American River History

The American River Natural History Association (ARNHA), was founded in 1981 to support educational and interpretive activities in the American River Parkway in cooperation with the Sacramento County's Effie Yeaw Nature Center. In keeping with its mission of Bringing People to Nature...and Nature to People, ARNHA publishes books exploring the natural and human history of the American River in the Sacramento region.

See a list of ARNHA Publications.

SARA's First 50 Years

[Originally published in SARA's 50th Anniversary edition of RiverWatch, Fall 2011]
By Stephen Green

Most crusades begin in a small meeting somewhere.  This one was launched on the night of Feb. 28, 1961, in the Community Room of the Fulton-El Camino Park District in Sacramento.

A group of river warriors gathered there to discuss how to preserve the fishery, wildlife and recreation values of the Lower American River and its 23-mile riparian corridor.  By the time the warriors adjourned to a nearby pub, Save the American River Association (SARA) had been born. 

For 50 years, SARA members have been the foremost policy advocates for preservation and enhancement of what has become the magnificent American River Parkway.

The catalyst for that long-ago meeting was a decision by the Sacramento County Planning Commission to approve the placement of a subdivision within 125 feet of the Lower American.  SARA’s founders weren’t about to let that happen.

“SARA stalwarts,” wrote historian Peter J. Hayes, “are usually the first to go to court, testify at hearings and write letters to the editor to stop threats to the river and Parkway.”

Dave Jones, a former Sacramento Assemblyman and current California Insurance Commissioner, has said region’s residents “are truly blessed to have SARA as the advocate for this treasure. … I wish you another 50 years of continued advocacy.”

With more than 8 million visits annually, the Lower American is the most heavily used river for recreation in California.   The river meanders through the 6,160-acre Parkway in some of the most densely populated areas of the county.  No other urban area in the West has a comparable resource. The Parkway has become a prime destination for people who fish, bike, walk, jog, golf and float down the river in rafts, kayaks and canoes.

People come to the Parkway for recreation, picnics, bird watching, horseback riding, or simply to enjoy the natural beauty and wildlife in the area.  Even in inclement weather, people cycle to work on the Parkway’s 82 miles of maintained trails. Each of those Parkway visits generates an average of $19 for the regional economy, or more than $364 million annually, according to a 2006 study.

The Parkway’s initial 23 miles stretched from the face of Nimbus Dam to the American River’s confluence with the Sacramento River in downtown Sacramento. After the revised American River Parkway Plan was incorporated into state law in 2009, the Parkway now extends another 6 miles over Lake Natoma (the small reservoir created by Nimbus Dam) to the face of Folsom Dam.  That addition gave the Parkway another 500 acres of surface water and 1,600 acres of land.

But on that night SARA was established 50 years ago, what we now call the American River Parkway looked far different. The Lower American River corridor included:

  • A sewage plant.
  • Three large farms.
  • The Deterding Ranch (now Ancil Hoffman Park).
  • An abandoned area called a “borrow” where dirt and rock had been extracted for infill elsewhere (now River Bend  Park).
  • Six sites where aggregate was being dug up for construction -- including two sites in the river.
  • Acres of dredger tailings left behind during the Gold Rush.
  • One trailer court and tavern.
  • One riding stable.
  • Numerous trash and dump sites.

The transformation has been accomplished because SARA’s advocates have spent countless hours working cooperatively when possible with local, state and federal governments, concerned citizens, business leaders and like-minded organizations.

Much of the advocacy has led changes in federal and state laws and regulations, and in local ordinances, in addition to long-range planning.  SARA also has developed grassroots groups to take on special projects and for land acquisition, to fight intrusive development on the Parkway, to promote bond issues, and to work for restoring fisheries and improving flow standards on the river.

There have been victories and losses, and lawsuits – including one that was in the courts for 20 years.  But from the beginning, SARA has looked more like a movement of people dedicated to restoring and enhancing the Lower American River corridor.

There also was recognition that the American River is part of a complicated statewide network of water storage and delivery.   Whatever occurs in any link of the chain can have adverse effects on the American River.  Consequently, SARA has been involved in water and fishery issues in many areas of California.

The creation of the Parkway, however, was a concept that was a long time coming.  In fact, it pre-dates SARA’s founding by more than a half century.  In 1915, City Planner John Nolen submitted a plan to Sacramento City Commissioners calling for a continuous park along the American River.  He even referred to it as, quote: “The American River Parkway.”

After passage of the first State Park Bond Act in 1929, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., son of the planner and landscape architect considered the Father of American Landscapes, surveyed the entire state for potential park and recreation sites.

In the Sacramento area, he proposed a parkway plan for the Sacramento River and its tributaries.   In 1947, Olmstead updated the Sacramento River plan to include development of recreation facilities, public parking and docks.  The plan also called for controlling development adjacent to the parkway thru local planning and zoning.

Two years later, the county received a $200,000 matching grant from the State Parks Commission, and in 1950 the first property acquisition was made at Paradise Beach.

But there was little progress for nearly a decade.   Folsom and Nimbus Dams were completed in 1955 as the region’s population was surging.  New levees were built by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers along the north side of the river from the then-end of Arden Way (where the bicycle bridge is now) down to Cal Expo, thus all allowing the land behind the levee to be developed for urban uses.  The levee location has two impacts.  First, it reduced the amount of land that eventually would be in the Parkway.  Second, as we found out years later, it reduced the flood channel capacity, thus creating serious flooding problems for Sacramento.

Finally in March of 1959, the Sacramento County Supervisors adopted an ordinance forming the County Dept. of Parks and Recreation, and hired William B. Pond as the director.

Pond had held management positions in parks departments in Renton, Wash., and Beaverton, Ore.  He worked well with politicians, county employees, industrialists and land owners.  And it was soon obvious to all that he was a gifted and able visionary.  As his son Steve Pond has said: “Good people saw their own better natures reflected in him.”

Pond formed friendships with people who would be founders of SARA including Jim Mullaney, Harold Severaid, Elmer Aldrich, Howard Leach and the indefatigable Effie Yeaw, the Carmichael school teacher who regularly took children on nature walks on the river while campaigning for creation of the Parkway.

Soon after Pond’s arrival, he was exploring the Lower American by foot, horse and canoe, “trespassing when I couldn’t get permission,” he would say later.  “My main interest and focus remained the potential for a unique environment and recreational opportunity offered by the American River.”

Pond began directing development of the first master plan for the Parkway in 1960.  Soon thereafter, county supervisors approved the first land acquisitions for the Parkway.  When the final plan was before the supervisors in 1962, it was unanimously adopted in concept and incorporated into the County General Plan.

SARA’s future founders were involved in the master plan development, including the drafting of the operating concept which remains in place today:

“The American River Parkway is a unique regional facility which shall be managed to balance the goals of:

 a) preserving naturalistic open space and protecting environmental quality within the urban environment and

b) contributing to the provision of recreational opportunity in the Sacramento Area.”

Goal b was restricted to the “accommodation of the demand for passive, unstructured, river-oriented recreational pursuits in a natural environment which are not normally provided by other County recreational facilities, in a manner which minimized the impact on the environment.”

Pond was among those present at SARA’s 1961 organizational meeting.  He led a long and productive life and was active in park issues until shortly before his passing at age 91 in 2009.  In 1983, county supervisors paid tribute to Pond by renaming Arden Bar Park the William Pond Recreation Area.

One of SARA’s first projects was the production of a film, “Operation STAR – Save the American River.”  SARA’s speaker’s bureau had members talking at service clubs, homeowner associations and any other venue they could find.  They distributed pamphlets and courted the news media. 

And there were some unique fundraising campaigns such as the “Elbow Room.”  For a $1 donation, people would get a mock deed for one square yard of Parkway land.  SARA raised enough to buy 15 acres including a half mile of waterfront upriver from the Watt Avenue Bridge.  The land was conveyed to the county and is now named SARA Park.

From the beginning, SARA has had strong leadership.  One of the most exceptional leaders joined the organization in the mid-1960s, a fly fisherman named Frank Cirill.

Cirill held key positions in SARA through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and still serves on the SARA Board of Directors as President Emeritus.  During those decades, he produced some of SARA’s most consequential victories.  To every task, he brought an engineer’s discipline and a probing intellect that often produced positive results.  Much of his success is attributable to his ability to recruit new members with expertise in water law, wildlife and environmental issues, and community organizing.

One of Cirill’s early concerns was inadequate water flows in the Lower American, which sometimes dribbled as low as 250 cubic feet per second.  That led in 1969, to the organization of a coalition of fishing clubs and environment groups called “The Committee for an Adequate Guaranteed Minimum Water Flow on the Lower American River.”

In 1972, the State Water Resources Control Board issued Decision 1400 which set minimum flows of 1250 cubic feet per second and 1500 feet per second during the peak recreation season.  Decision 1400 would only have applied if Auburn Dam had been built.  Since it wasn’t, Decision 1400 had no effect.  Minimum flows remained at 250 cubic feet per second  -- and nearly 40 years later, SARA is still lobbying for increased flows in the river.

Two years earlier, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) negotiated a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for 150,000 acre feet of American River water annually.  That set off decades of disputes and legal actions that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and consumed much of the time of SARA’s leaders and finances thru the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  SARA’s position was that there were to be no more water diversions from the Lower American.  That is the position that eventually prevailed.

The bureau began construction of the Folsom South Canal in the early 1970s to suck water out of Lake Natoma 23 miles upstream from the American River’s confluence with the Sacramento River.  It was to carry water down the Central Valley’s east side.  But a suit by SARA and the Environmental Defense Fund (and eventually joined by Sacramento County) stopped canal construction at the now-defunct Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in south Sacramento County.

EBMUD’s plan was to divert water from Nimbus Dam into the Folsom-South Canal.  EBMUD water then would be sent from the canal into the EBMUD’s existing pipes that carry Mokelumne River water from the Sierras (east of Stockton) to Alameda and Contra Costa Counties in the Bay Area.   But the environmental litigants weren’t about to let that happen.  SARA’s position was that the river would be substantially damaged by EBMUD’s proposed diversion, which would be about 10 percent of the river’s flow.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually remanded the case to Alameda County Superior Court.  And in 1989, Judge Richard Hodge upheld EBMUD’s contractual rights to American River water, but specified the EBMUD could not divert water unless there were “adequate flows” in the river.  Those flow quantities have since been known as the “Hodge Flows” and represented a significant victory for SARA and Sacramento County.

In 1994, SARA took the issue to the Sacramento Area Water Forum.  After more years of contentious meetings and incredibly hostile negotiations, the Water Forum, SARA and their allies convinced EBMUD that the only way for EBMUD to get the water it needed was to tap the Sacramento River rather than the American.  The Sacramento River diversion facility was completed by EBMUD and Sacramento County at Freeport, about a dozen miles south of the confluence of the American River with the Sacramento River.

EBMUD diversion plans were SARA’s most expensive and time-consuming battle to date.  But it was just one of many issues SARA has tackled over the years.

The Parkway’s master plan has been updated twice and was eventually incorporated into state law.  Encroachments on the Parkway are an ongoing problem as are inappropriate activities such as drunken orgies and off-trail mountain biking in wildlife areas.

In 1972, SARA promoted a $12.6 million bond issue which voters approved.  Approximately 80 percent of the money was spent on Parkway land acquisition and development of the bicycle trail along the length of the Parkway.  In 1978, SARA won voter approval of a second bond measure to relocate a sewage plant and permanently stop sewage discharges into the Lower American.

In the early 1980s, contaminated groundwater was found in Rancho Cordova wells and leaching into the Lower American.  The sources eventually were traced to the Aerojet General Corporation chemical and rocket plants, and to a similar operation owned by McDonnell-Douglas Corporation (since acquired by the Boeing Company).  As the underground plumes of contaminated water from the industrial plants spread, existing domestic water wells became polluted and unusable.  That has forced water purveyors to look to alternative supplies, including the American River.  SARA engaged local and state regulators in the problem, and a vast area of the county became a federal Superfund site. 

Incredibly, however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the State Dept. of Toxic Substances Control and the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board all agreed to a groundwater cleanup program that could last for 200 years!

In 2009, the Sacramento County Dept. of Water Resources filed suit to force expedited cleanup.   No court date has been set, and SARA is monitoring the case.  When the suit was filed, Keith DeVore of the county department said that “after more than nine years of discussion, Aerojet and Boeing have yet to accept their responsibility and provide any meaningful proposal to resolve the very serious damage they have inflicted on the area’s water supply.”

In 1980 and 81, SARA lobbied President Jimmy Carter’s Administration to designate the Lower American a federally protected Wild & Scenic River.  Approval was granted several hours before Carter left office.

SARA supported establishing the Sacramento State University Aquatic Center on eight acres adjacent to Lake Natoma in 1981.  SARA representatives were involved in planning and development for the state-of-the-art facility that replaced metal sheds on the site in 2003.

By 1985, however, there were proposals to put a recreation vehicle campground on Lake Natoma along with a dinner boat, and to establish a golf course at Mississippi Bar.  SARA put together a coalition of environment groups and neighborhood associations called the Lake Natoma Community Task Force.  Legal action was initiated and the proposals eventually died.  

In 1993, Cal Expo planned to put a 40-acre parking lot in the Parkway near Bushy Lake -- an area that was predominately wetlands and wildlife habitat.  The plan was in direct conflict with the Bushy Lake Preservation Act – another SARA initiative – which was signed into state law in 1976.  SARA board members spearheaded the effort to kill the parking lot project and even had to beat back state enabling legislation.  The area has been preserved in its original state.

That same year, SARA was a founding member of the Sacramento Area Water Forum composed initially of 15 government and stakeholder organizations with an interest in the Lower American.  After six years and the expenditure of $10 million, the Water Forum Agreement was adopted in 2000 which guides management of the river to protect water quality and wildlife over the following 30 years.

In 1995, a six-year struggle began to preserve the Fair Oaks Bluffs, a 4.5-acre parcel offering stunning views of the river, the Sierra Nevada and portions of the Central Valley.  SARA again put together a coalition of concerned organizations and citizens, went to court and the land is now part of the Parkway.

Today, SARA continues to be embroiled in Parkway issues involving river flow standards, fisheries, inappropriate recreational activities, public and private development adjacent to the Parkway, and illegal sewage discharges upstream.

In the past year, much time, energy and financial resources have been committed to the crisis facing Sacramento County’s Regional Parks.  Sacramento County has dismantled its Regional Parks Department and cut funding to the point that there are no longer sufficient resources for clean, properly maintained facilities, and the policing of parks for public safety and to prevent vandalism.

SARA convened the Grassroots Working Group (GWG) of park stakeholders which spent a year and more than $50,000 studying options for securing adequate, stable and long-term funding for the regional parks.

After surveying potential voters, GWG concluded that Sacramento County voters would be willing to approve a one-tenth of a cent sales tax increase to fund an independent parks district to provide permanent funding for regional parks.

To date, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors hasn’t accepted that recommendation.  Instead, they announced plans for an advisory committee to explore options for long-term funding, operations and maintenance of the regional parks. 

SARA leaders expect to participate and will continue to look at options for establishing an independent regional park district.  Already, a successor group to the GWG is forming to carry on the effort to secure stable funding and management of the regional parks.

“The crisis facing our regional parks, and the American River Parkway in particular, continues unabated,” said SARA President Warren V. Truitt.  “SARA’s leadership is committed to the advocacy of appropriate solutions.”

He noted that SARA’s founders thought the organization would outlive its usefulness once the Parkway was established.

“And here we are 50 years later, still advocating for preservation of the values on which the Parkway was founded,” he reflected. “The American River Parkway always will be a work in progress – as will SARA’s mission as the Parkway’s champion.”

Public recognition has been given to four former SARA directors.  “Their names have been given to features and facilities on the Parkway to forever commemorate their outstanding contributions,” Truitt said.  They are:

Effie Yeaw – The Effie Yeaw Nature Center

Jim Mullaney – Jim Mullaney Memorial Grove

Hal Richey – Hal Richey Bicycle Bridge

Jim Jones – Jim Jones Bridge & Recreation Area


Early History of the American River Parkway

In the late 1940's, Mr. Elmer Aldrich joined the State Parks as Conservation Supervisor.  He said that a renowned planner and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., had been hired to conduct studies to help guide the direction for State Parks for the post-war period.  Elmer and others attended meetings with Mr. Olmsted and learned that he already had emphasized the importance of some kind of protection, including a parkway for the "Sacramento River and its Tributaries."  Olmsted Jr., is the son of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., the designer of Central Park of New York.  Also at that time, those connected with State Parks, in looking to the future, studied a number of early proposals for protection of the American River.  Some of those proposals dated back as far as 1915, when John Nolen, a Town Planner, outlined, in general, the possibility of a parkway.  A search was made for all previous proposals for the protection of the Sacramento and American Rivers.

This was a period when State Parks was under great public and political pressure to do something to stem the burgeoning demand for outdoor recreation.  As usual, this type of demand brings on the nightmare of all park administrators whose parks include some beautiful natural scenery.

The critical question was, "How can you achieve the best acceptable balance when every proposed recreation development removes some of the natural values?"  You can always remove or replace unwanted developed facilities, but it may take 100 years to restore the original natural scene!

As in the American River Parkway, this conflict was rampant as late as in the 2006 Parkway Plan.  During the earlier period, State Parks wisely decided to initially put its resources into acquisition of desirable areas such as Coast, Desert, Redwoods and Sierra that were threatened with rapidly advancing urbanization.

Bond Acts were achieved to accomplish much of these, with some of the funds allotted to local projects.  State Parks opposed taking over Folsom Lake, and felt that it was a Federal Project and should be operated by them.  The final decision was decided politically.

In the late forties and early fifties, there was growing public pressure for more outdoor recreation which precipitated a counter movement to preserve natural areas.  As this conflict grew, no agency of government stepped forward to take on the responsibility.  State Parks leaned toward acquiring areas of natural and historic importance and leaving the more urban, high density, regional type recreation to the responsibility of local governments.  Some of those connected with State Parks were dismayed that the care for the American River was "falling through the cracks" among levels of government.

Elmer became active in the newly formed chapters of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.  There he found groups of people with equal concern for the river.  After a number of informal meetings, it was decided to organize, to seek an agency to assume the responsibility for accomplishing a Parkway.  To do this in 1950, "The River Recreation and Parks Association" (TRRPA)

The objectives were bigger than just the American River, and park status was sought along the Sacramento River as well.  Because the users of a Parkway would go beyond county boundaries, it was felt that responsibility should be multi-county in nature.  The group explored the highly successful multi-county East Bay Regional District, and their Chairman worked with The River Recreation and Parks Association to develop a strategy for a special district.

Finally, with the help of an attorney, they presented their proposal to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.  Elmer said the Supervisors were very complimentary and agreed that something should be done, but they flatly rejected the idea of a special district!  The Board of Supervisors then directed the efforts of The River Recreation and Parks Association to the Planning Department, asking it to come up with steps to accomplish the goals of TRRPA, who then made the same presentation to the Sacramento City Council with the same results, but who agreed to discuss the proposal with the County.

Elmer said that TRRPA continued to follow the County's progress in establishing the Parkway, and "we gave up the idea of a special district because we had assurances that things were moving in the right direction.  We were pleased that the County finally agreed to form the Parkway and other organizations came along to assure its protection!  Dominant in this effort were Staff members of State Parks, Audubon, Sierra Club, and SARA."

Watch a profile of Elmer Aldrich, one of the pioneers instrumental in the creation and protection of the American River Parkway. Elmer tells us how, in the early 1950s, he and others convinced the County Board of Supervisors and the City Council of Sacramento to create the Parkway in the public interest.


by Elmer Aldrich

(This article was originally printed in "The Observer" in the March 1952 issue of the Audubon Society publication)

Persons in the Sacramento region interested in natural things are particularly fortunate. A few short Sunday miles to the east lies the great Sierra with its vertically arranged zones of plant and animal life. Between the Pacific and the Sacramento are the rolling Coast Ranges, adorned biologically much differently than the Sierra. Though both ranges differ widely, they share something in common -- in each there is at least part which remains in its original native state.

North and South of Sacramento lies a picture more altered in nature. The most that remains of the original scene is a broken and thread-like line of vegetation of the native type bordering the major river courses. Superb agricultural characteristics of this region have taken unmitigated precedence over preservation of natural values.

In California, since the war, there has been more pressure levied on the factors making up the landscape. This has manifested itself in many aspects such as: tremendous pressure upon wildlife through increased numbers of hunters and fishermen; improved and expanded agricultural and logging methods; and an alarming tourist trade. It is the tourist, and those that seek outdoor recreation, that can either be one of the best or worst influences in preserving a few remaining bits of California's native landscape for those who are truly interested in natural things.

Organizations such as the Audubon Society have done much to help in the preservation of natural areas, on a national scale. A lot of this has been done by their staunch support of governmental agencies and other conservation groups that are set up to administer such areas.

We have in the Sacramento region a perfect stage setting for a conservation project of note. Sacramento at the Apex of two great river courses is perhaps the only city of its size in the country that has not developed them into parks or at least made them available for public use.

Approximately six months ago a civic-minded handful of citizens met in the County Court House and decided to do something about making plans for developing natural type parks along the rivers. This group, now known as The River Recreation and Parks Association, is soliciting support from all local clubs and civic groups. Briefly their three-point program is this:

  1. Promote development of areas along the rivers in city ownership.
  2. Promote the acquisition and development of river recreation areas by the State, and
  3. Promote the establishment of a Regional Park District.

This enterprising group has roughly selected its territory as lying along the Sacramento River from Verona to Rio Vista and along the American River from Folsom Dam to the mouth. The Association's basic desire is to see an integrated park system covering this area with developments connected by a parkway, a scenic drive.

One of the first moves of the group was by resolution to ask the State Park Commission to conduct a survey in this vicinity indicating areas desirable for inclusion in the State Park System. The new planning unit of the State Division of Beaches and Parks has made progress in this regard.

A report will soon be completed, and probably will recommend acquisition of considerable frontage north of Sacramento and an area along the American.

$200,000 has been allocated form the State Park Fund for purchase of areas on the Sacramento, American and Feather River drainages. Each dollar spent by the State must be matched by a dollar or land of equal value from other sources. This principle make mandatory the interest in the project by the local people.

The creation of a Regional Park District requires 5000 signatures to place the item on the ballot and a successful vote of the people. This District, if established, will provide, through a very nominal tax rate, the money to protect and develop attractive areas situated between the State and City owned property, and would be responsible for the parkway.

The all important District will need the full support of local organizations in obtaining signatures and in publicizing the project to insure its success on the ballot.

To those who think that this type of development is an idle dream, they need to turn only as far as the San Francisco Bay area. There they will find a beautiful Regional Park System featuring the full gamut of outdoor recreation: hiking, riding, camping, picnicking, boating, swimming, scenic driving and interpretation of natural history.

Bob Sibley, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the East Bay Regional Park District feels that Sacramento is a "natural" for a similar project. Think what a boost it would be to the schools and to all interested in nature study to have access to much of the river frontage!

This crusade will not be a new idea -- it has been thought of many times. Waiting, however, makes it increasingly difficult to accomplish the purpose. In the last few years residential subdividing of the cream of the river frontage is a real threat towards ever securing an integrated park system for public enjoyment. The River Recreation and Parks Association has no pride of authorship on this project -- on the contrary, it seeks to spur on other organizations and individuals to bend every effort toward the common goal. It can't be won otherwise.