From the fall issue of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine:
The South Yuba River—Mother Nature’s other world-class watershed in our region— has been disrupted since the Gold Rush: hydraulic mining, dams, logging and development. Unlike Tahoe, Congress did not come to the rescue.
Instead, in 1983, a group of dedicated citizens stepped up to preserve and protect the Yuba—the epitome of grassroots organizing. “It all started with an article in the paper saying they wanted to develop a hydro-plant at the river, and I responded with a letter to the editor saying the river has a lot of recreational value,” recalled Nevada County native Dennis Barry, who along with other locals including Roger Hicks, Shawn Garvey and Janet Cohen have helped launch and sustain the group.
“I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place,” Barry said in a recent interview. Doing nothing could lead to the dam being built. On the other hand, fighting it could mean letting out a locals’ “secret” that the river was such a magical destination.
Barry’s concern led to a “circle” of concerned citizens getting together to form SYRCL (for South Yuba River Citizens League) to fight the hydropower dam. “It just had the ring of a bunch of people working together,” said co-founder Linda Miller in a documentary Stories of the Yuba by local Gregg Schiffner.
Barry drew a map of the river in excruciating detail, showing the various rocks and swimming holes. “You can swim the Yuba River from ‘Slide Rock’ to the (Hwy. 49) bridge without getting out of the water,” it read. “It’s the best swimming recreation in the county, perhaps the world.” The map (which Barry showed to us and hopes to begin redistributing) was sold to raise money for SYRCL. T-shirts were made reading “Don’t dam the Yuba. The river already gives us energy.”
“Soon SYRCL was as deep in the soup of the community as the river was—the energy and character of the water and the people inextricably intertwined,” Amy Irvine wrote in her book Making a Difference.
In October 1999, SYRCL’ s citizens succeeded in persuading Governor Grey Davis to sign legislation protecting 39 miles of the South Yuba River between Spaulding and Englebright dams under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. “I learned how deep and broad the support is for the Yuba,” says Hicks, who remains on the board. “People in our community love this river.”
After the gold rush, San Francisco was built on a “pyramid of mining,” decimating areas such as the once-pristine Yuba River watershed, Gary Brechin writes in Imperial San Francisco. “The city’s magnates hoped to make it the new Rome or New York of the Pacific,” the UC Berkeley historian adds.
Now a growing number of Coastal residents, along with others, want to visit our region to enjoy the natural wonders of the Yuba River, an escape from “city” life. An estimated 750,000 people visit the South Yuba River State Park annually, and countless more visit the middle fork, north fork and South Yuba.
(Photos: SYRCL leaders in 1999 by Bob Lickter; “Cat’s Eye” by David McKay)