(This piece, originally posted in 2017, won First Place for Expository Writing in the 2018 Nevada County Fair.)
I drive Dog Bar Road along narrow twists and turns. I pass green, rolling hills; Victorian farm houses with blossoming trees and horses; abandoned barns that are hauntingly romantic; and ponds that are full from Springtime rainstorms.
In the distance, a group of female turkeys step out of the lush greenery and onto the road. I slow to a stop and see a male, with large plumage, chase after them. He passes behind daffodils and out of sight.
At the Bear River crossing, I pull over. With my hands on the overpass railing, I watch the water. This is the last remaining stretch of free flowing water between two dams on the Bear River. It’s hard to believe this fast-flowing section may soon become a reservoir if Nevada Irrigation District builds its proposed “Centennial Dam.”
At the end of Dog Bar, I turn left for the Bear River Campground. People gather along the river panning for gold. I see young children, teens, parents, and older folks. The stormy winter unearthed far more gold than we saw during the drought, I’m told.
I walk the entire length of Bear River Campground, listening to the river’s soothing music. When I come to a patch of Miner’s Lettuce, I sit down and eat a few leaves. The river lulls my senses as it spills over rocks and laps against the shore. Native bees add their notes to the song, pausing when they alight on wildflower petals. The wind brushes against the river and caresses my face; it feels fresh, as if it has never been sullied by man’s emissions. I place both my hands to the ground. My heart fills with dread knowing this land may be entirely underwater if the dam is built.
When I reach the trailhead, I see a man collecting data next to a county truck.
“Mornin,” he says.
“Howdy,” I reply.
“You picked a good time to visit the campgrounds.”
“Because it’s empty?”
“That’s right. You been here in summer?”
“No, I just moved here recently. Is it mad in summer?”
“Oh yes, lots of people camp here. It’s only $10 a night.”
“That’s the best deal in California!”
He laughs, “Aside from the free spots, I wouldn’t doubt it. Where’d you live before you moved here?”
“My last home was in San Luis Obispo.”
“Ah. I went to the Cachuma Dam a few years ago,” he says.
Most people call it the Chacuma Lake. In his face and see the monstrous cement wall and dead zones lining the perimeter of the reservoir, the hallmarks of a dam. “It’d be a shame to see that here,” I say.
“I’d hate to see that here,” he looks down at his spreadsheet.
“I’ll leave you to your work,” I say. “Have a good one.”
“You, too. Enjoy your walk.”
The trail follows the river at the base of a steep incline covered with ferns and wildflowers. Deer trails split off and lead to secluded nooks at the river’s edge. As a child, I would have played pretend games in these nooks, imagining a time before modernity. I wonder if these locations are where the Nisenan tribespeople continue their ceremonies with reverence to ancient traditions; the Nisenan people who were stripped of their land and hunted like animals during the gold rush.
I pass beneath a flowering tree, petals flutter to the ground — a gesture of love. Cottonwoods sprout bright green foliage on every branch.
Finding a large rock at the water’s edge, I listen to the river’s song and commune with the beauty around me. Soon, when the Spring rains subside, the river will return to a brilliant blue, and all the trees will be green again, their leaves will flutter in the wind like tiny fans; the banks will recede below the tree line, and people will enter the river on kayaks and rafts finding refuge from their busy lives.
I sit and think about the Nevada Irrigation District. They say the dam is a solution to climate change-driven water shortages, but don’t they know water evaporates rapidly off the top of a reservoir? Don’t they see that their other two dams on this river are never at full capacity?
I think about our Congressional Representative Doug LaMalfa. Nevada Irrigation District has requested he sell them our public land, the land I sit upon, so they can build their dam and take our water. In the past years, he has voted to pull back the EPA clean power plan, lift the moratorium on federal land coal leases, and roll back environmental regulations. I ask him regularly to share his stance on selling our land, the land I sit upon, but I have not heard back from him.
I place my hand into the cold river, the snowmelt from the Sierras. It brushes through my fingers and against my palm. I savor the moment, knowing I may not have this opportunity next year.