FERC Academy, Saturday, December 3, 2005
Two summers ago I spent a day swimming on the South Yuba with Matt after his friend Deb died kayaking Fordyce Creek. He wanted to go there to process her death and to connect with her through the river. I remember vividly him telling me that we probably touched water molecules that had touched her on the day she died. That thought somehow made sense to me and I found the idea of the connectedness we all have with each other and our natural world comforting.
Over a year later I joined a group called FERC Academy to learn about the physical, economic and political structures of the Yuba watershed in hopes of gaining insight into the convoluted procedures involving the relicensing of the South Yuba water projects and more importantly, about the river itself. The first stop on our first field excursion was to Spaulding Reservoir. A dam built in the 1890s separates the water from where Fordyce Creek empties into Spaulding Reservoir from the section of the South Yuba where Matt and I swam that summer day. We were given a packet that includes three pages of complicated diagrams with arrows and webs of lines that illustrate where the water comes from and where it goes and who controls it. It’s certainly not nature that does the controlling anymore.
It is required by FERC that 1cfs is released into the South Yuba at all times. We stood on the dam that separates the 74,773 AF of dark reservoir water on one side from the white spurt of 1cfs on the other. Steep metal stairs laced the rocks 275 feet down below to the riverbed, or more aptly described, the faucet. It is literally a valve that can be turned on and off manually at the base of the concrete structure. The river is a faucet.
Running next to the river (I use the term loosely) is a more generous allocation of water destined for either the Bear River or Deer Creek Power House via tunnels and canals. Bear River gets 5cfs, a whopping 4 more than the South Yuba, but the South Yuba Canal carries 126cfs to Deer Creek Power House.
The PG&E people fielded countless questions about who gets the water, who decides who gets the water and how much and when, what happens when the reservoir is full, when are the gates open…. I concluded that it’s all pretty much a clusterfuck that began in the 1890’s thanks to the Gold Rush. There is nothing natural about the way the water moves through the watershed. Some of it is for electricity, some for consumption, 1cfs for fish presumably. Most gets used in Nevada County, but some goes to Placer. NID (Nevada Irrigation District) is required to supply all necessary water and PG&E is, well, PG&E. The system is maxed out they said. But developments keep springing up and NID will have to continue to supply them as they come. This is the most complicated plumbing system in the area they admitted.
The group then caravanned to our second destination at Dutch Flat on the Bear River. To get there we needed to pass through yellow crime scene tape and a full encampment of search and rescue teams looking for a recently murdered woman who is believed to be buried in the area. Dead seemed to be the theme of the day. Dead river canyons, dead water and now another dead woman.
We stood on the dam by the dreary looking reservoir. Across the water, tubes shot straight down the hillside carrying water from as far away as the North Fork of the American River as well as Spaulding Reservoir. On the other side of the dam the water gushed out of a tube into a concrete canal. And so it all goes. More questions were fielded. Some were lost in the sound of the water blasting into a canal. Others were lost in the sound of passing search and rescue trucks.
I came back today overwhelmed with the thoughts of the daunting task of trying to comprehend what the river that I’ve been so involved with this past year actually is. It’s not what I thought it was. That comforting thought of the interconnectedness of things that I wanted to believe when I was at the river with Matt is false. We’ve engineered it away. The probability that those particular molecules that touched Deb had eventually made it into that sparse allotment of 1cfs is very slim. I feel betrayed, but by whom or what I don’t really know. My own idealism, perhaps?