Yuba In Crisis

On a typical warm Saturday at the South Yuba River State Park, treacherously parked cars stick out into Highway 49. The few trash cans at the crossing overflow with pool noodles, coolers, flip flops, chip bags and half-eaten sandwiches. More wrappers, paper and glass litter the beaches. There is a cacophony of boom-boxes and human and animal waste steam in the summer sun for the next group to find. 

More people now visit the Yuba than any major park in Northern California. In fact, in the entire state, only Yosemite and Joshua Tree see bigger numbers. However, these are national parks, with extensive staff and infrastructure to manage crowds. The Yuba has nothing comparable. It doesn’t have a singular governing body to manage trash, build parking lots, widen roads, and generally make sure this park is not destroyed.

Last year, over 800,000 people visited the seventeen square mile stretch that comprises the South Yuba River State Park, a 60 percent increase over the last four years. It’s obvious to anyone living here why this is so: hot granite, deep turquoise swimming holes, and a sense that nobody is in charge as you dive naked off a rock. 

The park isn’t equipped to handle this level of attention. For instance, “locals” spot, Edwards Crossing, only has 25 designated parking spaces. During a peak season Saturday, last year, at the crossing, Nevada County Department of Public Works employees counted a total of 567 cars parked throughout the day. Using State Parks’ assumption of 2.2 persons per vehicle, there were nearly 1300 individuals at Edwards Crossing throughout that afternoon — or about 12 percent of the combined population of Grass Valley and Nevada City. 

Locals feel like they can’t swim in their own backyard.

Meagan Chittock, a bartender at Grass Valley Brewing Company, says she and her husband “gave up” going to the Yuba. 

“We passed 20 people on our hike back,” says Chittok. “They all asked, ‘What’s the best spot to go to?’ and ‘How do we get down to the water?’ Now when we go, we just leave more frustrated than before.”

Nick McMurry, a Grass Valley entomologist, expressed similar irritation. 

“There is a total disregard for land stewardship. People park in dangerous ways,” he says.“I found tons of trash. Graffiti. More than I’ve ever seen. It got so bad I gave up going to the river.”

Stories in Sunset and SFGate set the stage, but the more recent use of Instagram has caused the photogenic park to go viral.  There are over 50,000 geo-tags — location data published on uploaded pictures — of #yuba and #yubariver on Instagram. These tags allow people to easily find locations on Google or Apple maps. By contrast, Lassen National Park only has 21,000 tags. Google Trends data shows a consistent sharp spike in interest in the Yuba every year as the weather warms.  The popular Netflix series, Abstract: The Art of Design, even featured the Yuba in one of its recent episodes.

On Reddit, the 80,000-member Sacramento Subreddit is inundated with questions about tips on visiting the Yuba. One user expressed concern about armed weed growers, urging future visitors to “STAY ON THE TRAIL”.

Yuba visitors don’t have to worry about armed weed growers nearly as much as they do about finding a bathroom or a trash can.

Smoky fall evening. Photo by Joseph Hudson

A hodge-podge of government entities and nonprofits share responsibility for managing the Yuba, but the group moves slowly. They call themselves the Yuba River Safety Cohort and they’re made up of county supervisors and staff, fire district representatives, law enforcement, people from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and State Parks, nonprofits like South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) and concerned neighborhood groups.

The cohort meets over Zoom and sets public safety priorities each month. The primary goals are reducing fire risk, injury, and drownings. Last year the Cohort installed a callbox at Purdon Crossing, another popular river destination, using grant funding.

“Things like callboxes at river crossings can make the difference in a fire getting out of control,” says Sarah Holyhead, Program Coordinator for Nevada County. “There is no service at these crossings, and emergency response is twenty to thirty minutes out, without the potential issue of traffic.”

However, Holyhead says it will take two to three months to build a new toilet, due to state and county ADA regulations. 

“These are things that take time to work through,” says Holyhead. “It isn’t easy to widen a road or build a new parking lot.”

The Cohort is leaning on education to improve visitor behavior in the immediate.

California State Parks and SYRCL created the River Ambassador program in 2012 as a fun way to get locals involved in patrolling the river. Volunteer River Ambassadors are easily identified by a bright bandana and a State Parks-issued vest. They approach visitors and remind them how to behave responsibly: No fires, no glass, take your trash, clean up after your pets, and don’t block the road.

“We are not there to be police,” said Daniel Belshe, Community Engagement Manager for SYRCL, and trainer of new River Ambassadors, (there typically are no police at the Yuba). The Ambassadors are trained to be prepared for unpleasant encounters. After a friendly greeting, they “remind” people of the rules, and then part with the catch- phrase, “Can we count on you?” 

If there’s an emergency, the Ambassadors use their walkie-talkies to radio to River Captains, who are paid SYRCL employees hanging out near the parking areas with satellite phones. Ambassadors also loan life jackets.

“It’s so important to go talk to people coming to the river, not just bitch and moan about it,” says  Nevada City resident Barbara Jones, who has been a River Ambassador for six seasons. “You have to talk to them to make sure they don’t make these same mistakes.”

Despite the uniform and altruistic mission, SYRCL is still struggling to fill River Ambassador positions. Seventeen people attended the May 12th training session, far below the hundred-plus volunteers the organization would like to have.

SYRCL has also hosted an annual river cleanup for the last 23 years. Volunteers scour the major crossings, picking up items ranging from broken glass to toilet paper, and even old car parts. Because of COVID, last year’s cleanup was largely a dud. Only 6800 pounds of trash and recycling were collected;  a major drop from 2019’s record of 33,000 pounds. 

Some locals are taking river stewardship into their own hands. 

Local artist and activist Chula Gemignani recently self-published a book with poet Meredith Heller aimed at educating river-goers. Called Riverways: The River Goers Guide to River Etiquette, it combines inspirational poetry and hot tips about things like how to poop in the woods with Gemignani’s illustrations. The poem entitled “Smoke” reads:

All night

the river boys

Smoked

& plucked stars 

from the strings

of their sitar 

I rocked naked 

in the hammock

under the trees

letting the last

dregs of sorrow

evaporate 

from my bones

From “Riverways”

Gemignani  hopes to sell Riverways at local stores, and is in the process of printing postcards featuring bite-sized wisdom and river etiquette from the book.

“There are a lot of people who complain online but we need more people out there doing the work,” says Gemignani. “It’s my way of helping the future generations here.”

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