Who Is Waterkeeper: Melinda Booth, Yuba River Waterkeeper - Waterkeeper

Who Is Waterkeeper: Melinda Booth, Yuba River Waterkeeper

By: Thomas Hynes

Melinda Booth
Melinda Booth

The Yuba River runs for about a hundred miles from its origins in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Lake Tahoe in Northern California downhill to the Sacramento Valley toward the middle of the state.  Historically, the area was densely populated with Native Americans, including several indigenous groups such as the Konkow, Maidu, Nisenan and Washoe. 

In the 1800s, the area was flooded with Gold Rush prospectors looking to make their fortunes. These eager capitalists quickly transitioned from low-tech panning methods to more industrialized techniques. Hydraulic mining, which uses highly pressurized jets of water to strip away the land, was first employed in the Yuba River. Today, some 640 million cubic yards of Gold Rush-era gravel and sediment remain in the river. 

South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL), the parent organization of Yuba River Waterkeeper, was founded in 1983 in opposition to dams. In 1999, the group secured ‘wild and scenic’ status for 39 miles of the river, which is among the strongest forms of protection for free-flowing rivers and streams. In 2015, SYRCL joined Waterkeeper Alliance and created the position of Yuba River Waterkeeper. 

“SYRCL was already doing the work of a Waterkeeper, so it made sense,” says Melinda Booth, Yuba River Waterkeeper and SYRCL’s Executive Director. “It allowed us to have a stronger and more powerful voice in advocacy and, if necessary, litigation. It was a no brainer.”

Melinda has been Yuba River Waterkeeper since 2018. Previously, she worked in wildlife conservation, specifically with Defenders of Wildlife, where she worked on issues related to condors, bears, and otters. Though maybe her most memorable former work experience was at the California Wolf Center, where Mexican gray wolves were housed and captively bred for reintroduction to the Southwest as an ‘experimental, nonessential designated population.’  There was even an education pack of wolves that had interactions with humans. She learned with the reintroduction effort in the Southwest that there wasn’t a lot of good will toward wolves. But there also wasn’t much habitat either.

“Working in wildlife conservation led me to work for larger landscape conservation because it has the ability to benefit people and wildlife,” says Melinda. “And clean water is such a huge part of a healthy ecosystem and a healthy landscape. It’s important to people, it’s important to animals. It’s important to the overall health of the earth.”

That is why Yubar River Waterkeeper and SYRCL work toward watershed-wide protection and restoration. They are currently working with partners to restore nearly 500 acres of the Van Norden Meadow, which serves as the headwaters for the Yuba River. 

Another project that brings Melinda back to her wildlife conservation roots is a 42- acre salmon habitat restoration. Dams have kept salmon from reaching the upper stretches of the river.The Lower Yuba,still has significant salmon runs, and has been identified as one of the last refuge and recovery areas for salmon, below its rim dam, Englebright. However, debris from 19th century mining expeditions still acts as an obstruction for the salmon. This restoration projection is essentially removing old Gold Rush -era gravel from the river. 

Today’s Gold Rush on the Yuba River comes by way of tourism. Instead of prospectors looking to get rich quick, it is visitors hoping to recreate. Nearly a million people a year visit the river, which is more than most national parks attract. Looking at the river’s stunning emerald waters, it is easy to see why so many are drawn to the Yuba. 

While dams and tourism put pressure on the well being of the watershed, wildfires pose the greatest threat. It’s smokey in the summertime. It’s a health problem for human beings and a danger to the watershed. 

“Our forests are overstocked so when the fire goes up, it goes right up. They burn hot. It can kill the soil. It can burn through towns,” says Melinda. “Carbon emissions go up because of the fires. It’s reversing a lot of the sequestration.”  

One solution is to thin the forest and cut down trees. This has the potential to also help with drought. Otherwise, the forest ends up with too many young trees soaking up the water resources.  It is similar to too many straws in a cup of water. 

Though it may sound counterintuitive, reintroducing some burning to the landscape may also help the problem. That is why they are so involved with forest health initiatives, including the 300,000-acre project on the North Yuba River. 

“The forests are in trouble because these landscapes evolved with fire and then we took it away,” says Melinda. “We humans are not always super good at the big picture for the long term.”

Nonetheless, Melinda does have a big picture vision in mind for her watershed. It includes a forest that is receptive to fire. But it also includes removing a lot of deadbeat dams, reintroducing salmon, and allowing nutrients to return to the upper parts of the river. Ideally, there would be enough salmon to support a local fishing industry. 

“It’s a big vision, but it’s not unachievable,” says Melinda. “These things are doable and possible.” 

To achieve all this work, Yuba River Waterkeeper relies on a huge network of volunteers. Each fall, they organize a river cleanup that draws about 800 people. They also rely on community help to pull off their world-famous Wild and Scenic Film Festival, named for the ‘wild and scenic’ status that SYRCL achieved in 1999. Community members also implement the river’s citizen science monitoring program, which has provided over 20 years of data on water quality. 

A lot of help also comes by way of other Waterkeepers. The relationships, the camaraderie, the opportunity to ask questions to folks who are doing similar work, to get advice, and not reinvent the wheel. However, Melinda also credits the staff at SYRCL and Yuba River Waterkeeper for all they do.  

“I put my heart and soul into this work, but we have a staff of 25 people who also put their heart and soul into the work that they do,” says Melinda. We really are a team and this just happens to be the role that I play.”