25 years after spill, River Exchange looking to future

Lauren Steinheimer
A massive, sturdy railroad barrier now guards the bridge crossing the Upper Sacramento River at Cantara Loop, the site of a catastrophic derailment 25 years ago, where a pesticide-carrying railcar fell into the river. Funding from the Southern Pacific settlement created The River Exchange, a local nonprofit currently seeking a new focus and source of support. By Lauren Steinheimer

This past month marked the 25th anniversary of the Cantara Loop Spill, a train derailment in the twisted heart of the Upper Sacramento River canyon in which a railcar carrying pesticide chemicals that were deadly to aquatic life fell into the river on July 14, 1991.

A few years later, The River Exchange was born out of the settlement between the state and the railroad. Now, with funding long gone, The River Exchange is trying to keep from drying up by holding a series of “reboot” meetings to engage members of the community and gather input on rejuvenating the local nonprofit.

The next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 11, at 7 p.m. in the FireWhat classroom at 5727 Dunsmuir Avenue.

Spill history

The railroad accident in 1991 destroyed all life in the river between Cantara Loop and Shasta Lake, about 40 miles downriver. The subsequent settlement between the State of California and Southern Pacific Railroad included a chunk of money dedicated to public education. The City of Dunsmuir used that funding to create The River Exchange, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting healthy watersheds through community involvement in stewardship, restoration and education.

Funding from the Cantara settlement ran out in 2006, and Proposition 84 funding for water projects was used up as of 2014.

“Now, we’re officially supported through fundraisers and donations,” said River Exchange Board President Phil Detrich.

Rebooting the River Exchange

“Right now, The River Exchange is in a period of transition and we’re trying to decide what’s next,” Detrich said. “The organization has been really successful over time, and has the ability to adapt and change shape to fit the needs of the community.”

Among its list of accomplishments is the annual river cleanup, scheduled for Sept. 20, 2016. Detrich said last year’s cleanup brought in almost 700 pounds of trash between Mount Shasta and Sims.

This year, the river cleanup will be co-chaired by Dunsmuir High School STEM teacher Spencer Adkisson and new River Exchange board member Michelle Andras.

Detrich said he’s excited to have two young, local environmentalists on board, noting, “The River Exchange should become the extension of what younger people want it to be. It’s for their kids.”

He added that he was pleased with the community turnout at the first reboot meeting held June 21, which drew about 14 people ranging in age from 30 to 70.

“There is a group of younger educators, artists and science people interested in the river and the watershed who are the natural heirs to The River Exchange,” he said.

And they are bringing new ideas.

Detrich said some people seem to be excited about watershed biology education through partnerships with Dunsmuir schools, while others feel more drawn to the realm of public policy.

Involvement in the community-wide efforts to pursue trail development at Mossbrae Falls is another avenue The River Exchange is beginning to explore.

“People [at the meeting] had a lot of good ideas, and that’s the first step,” said Detrich. “Potentially, the more challenging part is to make some choices for the near term and start to explore sources for funding.”

Detrich said he is happy to help new members figure out a plan in any way he can, but declined to share his own vision for The River Exchange’s future. “I don’t know that my ideas are relevant,” he said. “There’s a tendency for people to say, ‘You could do this,’ but I want to hear them say, ‘We could do this.’

“I hope to bring about a gradual focus on what we can accomplish in the near term. I don’t think change is going to happen rapidly, but I hope it happens steadily.”

Detrich has been involved with The River Exchange since retiring from the Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2010. Prior to that, he worked as a field biologist with the US Forest Service.

For more information on The River Exchange, including Detrich’s thoughts on the Cantara Loop Spill and rail safety, visit www.riverexchange.org.