Water is Gold: Yuba River a source of beauty and of wealth.

By Kevin Wiser


The South Yuba River flows between boulders not far from the old Highway 49 bridge crossing near Independence Trail. In an old Toyota wagon, with his gold-panning gear stowed in the back, 78-year-old retired geologist Rudy Kopf rattles down a familiar road to the river. "I could drive this road blindfolded," says Kopf, who makes the journey to the South Fork of the Yuba at least three times a week. He steers the Toyota around rocks in Purdon Road and stops now and then to pick up trash along the way. "I adopted this road 20 years ago, and I'm trying to keep it clean," says Kopf, as he cranks the emergency brake and jumps out to retrieve another pop can.

Located north of Nevada City, Purdon Road winds its way down to Purdon Crossing, one of Kopf's favorite gold-panning spots. Standing at the water's edge, he points upriver from the rickety old bridge. "The gold panner looks upstream and tries to visualize what the water did during flood stage," says Kopf, who learned to respect the power of water during his nearly 30 years with the U.S. Geologic Survey. "Wherever the water slows down - behind rocks and boulders - is where the gold comes to rest." Kopf scoops gravel from a crack in a slab of bedrock and kneels down at the river's edge. He swirls the water around in the pan and shakes it, then pours out the rocks and gravel and lets the water sluice over the edge of the pan until all that's left at the bottom are the black sands of magnetite and a couple of flecks of glittering gold.

"It's just a hobby," says Kopf, who's been gold panning since he retired. "Sometimes I even find enough gold to pay for the gas." Looking over the river at Purdon Crossing, Kopf measures the state of the South Yuba in geologic terms dating back millions of years and sees nature's bigger picture, which spans epochs. "It was the South Yuba that cut canyons, moved mountains and shaped Nevada County's landscape more than 50 million years ago, but we see the river at only one brief stage in its life," Kopf says. "The river was here long before man appeared on earth. The laws of nature are far more powerful than the laws of man, and the river will be here long after man is gone. The human species is arrogant to think that it can permanently damage the earth or modify nature to man's own will. Nature tends to heal itself. To get to the river bottom and the richest deposits of gold, miners during the Gold Rush Era dredged, dammed and diverted the flow of the South Yuba. Looking at the river now, you can't tell that anyone dredged it. Floods remove any trace of humans in a very short time. The only lasting trace of man's presence at Purdon Crossing (above right), for instance, are the concrete footings of the bridge itself. But even that will go in the next 1,000-year flood," he says.

Kopf, who considers himself a naturalist, says most environmentalists are well-intended. "But tinkering with Mother Nature has great implications," Kopf cautioned. In nature, you can't affect one species without affecting a host of others. Darwin's theory of evolution suggests the fittest species survives, but the U.S. Congress, in enacting the Endangered Species Act, overrules Darwin's theory. Throughout the planet's approximate 4-billion-year history, millions of species have evolved, but the fossil record shows many have become extinct. If Mother Nature decides to have another volcanic eruption that covers the Sierra, the Environmental Protection Agency would insist on an Environmental Impact Study. But nature ignores EPA regulations and doesn't favor one or another species. We're all part of the food chain."

Kopf says every generation creates its own fear in order to justify environmental control and regulations. "During my childhood, it was the fear of being stunted by coffee, tea and cocoa. In my kid's generation, the popular fear was the end of the world due to atomic war. Today's children are being taught that we'll destroy the environment and the world will end, but the earth doesn't know that, and it keeps on spinning, just as the South Yuba will keep flowing."

The old Highway 49 bridge near Independence Trail arcs across the South Yuba, where boulders big as buses have been scattered about like Tonka Toys by the forces of water and erosion.

"I've been coming here since I was 6," says Nevada County Supervisor Elizabeth Martin, who describes her relationship with the river as lifelong. "I love the river; it's just the best place on earth." For Martin, the river symbolizes the "circle of life." It irrigates crops, supports myriad forms of wildlife and provides endless recreation. "We are rich to have this river." In a region where water is a precious commodity sought by many interests, the South Fork of the Yuba spills down from the high Sierra like a shimmering ribbon. "Water is gold," says Martin, who lobbied to add a 39-mile stretch of the South Yuba to California's Wild and Scenic list, a designation that protects the river from new dams and diversions. Water - and who controls it - is a key political issue in California and across the arid West. The hard thing about preserving the river is all the different entities that have an interest in it," she says, looking down on throngs of locals who line the river's banks on this day. Martin says she'll do whatever it takes to protect the river, but as a farmer, she realizes how important the river is for irrigation. "Which means we have to work together and compromise. There has to be balance." (Kevin Wiser's Monday, Aug 6, 2001 Union article, "Water is gold: Yuba River a source of beauty and of wealth. We knew both men, now deceased.)

The powerful Yuba river at flood stage, moving boulders, grinding, sanding, cleaning and redoing itself during the winter. Punishing small gold dredgers with false stories that they interfere with spawning fish and expose mercury etc. is nothing compared to what the river does during the winter months. One picture is worth a thousand words...like the close-up below.