The Last Six Miles

Proposed Centennial Dam raises controversy, heartache

Jamie Wanzek, Editor

It was the first Monday of spring break when my friend and SNC senior Bekah Ashley asked if I’d like to accompany her to an activist summit for the Centennial Dam, I said: “Sure, why not.” Without any knowledge of the controversial dam, the Bear River or even Nevada City, where the event was taking place, I jumped in the car. Bekah’s sell was easy: There is something controversial happening down the road involving water rights and an event rallying a concerned community–count me in. Together with sustainability student Kela Killam and Eagle’s Eye alumni and river rat Sage Saurbrey, we drove down I-80 to learn about our neighbor’s issue.

So what’s the issue?

The Nevada Irrigation District (NID) has proposed to build an 11,000 acre-foot reservoir held back by a dam reaching 275 in height on the Bear River. This project would destroy the last 6-mile stretch of free-flowing river on the Bear. The dam would flood the Bear Campground, more than 25 homes, 140 native American sites and the Dog Bar Bridge. It would also wipe out more than 200 species of birds and wildlife inhabiting the area. This would all be lost, under a manmade reservoir. Why? The proposed dam, estimated to cost $1.2 billion, is set to “mitigate climate change.” With a warming climate, the NID fears the future loss of snow storage in the Yuba watershed, affecting the communities’ water supply.

Prior to the activist summit, we arrived in Grass Valley with enough time to sit on the banks of the Bear River. The aroma was warm, full of spring. The water surged with Spring runoff, coloring the water with auburn yellow. The banks of the river were painted with dead leaves and abandoned trees, waiting for spring foliage.

“The Centennial Dam project feels close to home for me as if it goes Thru, the last six free-flowing miles of river will be lost from the communities and ecosystems of the bear river,” said Senior Bekah Ashley.

Surging with the sunlight illuminating the river downstream, we all found our quiet place along the river, We each found our peace. The quiet moment we all shared reminded us of the rivers and bodies of water we hold dear. For me the Animas in Colorado, for Sage the Salmon in Idaho, and for Bekah the AuSable River of Northern New York. We each wondered, “What if my river, was being dammed and what if it was my community losing its lifeblood?”

The summit gathered at the Nevada Theater in downtown Nevada City. The vintage theater held a couple hundred community members with an array of panelists representing different arrows of the issue: law, hydrology, ecology, water politics, community activism, and local history. From Otis Wollan, American River Watershed Institute President, to Shelly Covert a Nisenan Indian to ecologists and biologists, each panelist shared their opposition against the proposed dam and their personal connection with the waterway, while offering solutions for the future.

“We are intricately interwoven with the landscape. We are inseparable from these riverways… Losing the Bear would be like losing a family member,” said Shelly Covert a Nisenan Tribal Member, Secretary and Spokesperson, Nevada City Rancheria Tribal Council.

Covert explained the longstanding cultural and spiritual connections the Nisenan people share with the Bear River waterway. The dam would flood heritage sites and burial grounds along the Bear river.

As a terminated tribe, by the federal congress, “the 6-mile stretch is the Nisenan’s last chance.” Covert’s indigenous perspective and fight for her people’s land echoed a similar tone to what is occurring on the main stage at Standing Rock– where a national controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline inundating the indigenous people’s land. “These rivers have personalities and those waterways have changed–they become different beings… But they still call you,” Covert said.

Sierra Streams Institute Wildlife Biologist and Project Manager Kristen Hein also explained that the last 6 miles of free-flowing water the dam would inundate is also the “most diverse 6-mile corridor in the area, with the highest bird diversity (more than 200 species).”

“The Centennial Dam would erase this place from history,” noted Otis Wollan, American River Watershed Institute President.

As we sat in the audience, easily the youngest members by 30 years, while I felt disconnected from the Bear River and the Grass Valley community, each testimony sent a small pang through my chest that triggered immense empathy (and tears). I still do not know the Bear River, it is still a stranger to me. Yet, I suddenly felt connected to this issue, an issue regarding water rights that is vastly connected to our entire country. My thoughts turned to the Nisenan people, the birds, the deer, the fish and their delicate ecosystem. I thought of the families that are set to lose their homes. I thought of the ignorance that human hands all share. I thought of my own community’s lifeblood I hold dear– that beautiful 1,600-foot puddle.

Alumni Sage Saurbrey had a similar response to the activist summit. “The NID wants to convince the region that the dam is a done deal, but attending the activist summit and engaging with people who are so passionate about preserving the Bear River makes it obvious that this is one obscene scar on the land that we have a hell of a good chance at preventing,” said Saurbrey.

The Summit was called to attention by the community due to a federal permit the NID has applied for to construct the dam. With the environmental review process underway, the Army Corps of Engineers has opened public comment under the Section 4040 of the Clean Water Act. Therefore, it is encouraged to write letters and emails to Congress and the Army.