A river runs through it
Words by Leonie Sherman
Photos courtesy of PARC
AT THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE SIERRA FOOTHILLS, in the heart of Gold Country, Auburn State Recreation Area protects 48 miles of the North and Middle Forks of the American River and 30,000 acres of riparian, chaparral and coniferous habitats. More endurance races pass through here than anywhere else in the country. Over a million hikers, bikers, picnickers, swimmers, and whitewater enthusiasts visit every year. Though the site is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the all volunteer group Protect American River Canyons (PARC) is its unofficial guardian. Originally formed to oppose construction of the Auburn Dam, PARC’s mission has grown to include education, outreach and political lobbying, all with the goal of increasing protection of one of the wildest rivers in central California.
In the 1970s, a group of locals coalesced around preventing the construction of the Auburn Dam and PARC was born. An earthquake at Oroville Dam in 1975 led to suspension of the Auburn project, which sits on the same geologic fault. The folks who started PARC were joined by their love of the river and decided to continue their work, even after the dam construction was halted. Though they continue to fight efforts to revive the dam, the groups main focus has shifted towards encouraging responsible recreation, educating the public, advocating for further protection and basically sharing their enthusiasm for their favorite place.
PARC leads hikes and boating trips, always with the aim of increasing people’s understanding of the natural history and ecology of the area. They also collaborate with local groups to keep the Auburn State Recreation Area clean. “We have two really big annual clean-ups with hundreds of volunteers, every spring and fall,” says PARC board member Tony DeRiggi, a local physician who’s been involved with the group for over 30 years. “We fill a 30 cubic yard dumpster with trash every time!”
PARC has also produced two movies, maintained miles of trails and they sponsor an annual Wild and Scenic Film Festival. The group wrote the American River Insider’s Guide, with detailed descriptions for 75 miles of river and over a hundred miles of hiking trails in the canyons, plus information about wildlife, ecology and gold mining history. They also sponsor an annual essay contest for high school seniors, which has awarded over $14,000 to students.
“We get these great essays from young people who never grew up with the threat of the dam,” says long-time Board Member Eric Peach with a smile. “They write beautiful essays about their connection to the river and the canyon and how their families go kayaking and trail running and exploring the river. They love the area, it’s a huge part of who they are. It’s their go to place to work out, or their go to place for peace and solitude, it’s an opportunity for them to connect with nature in a meaningful way,” he explains. “And we almost lost it all.”
Though construction on Auburn Dam was halted in the 1970s, the battle to protect these sections of the North and Middle Forks of the American River isn’t over and PARC remains vigilant. “The threat of the dam has receded and our mission has expanded, but the project still has Congressional Authorization and our Congressman continues to push for it,” explains Peach.
PARC keeps the river in the public eye with tireless political advocacy as well. “We’re currently fighting to get a 5.8 mile section of the North Fork, right at the boundary of the recreation area, designated a California Wild and Scenic River,” says Peach. “That wouldn’t stop the dam from getting built, because it’s upstream, but it would lower the height of the dam a little and prevent the state and local agencies from contributing to the cost of construction if the dam ever were to go ahead.” Peach pauses. “But mostly it would protect this really gorgeous stretch of river up there.”
For nearly 30 years there was no water flowing through a three quarter mile stretch of riverbed at the former dam construction site, in the heart of Auburn State Recreation Area. In preparation for dam construction, the Bureau of Reclamation diverted the main channel through an underground tunnel. When construction was halted, the tunnel remained, the river continued to be diverted, and nobody could use that part of the river since it was a dry bed. In 1999, PARC petitioned Bill Lockyer, the state Attorney General, to take action.
Lockyer recognized that the Bureau of Reclamation was obligated to restore the river under the Public Trust Doctrine. He sent a letter to Bruce Babbitt, Clinton’s Secretary of the Interior, threatening to sue the federal government for abandoning the site and stopping people from being able to use a navigable water way. “There hadn’t been any measurable progress on Auburn Dam for almost three decades!” says Peach. That prompted the Bureau Of Reclamation to close the tunnel, restore the river, build a pumping station for Placer County Water Agency, and a create a sick set of rapids in the restored river bed for the recreational community.
“We just put pressure on them to make a whitewater park out of the fish passage that was mandated,” explains Peach. “The fish can swim up and rest in the pools and then swim a bit more, that’s what fish like to do. They got a whitewater park guy who has designed Olympic courses on other rivers in the US, to lay it out. Our water agency is a good community player. They believed this recreational side benefit would be good for the community and they convinced the bureau that there was enough public pressure to make it happen.”
Now there’s a five and a half mile section of river just three miles from downtown Auburn that has five drops of class 2 and 3 rapids that can be enjoyed all summer long. A kayaker can portage their boat back along a paved sidewalk and run the rapids again and again. “It’s called the Confluence Run, because it starts right at the confluence of the north and middle forks,” explains De Riggi. “It flows downstream for four and half miles to these exciting new rapids. They’re probably the closest rapids to the Bay Area and Sacramento.”
The rapids opened to the public on January 1, 2008. PARC won another major victory that same year when an effort led by Friends of the River led to the State Water Resources Control Board revoking the water rights for the Auburn Dam. “Water rights permits can’t exist in limbo, you have to show you’re making progress on putting those water rights to beneficial use,” explains Board Member Tim Woodall, a local attorney. “There was no evidence this project would go forward so the board agreed to revoke those permits.” Any resurrection of the dam would require a lengthy hearing process, and a new application for permits.
As the recreation area becomes more popular, local enthusiasm for the dam is waning. “Back in the day, you’d see bumper stickers for the dam, but you never see that anymore,” says De Riggi. “The chamber of commerce, the Auburn City Council and the Placer County Board of Supervisors all recognize the benefits of river-based recreation as compared to the boom and bust of large construction projects.”
“This is a much more positive outcome than we ever could have imagined or hoped for,” says Peach. “But along with all this access and beauty there comes a responsibility to respect and preserve this place so future generations — and not just humans — can enjoy it too.”