A Vision for California 200 Years after the Gold Rush—Coming Full Circle through the Yuba River Watershed
It is the year 2050, Californians are celebrating the bicentennial of Statehood and reflecting upon the transformations from California’s birthing grounds—the Yuba River Watershed. As the epicenter of the Gold Rush, the Yuba gave rise to wild visions of material wealth, unleashing human ingenuity unbounded by moral constraints and regard for the consequences of ecological upheaval.
Today, we recognize the first decades of the Statehood through the somber lens of—at the time—unprecedented ecological devastation, state-sanctioned cultural genocide, and unfettered wealth extraction in support of the United States’ expansionist empire building.
The ecological impacts of the Gold Rush cannot be overstated—in a matter of years Sierra headwaters were deforested, mountains were washed downstream, rivers were moved out of their the natural channels, valleys were buried in sediment, natural wetlands drained and cut-off from river channels and the tidal functions and ecology of the San Francisco Delta and Bay was forever altered through massive sediment fill.
California’s indigenous populations—those that survived the foreign plague that ravished many native peoples in 1833—were either killed or corralled in concentration camps upon contact. The State of California offered bounties to pioneering gold seekers for the heads of native men, women and children, and many settlers cashed in on the program. The Maidu and Nisenan of the Bear, Yuba and Feather River basins experienced near total elimination as a people, with their cultural traditions surviving in fragments carried quietly through seven generations before emerging once again at the turn of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the wealth extracted through this wholesale destruction was taken from the Yuba basin to fuel the new commercial center of San Francisco and finance the Union’s war efforts overseas and domestically.
The painful history of this narrative of California’s founding is now broadly understood by the citizenry, and has been large reconciled due to the remarkable effort in the past 50 years to heal the historic cultural and ecological wounds of the era.
The Yuba River basin is the birthplace of the Bioregional movement, owing to the expansion of watershed consciousness by resident writers such as Gary Snyder, the founding of citizen-led organizations such as the Yuba Watershed Institute and the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL), and the more recent successful campaign—known initially as the Yuba Strategy—which drew upon a broad coalition that integrated cultural rehabilitation, salmon regeneration, restoration economics, and watershed governance as interdependent goals in response to the instability and breakdown of natural and human systems at the turn of the 21st century.
Cultural Resurgence through Indigenous Rehabilitation
Maidu for We become better together
The annual statewide celebration each October of Indigenous People’s Days (IPD) began as a protest movement in Berkeley in the last century and gained deeper meaning beginning in the Year 2000 with the
IPD celebrations in the Yuba basin, sponsored by Tsi Akim Maidu Tribe and non-tribal community groups. The IDP celebrations began as a conscious invitation for Indian and non-Indian people to come together to heal intergenerational wounds that began in the Gold Rush era through watershed-based work projects and the sharing of traditional ceremonial practices that empowered all peoples in becoming indigenous to their place. Today, IPD community celebrations occur in watersheds throughout California, as annual expressions that summarize year-round community projects that support the diverse cultural traditions and lifeways that have become the fabric of California’s social resilience. Recognizing the unparalleled diversity of cultures in California, it is clear now that the rehabilitation of California Indian culture in the past 50 years has created the preconditions that were necessary for the ecological and economic transformations that have served California so well in recent decades.
The story of wild salmon regeneration in California is well known, as it has shaped our identity and policy objectives for the past several decades, and has served as a barometer of success in our ability to rebalance human enterprise within the limits and processes of our natural world. After roughly a century and a half of re-engineering our hydrological cycle to serve exponential growth of industry and agriculture, the near total collapse of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta and the salmon populations of interior California became a harbinger that continuing such trends would ultimately collapse our ecological systems and the underpinnings of our over-extended economic systems.
While many fundamental changes to the economic and political systems were necessary to redesign human patterns on the California landscape, the regenerative salmon ecology of today is characterized by the re-introduction of salmon into headwater rivers of the Sierra Nevada mountains and upper Sacramento River basin. The Yuba River is exemplary due to the coordinated and inventive basin-wide initiatives implemented to support vibrant salmon populations, which include removal of negative-value dams, restoration of ecological functions (particularly in forest, meadow, riparian and floodplain ecosystems), integrated water management, and a wide range of localized actions aimed at land use practices that improve—rather than degrade—instream water quality. Specifically, since the decommissioning of Englebright and Daguerre Dam in 2020, the Yuba River flows without artificial barriers for approximate 160 miles from the high elevation reservoirs on the upper Middle and South Yuba Rivers to the Pacific Ocean. The re-operation of hydropower dams in the upper Yuba basin have also become a model for cold water management to support healthy river function and watershed biodiversity in the more erratic climate patterns that now characterize our region. Today, the Yuba River basin supports tens of thousands of self-sustaining Chinook salmon and steelhead in hundreds of river and stream miles, with over 160 species of animals benefiting from their return to the mountains.
With California on the brink of insolvency as it entered the second decade of the millennium, economic de-centralization became the driving force behind our recovery. While “green tech” industries have provided technologies that have transformed our energy and transportation systems, investments in “green infrastructure” have put people to work restoring the ecological integrity of California’s natural capital. The landmark “Earth is our Household—Let’s Act” Act that passed the US Congress and went into law in 2015 corrected an economic blindspot that persisted for hundreds of years by placing value on ecosystem services and ended the practice of externalizing the costs of industry onto the environment. In California, and particularly in the Yuba Watershed, this created incentives and new opportunity for investing in a robust service economy emphasizing physical restoration of ecological functions. What began as a rural re-vitalization program has resulted in hundreds of thousands of jobs supporting earth-based enterprises that restore public lands, sustainably produce forest and agricultural products, and mitigate against the causes and consequences of climate destabilization. Recognizing the long-term consequences of legacy mining toxins in the environment, significant investment was focused on mining toxic remediation, a public health industry which currently employees nearly 10% of the people living in the Yuba Watershed.