River Exchange disbands after 25 years of stewardship in Dunsmuir
After nearly 25 years of unprecedented stewardship of the upper Sacramento River, including raising millions in grant money for everything from educational programs to the annual removal of countless tons of trash, the River Exchange is disbanding.
The Dunsmuir-based nonprofit made the announcement October 1, citing funding issues and the successful completion of its mission.
The group was formed in the years following the 1991 Cantara Loop railroad disaster when a Southern Pacific freight car derailed in the dark of night and dumped 19,000 gallons of metam sodium into the river. The pesticide killed everything in its path from fish to trees to moss on rocks during a 38-mile environmental rampage that didn’t end until the neon green toxic flow reached Shasta Lake in Redding three days later and dispersed.
Since then the river has not only recovered but thrived. It rates today as one of the premier fishing venues in the state with wild Rainbow trout that can often exceed 20 inches in length.
“The (River Exchange) has done a lot of really good things,” said Louie Dewey, a long-time member of the group’s board of directors, which includes business owners, anglers and people who simply love the river and its pristine surroundings. “They somehow managed to convince people who were juxtaposed to each other that they needed to work together to achieve a common goal.”
Among the partnerships the River Exchange forged at a regional level for restoration projects and watershed sustainability programs were various federal, state and local agencies as well as corporate sponsors such as Pacific Power. Education became a powerful tool.
As a result, thousands of local students have learned about the importance of rivers and how to be good stewards for future generations, according to Bob Grace, owner of the Ted Fay Fly Shop.
“You never know what is going to light a spark with a kid,” he said. “It raises the level of awareness at a young age.”
Among the non-profit’s biggest events each year is its annual river cleanup when volunteers spread out to collect trash across more than 50 predesignated locations from Box Canyon to the north and as far south as Sims Road. Debris can range from automobile tires and discarded propane tanks to intravenous needles and, on at least one occasion, a flat screen television. The event turned into an annual celebration with local businesses donating everything from prizes to pizzas.
“It’s one of the biggest things I love doing,” said Dave Keisler, a member of the Dunsmuir City Council, who described the disbanding of the River Exchange as “heart-wrenching.”
“It was an important part of our community,” he said. Among the trash Keisler collected over the years included a door from a 1941 truck. “If it was there we cleaned it up. It was always neat to try and find something.”
Filling the void left by the organization’s dissolution will be difficult to fill, many people said. In recent years fundraising, much like the river itself, has ebbed and flowed. Previously paid positions became staffed by volunteers.
Phil Detrich, a former executive director, said initial seed money for the River Exchange came from a grant provided the state Department of Fish and Game following the Cantara settlement.
“For the first 10 years they had a steady supply of money. They were not really competing for grants and so they had plenty of staff and plenty of projects,” he said. After that “funding became really inconsistent … and by 2019 it came to a screeching halt.”
Unlike other rivers in Siskiyou County, including the Klamath and the McCloud, Detrich said the Upper Sacramento more closely represents a native system. Among the three headwaters is the City Park in Mount Shasta, where water flows to the surface from a lava tube and has been underground for at least half a century, according to scientists
“While the flow is slightly manipulated at Box Canyon Dam, most of the Upper Sacramento is reflective of conditions in the watershed,” he said. “When it rains the river comes up and right now when it is dry the river is down.”
Perhaps the most enduring legacy the River Exchange leaves behind is more than just sweatshirts. A diverse group of local professionals in fields ranging from natural resources to law enforcement got their start through River Exchange programs. Many reflect the values of Chris Stromsness, one of the original founders, a former judge, and perhaps the organization’s most important private contributor.
“The River Exchange could not have existed without him,” Detrich said.