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California Town Unites To Save a Local Stream

Alliance battles to halt Wolf Creek erosion, lift area economy

GREENVILLE fire chief Jimmy Hamblin stands in ankle-deep mud under a fog of diesel exhaust beside Wolf Creek, the stream he has grown up with in the mountains of northeastern California. Nearby, a six-yard loader grinds down the center of the channel, dumping 30-foot rooted pine logs and boulders as big as Volkswagen Bugs against the creek banks. ``This is the best thing that ever happened to Greenville,'' says Mr. Hamblin, a fourth-generation native of the Plumas County town of 2,000 people, who has called it home for more than 60 years.

What may look like an environmental atrocity is a meticulously designed effort to restore Wolf Creek to permanent health. For the first time in California, local residents and business owners are working together to re-create a stream's natural meander. The goal is long-term stability - for the creek and the town.

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As the equipment works its way down the half-mile stretch of channel, Wolf Creek's braided trickle is transformed into a stream that ripples over riffles and flows around gentle bends under a canopy of freshly planted willows and alders. ``We're going to stop erosion and we're going to protect homes. This creek is going to be beautiful-looking, peaceful. There might even be fishing again,'' Hamblin says.

Most of his life he has watched Wolf Creek die. A century of upstream mining, cattle grazing, logging, and road building had turned the tributary to the Feather River into a sadly rutted, barren stream. With each passing season, the current carried more sediment away from the mountain meadows, sharpening the creek's knifelike force and cutting deeper into its banks. Efforts to slow the erosion by straightening the channel and reinforcing the banks only increased the erosion downstream.

Hamblin, who repairs cars in the shop where his grandfather mended carriages, says he was convinced that the demise of the stream was contagious. Each time its winter torrents ripped out a chunk of a neighbor's backyard; each time federal engineers forced its channel into a sterile straight line; each time another kid crawled up its muddy banks without any fish, Hamblin felt a little bit of his hometown die with Wolf Creek.

Weary of watching the deterioration, Hamblin sought help. He found it in an unlikely alliance of 30 public agencies and 60 private landowners. Historically hostile entities - such as anglers and the Army Corps of Engineers, environmental groups and the United States Forest Service - have been cooperating since 1985 to restore the watershed of the Feather River's north fork, an area as big as Rhode Island.

Using consensus to establish their priorities, together they have built more than 20 check dams to stabilize eight river tributaries and built the first fish ladders since the state of California ran Highway 70 through the Feather River Canyon in 1938. Wildlife and fish are already returning to the 3,000 acres of wetlands and 10 miles of severely degraded stream that the alliance has restored.

The combined projects have pumped almost $3 million into the Plumas County economy and created jobs for 50 people, says Leah Wills, coordinator of the watershed project for Plumas Corporation, a nonprofit economic development firm.

It was Ms. Wills, an economic development specialist, who encouraged Hamblin to get his Greenville neighbors involved in reviving Wolf Creek. They contacted Dave Rosgen, a maverick Colorado cowboy-turned-hydrologist.

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During 25 years of studying and working with streams, Mr. Rosgen has developed a strategy for stabilizing water systems by rediscovering their historic curves and flood plains. In place of traditional steel and concrete solutions, he tries to mimic nature, using rocks, willows, and rooted logs as bank builders.

Hundreds of creeks across the country could use his help, but Rosgen was attracted to Wolf Creek by the cooperation among private homeowners, public agencies, anglers, ranchers, and loggers.

`THIS is the first time that people have pooled their money and energy to solve a common problem on a creek that no individual could do alone. They will end up creating their own strong river ethic and having ownership in Wolf Creek,'' Rosgen says.

His design for Wolf Creek lengthens the channel by building back its natural bends. Boulders strategically placed across the stream will dissipate the creek's erosive energy and roll the current from bank to bank, where root wads can protect the exposed soil until willows and other plants take over. Rosgen also built flood plains to give the water some place to go during high flows.

``I see myself as a representative of the river,'' Rosgen says.

Local loggers felled trees donated by the US Forest Service. Gold miners donated rocks, which were hauled to Wolf Creek by a local unit of the Army National Guard. Greenville students are reseeding the banks, conducting pool riffle surveys, and measuring channel widths as part of an innovative 10-year monitoring program.

In the process, the community is creating a healthy resource with tremendous economic potential. By tying economic stability to environmental stability, the project is reversing the historic pattern of resource extraction and environmental degradation, Wills says.``We need to take care of our resource base so it can take care of us - the same way an entrepreneur would manage capital. Our capital as a county is our beauty and resource wealth,'' she says.

The $400,000 Wolf Creek project was funded by grants from the California Department of Water Resources, the US Forest Service, the State Water Resources Control Board, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The agencies view the restoration as an opportunity to improve water quality, one of their direct responsibilities.

For Pacific Gas and Electric, whose 700,000 electrical customers depend on hydroelectricity from 10 Feather River power plants, restoring Wolf Creek is a straightforward business investment. Every yard of erosion prevented saves $5 in repairs to downstream power plants, says company representative Larry Harrison.

If it's good for Wolf Creek, the project has to be good for Greenvile, Hamblin says. ``Every time somebody did something to this creek it made it bad for someone else,'' he says. ``This time everybody is working together to make it good for everyone.''

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