clear that no river protection bill would be introduced in the coming Congressional session.
SYRCL again focused on working with the community, sponsoring watershed hikes, offering benefit raft trips, and organizing river clean-ups so people could get out into the canyon and experience first-hand the values worthy of protection. SYRCL’s Private Property Owners Committee convened a meeting of more than 40 Yuba River property owners, with two landowners from the Wild & Scenic Merced River and representatives from the federal agencies as special guests. The couple from Merced clearly explained the benefits they received from the designation. SYRCL also worked with the local Resource Conservation District to start an Adopt-a-Watershed program in Nevada County. To date, the program has trained 20 teachers and more than 1,000 students in the principles of watershed science and stewardship.
It’s the Economy…
Recognizing the stock people put in economic arguments, SYRCL began framing the Wild & Scenic issue in terms of dollars – protecting the millions of dollars spent in the community each year by people coming to the river. SYRCL focused more attention on owners of local businesses, such as restaurants, B&Bs, outdoor stores, etc., whose revenues depended on the power of the river and its natural surroundings to attract visitors and new residents.
The effort paid off. In June of 1995, the local economic development organization, called the ERC, invited some 50 different and somewhat "non-traditional" stakeholders to become part of an Economic Enhancement Roundtable or advisory committee. For the first time, SYRCL, as well as representatives from other environmental, neighborhood, civic, arts and education organizations, sat at the same table with groups like the local business association, the contractors association, the Chambers of Commerce, banking executives and major employers to help shape the economic future of the County.
SYRCL, together with three other environmental/neighborhood groups, suggested that the ERC add a "community" seat to its voting board representing environmental, home-based business and quality-of-life issues. Early in 1996 the ERC agreed and voted to add one seat shared by the four organizations. SYRCL served a term as the voting member for the four groups and was even appointed to the Board’s Executive Committee. At the same time, SYRCL was also represented on the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce Board by then-Executive Director Kerri Varian, elected by Chamber members to fill out the term of a resigning Board member.
"SYRCL faced tremendous adversity during this period from opponents trying to undermine the group’s good standing in the community. But in the face of it all, SYRCL maintained the high road, doing everything possible to bring people together instead of pulling them apart," explains SYRCL President at the time, Roger Hicks. "SYRCL’s acceptance into the local business community through the ERC and the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce just proved that the approach was working."
In August 1996, the U.S. Forest Service released its long-awaited draft Wild & Scenic suitability study for 22 rivers on the west side of the Tahoe National Forest. As hoped, the report recommended designating 39 miles of the South Yuba, along with 45 miles of the North Yuba and 30 miles of one of its tributaries. Just prior to the report’s release, SYRCL distributed a 12-page newspaper insert, A Citizen’s Guide to Wild & Scenic, to 16,000 local residents, giving them more information and helping clarify points muddied by the opposition’s misinformation campaign.
Although local support is not mandatory for a river to become Wild & Scenic, it certainly does help. That is why SYRCL was so disappointed when, shortly after the report became public, the County Supervisors voted 4-1 against designation of any river in the Tahoe National Forest, including the South Yuba. And they did this even knowing that Yuba County Water Agency was still actively considering a dam at the South Yuba’s popular Edwards Crossing, as indicated in a map included as Appendix D in the Forest Service’s report.
Taking comfort in smaller victories, SYRCL celebrated the Nevada City City Council’s subsequent decision to uphold its original support for Wild & Scenic designation of the South Yuba. SYRCL then turned its attentions to the actual suitability study. Along with submitting a 12-page letter of comment of its own, SYRCL generated more than 1,000 letters of support from people in the community supporting the Forest Service’s draft recommendation for the South Yuba. Many of those letters also called for protection of additional tributaries to the North Yuba which were not included in the Forest Service’s original draft.
1997 New Year’s Floods
In the meantime, Northern California experienced the traumatic floods of New Year’s weekend 1997. While the Forest Service was collecting comments and retooling its original Wild & Scenic draft report, the cry went up for more flood protection. For the Yuba, that meant a dam at Parks Bar near Marysville. Yuba County Water Agency resurrected a number of old proposals dating from the early 1980s calling for different-sized dams at various sites along the Yuba. Most of the proposals included hydropower and would destroy vital spawning and feeding habitat for one of the last remaining runs of wild (non-hatchery) steelhead and fall chinook salmon in the state.
After volunteering time helping victims of the January 1997 flooding in Marysville, SYRCL found itself in the business of learning about flood control and dam/levee operations in an effort to educate people about effective non-dam alternatives to meet flood control needs. Assemblyman Bernie Richter introduced a $9 million Yuba River dam study bill in April 1997 which was defeated the first day it was brought before the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.
Not to be dissuaded, Yuba County Water Agency later launched a $700,000 political and public relations campaign of its own designed to pave the way for construction of dams and diversions on the Yuba. YCWA looked at 10-15 different potential dam sites in the Yuba drainage despite studies by the Army Corps of Engineers and CalFed stating that dams on the Yuba River are economically, environmentally and technically infeasible. Unfortunately, the California Department of Resources’ 1998 Water Plan Update disagreed. That report rated a dam in the Spenceville Wildlife Area and one on the Yuba River as the top two most feasible projects in the state.
Home is Where the Heart Is
While continuing to battle at the state level over flood management and other issues, SYRCL helped prompt a cooperative effort among local land managing agencies, water purveyors and environmental organizations to seek state and federal funding for watershed improvement projects. The South Yuba, while pristine and beautiful in its canyon reaches, is also beset by ecological problems such as sedimentation, mercury, and other concerns stemming from the Gold Rush and more recent activities.
After submitting a number of grant applications during 1997 and 1998, the group was awarded more than $1 million from state and federal funding programs to undertake watershed assessment, planning and monitoring activities to benefit the Yuba and Bear River watersheds. The group also helped to establish a more formal watershed council to oversee these projects and continue as a community steward for the rivers and their resources.
Along with the watershed council activities, SYRCL mounted a number of other efforts aimed at enhancing or protecting the river’s special values. For example, SYRCL established a cadre of trained volunteers who monitor the endangered spring-run salmon on the lower river to ensure that the fish have access to their upstream spawning beds. Volunteers found agencies in violation of their licenses numerous times-including once when fish ladders were closed by the Army Corps of Engineers at Daguerre Point Dam and three times when YCWA closed hydro facilities at Englebright Dam, dropping the river level six feet and stranding hundreds of young salmon and steelhead on rocks and sandbars. These violations, reported by SYRCL, resulted in ongoing investigations of the operators. SYRCL also received funding to study the potential for reintroducing salmon and steelhead into the upper Yuba watershed above Daguerre Point and Englebright dams.
In addition, SYRCL remains involved in other management issues in the watershed, serving as a partner or coalition member with organizations working on federal grazing rights, fisheries improvements, herbicide use in national forests, timber harvest plans, and more.
Complementing SYRCL’s protection and restoration efforts was the official designation of 20 miles of land along the river as a State Park thanks to the unanimous vote of the California State Parks and Recreation Commission on September 30, 1997. Under such a designation, the managing agency, in this case the State Department of Parks & Recreation, is required to develop a specific plan for managing and protecting the resources within its jurisdiction. While this management plan won’t stop a federally licensed dam project, it goes a long way toward protecting the natural, scenic and cultural values on the lower portion of the South Yuba.
Wild and Scenic At Last
SYRCL’s efforts to protect the South Yuba through Wild and Scenic designation finally paid off in 1999. Senate Bill 496 was authored by State Senator Byron Sher, a Democrat from Palo Alto. On March 23, 1999, the Senate Natural Resources Committee approved the bill on a party-line vote, with all Democrats supporting and all Republicans opposing. On April 20, SB 496 cleared its second hurdle when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved it by a 7-4 margin in spite of strong objections from Nevada County’s state senator, R-Lake Tahoe and others concerned about continued flooding in Yuba and Sutter counties.
In May of 1999, the state’s highest-paid lobbyist, Michael Kahl, was enlisted to fight the Wild and Scenic legislation, a blow that was countered by the backing of two high-profile members of the environmental community. The national long-distance phone company Working Assets gave its 86,000 California customers free long-distance phone time to voice their support for a Wild and Scenic South Yuba River. The outdoor-clothing company Patagonia sent a letter to state senators in support of the bill. Patagonia also made a $10,000 grant to SYRCL to support coalition-building, education and advocacy in the campaign.
On May 26, 1999, the Forest Service released two studies recommending federal Wild and Scenic status for sections of the South and North Yuba rivers and Canyon Creek. Even though further action in Congress was not guaranteed, the Tahoe National Forest officials explained that the rivers would be treated by the Forest Service as if they were already in the Wild and Scenic system. However, May 26 also marked a major victory for the bill in the Senate. After heated debate, it passed in a 22-14 vote split almost entirely along party lines.
Another victory came on June 28 when the State Assembly Natural Resources Committee voted 6-3 in favor of SB 496. But on July 19, with the Legislature about to leave for its summer recess, the bill stalled before the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Although it was agreed that the bill would have passed the committee, sponsors agreed to postpone the hearing until after the recess to allow proponents an opportunity to collect support for non-dam flood control projects for downstream communities. Governor Davis had suggested that addressing flood control issues would help secure his support for the measure.
SYRCL and Nevada County Supervisor Elizabeth Martin lobbied for the federal 1999 Water Resources Development Act containing $17 million to bring downstream levees up to a 300-year level of flood protection, as well as for the state water bond which contained $90 million in flood control for counties adjacent to the Yuba and Feather Rivers. This paid off on September 11, 1999. Suspense mounted steadily as SB 496 went before the state Assembly on its last day in session. The bill got a big boost at 9:50 pm when the Assembly passed the $2 billion water bond proposal, which included the $90 million for flood control in Yuba and Sutter counties. The Wild and Scenic South Yuba bill squeaked through with just enough votes to pass, 41-33.
On October 10, 1999, Governor Gray Davis signed the bill, officially adding the 39-mile stretch of the South Yuba River to California’s Wild and Scenic River System. The South Yuba was the first addition to the Wild and Scenic System since 1989 and the first river ever designated by a Democratic governor. This ended SYRCL’s 16-year grassroots campaign to stop new dams on the river and paved the way for SYRCL’s current focus on other issues affecting the health of the watershed.