The Biggest Threats to the Yuba Watershed and What We Can Do

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The Yuba River watershed has seen its share of challenges over the last centuries. From resource extraction to damming, the landscape has been inexorably changed by the vicissitudes of human progress. Citizen activists have been at the forefront of trying to mitigate these effects. The South Yuba River Citizens League itself was founded in 1983 by grassroots activists determined to protect the South Yuba River from dams. Ultimately, SYRCL won permanent protection for 39 miles of the South Yuba River under California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Today, SYRCL is the central hub of community activism to protect, restore, and celebrate the Yuba River watershed.  

As 2022 draws to a close, we thought it would be insightful to talk to members of SYRCL’s Science and Policy departments to find out what they consider to be the biggest issues facing the Yuba River watershed now and what we can do to try to mitigate some of those threats. 

Aaron Zettler-Mann, SYRCL’s Watershed Science Director, started the conversation by saying, “I would argue that climate change and dams are the biggest threats, with all other issues stemming from those. But, it can begin to feel hopeless pretty quickly when we consider the scale of the problem vs the scale of personal influence.” 

Alecia Weisman, SYRCL’s Watershed Science Program Manager, echoed Aaron’s threat assessment. “Climate change, 100%. Climate change intensifies fire danger and the threat of big powerful storms that cause erosion. As for solutions? Meadow and floodplain restoration, plus forest health prescriptions, are SYRCL’s approach to dealing with impacts of climate change while also combatting it. Otherwise, personal choices like eating local, reducing waste, going solar, etc. are other ways to combat climate change.” 

Kyle McNeil, SYRCL’s Ecohydrologist, added, “I also think that climate change is the biggest threat. We’re already seeing less rain and snowpack, extended drought, and stressed forests vulnerable to wildfire. These will almost certainly continue to amplify with time as climate change progresses. For mitigation, I think there’s great value in the distinctions among the terms: mitigation, adaptation, and resilience (see HERE for a good breakdown of these distinctions). Alecia already mentioned lots of solutions I agree with. There are so many, but I’m sticking with two that hit home for me, which are sustainable housing (better insulation and design so we’re not running AC/heat all the time) and eating local and more plant-based foods.”  

Danielle Conway, SYRCL’s Fish Biologist, brought up another angle. She said, “The biggest threat to our watershed can be summed up by what I would consider to be the practice of poor resource management. This touches on much of what folks here have already pointed to: policy, dams, the state of our forests, and the climate.” 

“Why is habitat restoration so desperately needed in our watershed?” she asked. “Because of the historic and abundant mismanagement of our natural resources. On the lower Yuba, this looks like the neglect of Daguerre Point Dam and presence of a dam [Englebright] that perpetuates ecological detriments that far outweigh the social/economic benefits it provides. In our forests, this takes the form of historic fire suppression and over-grazing by cattle, just to hit on a few. So many more examples can be pointed to because the systems we have in place value short-term economic gain over a mutualistic existence with the natural world. As far as solutions go, I think a huge one is to bring back Traditional Ecological Knowledge to the way we manage our natural resources. The abundance that drew settlers to the West was cultivated by indigenous practices. Another action people can take is to support elected officials on a local and federal level that value a sustainable management framework over the status quo.” 

Finally, Gianna Setoudeh, SYRCL’s Policy Director, added a few more possible solutions. She said, “It will be important to think about ensuring targeted investments are made in underserved communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and that community resources are provided to adapt and build resilience before future climate disasters happen (see the Resilience Before Disaster Report for more information). Another big issue is the notion of a ‘just transition’ away from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy – and what that means for workers and local economy. Shifting our mindset and transitioning the workforce in all sectors will be essential, but there needs to be full commitment and coordination to make it work. The Governor and State Legislature made key climate investments in 2022 and passed a legislative package aimed at addressing several key climate issues in California, but there is still more work to do, and we can expect the Legislature to tackle big environmental issues in the next legislative session, including drought, water supply, and emissions regulations.” 

As long as there is an active and dedicated group of citizens trying to pressure those in power and mitigate the damage already done, we have the opportunity to take on these threats and work towards a sustainable future for the Yuba River watershed. 

Aaron Zettler-Mann sums it up when he said, “With how large the threats to our watershed are (climate change and a history of resource mismanagement), it’s important to recognize that there is no single solution. SYRCL’s work to restore the natural processes which have been broken is an important part of climate resilience. And individually making decisions to be more responsible consumers and voters drives the economic and political wheels necessary for meaningful legislative and economic change.” 

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