I was introduced to the Centennial Dam project through a social justice and sustainability class taught by Nick Babin at Sierra Nevada College. Our class traveled to Nevada City for a workshop on social, political and environmental activism put on by the Peace and Justice Center of Nevada County on Feb. 28. Since then, several students have written letters to the board of NID and Army Corps of Engineers to request that various social, environmental, and economical impacts of the proposed Centennial Dam are addressed in the forthcoming Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Personally, I’ve been inspired by the work of Shelly Covert, who is protesting the Centennial Dam Project. She’s a social justice advocate who seeks to restore her native Nisenan heritage. When I visited her at her small office, it became clear that her life centers around Native Amercan advocacy. Shelves of books, photographs, artifacts, and written narratives of Nisenan history line the walls. I met with her to discuss the Centennial Dam, a project that would inundate the remaining 6 miles of free flowing Bear River, including historic Nisenan village and burial sites.
“I don’t think most people have to deal with this. Maybe it’s unique to Native Americans that when a great infrastructure goes in, it crosses someone’s burial ground or territory,” Covert says.
“All of our local reservoirs — Rollins, Combie, Bullards Bar Reservoir, Englebright, Collins, Lake Wildwood—these all have Nisenan burial sites beneath them,” she says. “There is a lot of pain in thinking yet another burial site and cultural landscape could be possibly inundated.”
Covert’s efforts as an activist are rooted deep in family history. Her grandfather was Frances ‘Dutch’ Rose, the last leader of the Nisenan people tied to the Nevada City Rancheria.
When the Centennial Dam project was proposed by the Nevada Irrigation District in spring 2015, the water agency did not contact Covert directly. “I had to reach out to NID’s board and request a meeting to talk about this,” she recalls.
Covert feels the push to build Centennial Dam represents an era of history and discrimination that was common during the Gold Rush. “I thought this was supposed to be of the past,” she says.
According to Covert, the number of Native Americans before the Gold Rush is underestimated. “Some of the more conservatives say there were 200,000 California Indians, but when you’re looking at it from a cultural perspective, the research shows a different angle, upward of 400,000 California Indians.”
In Nisesan territory, there were about 7,000 native people before the Gold Rush, Covert says. Today, there are less than 18 Nisenan remaining.
“The devastation is almost incomprehensible to me, to think what would I do, if my entire family disappeared today. But that is what my ancestors endured,” she says.
In addition to destroying Nisenan heritage, the Centennial Dam would threaten the Bear/Yuba watershed, community recreation and wildlife.
I ask Covert about the greed prevalent in the Gold Rush Era, the same greed that is fueling the Centennial Dam project. She sighs, and several seconds pass by “It’s a mentality that I don’t think we can continue to live with today,” she says.
To become more informed about the project or learn how to take action, visit savebearriver.com or attend an NID meeting on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 9 a.m. (1036 West Main St., Grass Valley).