Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The story of how I accidentally and shockingly helped save a creek and now no one remembers but me and Amy.

Today's #ReverbBroads11 prompt: Is volunteering something you do regularly? If yes, where do you volunteer? If not, why not? via Kassie at

Amy and me on the bridge, summer 2010.

Interesting you should ask. I volunteer at my church. I do two things there currently. One is co-teach a Sunday school class for middle school aged students, and the other is serve on our church's religious education committee. All of which is very interesting considering I am an atheist.  But...I digress. How about, in keeping with my usual form, I do this assignment wrong and tell you about something else, something I have talked about less.

Like the time I saved a town and a creek from near destruction.

I am going to cut to the chase here. If you want to become informed about watershed issues, you will need to read something else. This will be a nuts and bolts sort of description of how I was accidentally and shockingly charged with leading a citizen's advisory committee reporting to an actual government body. The mission: to create a plan with community buy-in to fix our fracked-up streamside beach.

The old bridge.

Here is the real story:
Between 1998 and 2003, while I was in my early twenties, I was doing four things (besides chasing around little demons in cloth diapers):
  • attending local Recreation, Park and Water Board meetings in tiny little rural town, population 700+
  • taking part in the Dutch Bill Creek Watershed Group, which was an organization of local people; most of them scientifically trained environmentalists; organized around raising awareness of and creating solutions for problems in our local watershed, a tributary of the Russian River.
  • taking transformative seminars that made me sure I could change the world and
  • drinking too much coffee
The scenario was this: Camp Meeker had long been a summer resort town, whose single loveliest feature was a dammed up creek swimming hole with a Podunk snack shack and lifeguard. Since the turn of the century, this had been the case. The first year or two that I lived in Camp Meeker, that swimming hole was the best thing going on summer days, and a focal point for the community.

The swimming hole in Camp Meeker in the old days
Until the hippies ruined everything. Scratch that. Actually, it was the goddamned salmon! It turned out Coho Salmon, which are severely at risk, live and breed in Dutch Bill Creek, and that they can't actually jump thirty feet in the air to get over the dam that we had built. (Like I said, this is a not a very good scientific explanation.)

And the permit for the summer dam was withdrawn. Within a couple of seasons, what was left behind, was a gravel and algae-filled muck-pit covered with encroaching Himalayan blackberry and broken beer bottles. A sad spectacle of what was once the gathering place of a community. People felt resentful and, in a way, demoralized to have had an impersonal government agency come and take away what had been the heart of their community.

The environmentalists, who lived there, wanted a nice creek-side beach that was not a detriment to salmon as much as anyone else, but the government board and the watershed people were not really in communication, due largely to the fact that there are only so many meetings working people can go to in a month.

And I was the common link. Me and my best friend, Amy Lemmer, earth mother and community builder extraordinaire, who for some reason, took a back seat and decided to cultivate me as a leader rather than taking the driver's seat.
Winter flood over the old dam, circa 2003.
Somehow, through the process of showing up in all these places hyped up on caffeine and idealism and not being the other person in the room (who was a weirdo with a tape player that he used to record all the board meetings and then accuse the board members of everything from Brown Act violations to being secret members of the Illuminati), I was selected to get the environmentalists and the rednecks to talk to one another and recommend a course of action to the board.

Because I had no idea that this was weird, and I was a dewy-eyed idealist (as I've mentioned) I invited everyone in the world to the first meeting, including government officials working for relevant grant-writing agencies. And, weirdly, they came. The committee called itself the "Dam Plan Committee".

We met. We planned. We wrote two grants that failed. No one wanted to fund us without studies having been done. And no one wanted to fund studies. Let me make this clear: I didn't do the work. I didn't even understand the science. The committee included an engineer, a salmon geneticist, an ethnobotanist, a watershed workshop leader and wildlife biologist, an environmental educator and someone from NOAA. I didn't finish high school, and my major qualification for anything is that I am companionably bossy. I sent reminder emails, typed up reports, smoothed over ruffled feathers and kept holding up the vision of having a solution that worked for people and fish.
Then, even more strangely than anything that preceded, some drinking water was flushed into a body of natural water in our district, someone was fined, and a grant was created for $190,000 to give someone. And they gave it to us.

Because the person making the decision was the charming young woman, Leah Mahan, that I had invited from NOAA and subsequently befriended.

Then later, I got divorced, had a nervous breakdown, picked myself up, reinvented myself, had a new baby with a new man (my now husband) and moved away. And others stepped up, took the lead, took the project the rest of the way and...they finished it. They built this beautiful bridge and restored the creek bed. It is gorgeous. I have walked there.

They did it without me, but it couldn't have happened without me. You know what I mean?

So here's the thing: I don't care who you are and what your limitations are. Don't ever, ever let anyone tell you that you can't make a difference.

The new, salmon friendly bridge over Dutch Bill Creek, as seen on the Gold Ridge RCD web site.  

If you want the long version of the story, which is interesting and also makes me tear up, here it is:

1 comment:

  1. This made me CRY, I tried to post on your last blog and I lost the whole thing some where, I don’t know if you’ve heard but it’s a good run of Salmon this year! Some day if all goes well there will be dead salmon carcasses all up and down Dutch Bill Creek fertilizing the Redwoods like in the olden times!
    I cant believe it was us, and I’m so sorry I didn’t just stand up and insist that we be recognized.


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