Nevada City, California
After six years working for SYRCL as the Director for the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, Melinda was promoted to Executive Director. Melinda brings more than 16 years of experience in environmental conservation and advocacy to her new position. Before joining SYRCL, she focused her career on saving iconic species like bears, wolves, and salmon in the American West. At Defenders of Wildlife, she led campaigns to keep bears alive and wild in the Tahoe basin and helped on the reintroduction of the California Condor back into the wild. As Development Manager at the California Wolf Center, Melinda led education, conservation and research on the North American gray wolf, and specifically the reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves to the Southwest. Her passion for wildlife drew her next to the Sequoia Park Zoo Foundation where she served as Development Director, securing millions of dollars for their red panda habitat and an award winning Native Predator exhibit featuring river otter, bald eagle, and salmon.
Melinda holds a M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana, where she studied human-bear interactions in the wildland urban interface. Her publications span scientific journals, periodicals, and books. On a personal note, the Yuba River is central to Melinda’s everyday life. She and her husband purchased land overlooking the South Yuba. Not only is she professionally motivated to protect and restore the Yuba River watershed, she is personally invested as a Yuba River homeowner to do all she can as well.
This interview was published on August 27, 2018.
Did you grow up around water? Where? What are your fondest early memories of rivers, lakes, or streams?
I grew up in Texas and California. My exposure to water in Texas was very different from my exposure to water in California. In Texas we had a creek at the end of the road and it was a very different experience to move to California. We lived close to the San Francisco Bay, so my framework for water shifted by seeing the power of the ocean and mountain streams.
Did these early experiences inform your decision to pursue water conservation in your career, or did that realization come later?
My passion and commitment to conservation stems from my desire from a young age to protect wildlife—to speak and give a voice to species that can’t speak for themselves. I realized that water is central to wildlife conservation and the issues I found myself working on. If we’re doing something that’s good for the environment and good for the ecosystem, then it’s going to invariably be good for animals and human health.
How has your passion for wildlife found a way into your water work?
That passion is integrated in the work I am doing now as Executive Director of the South Yuba River Citizens League. One of our biggest campaigns is restoration of salmon in the lower Yuba. Salmon are a huge part of the work I do on a daily basis. And, of course, that trickles down into ecosystem health in the upper reaches of the watersheds. It’s all interconnected.
Why is protecting freshwater important to you now in your career?
Global climate change has shaken things up a little bit. There are no longer the predictable weather plans that our water infrastructure was built to utilize. For example, if more water is falling as rain and less as snowfall, that affects the utility of dams and reservoirs to see a community though the dry season. The infrastructure we’ve set up is out of date and antiquated. I think there is an opportunity to turn the tide, but we need to make significant changes—and soon. Working at a community level is a great place to start, but we should keep the bigger context in mind. It’s going to mean change in the usual practices of consumption, especially in the United States and in other privileged countries. That change is hard for people. Until we live with intention, we’re not going to be able to make these changes.
What has being part of River Network meant for you or your organization?
I’ve been involved through the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. The South Yuba River Citizens League started the festival as a way to use film to tell compelling stories to inspire activism. We’ve partnered with River Rally for the last 7-plus years to bring the films to the conference. Rally is a really great way to connect with colleagues and find inspiration. Sometimes you feel like you’re working in a vacuum and fighting uphill battles, but when you come together in a shared space, you can talk about similar work and see there are other people fighting the good fight, which is inspirational and motivating. River Rally is a way to rejuvenate and become motivated.
What water-related accomplishment are you most proud of?
Our commitment to large-scale restoration efforts in the lower reaches of the watershed, specific to spawning habitat for salmon. Salmon are in desperate need of more habitat so that we can keep their numbers up, especially in the face of climate change, decreased flows, and less cold water. We’ve done large-scale restoration efforts and have a lot more coming down the pipeline to bolster habitat for fish. We’re proud of these efforts.
We’re also in active opposition to a dam proposed on the Centennial dam. Our organization took that fight up over a year ago against our irrigation district. It would drown Native American cultural sites, and it’s a 19th century solution to what is now a 21st century problem. We see it as not only a fight against unneeded, expensive infrastructure, but also an opportunity to shift the way we think about water management in the state. We’ve seen progress in our fight, and I’m proud that our organization has taken that on.
What positive changes would you like to see for water in your community over the next 10 years?
Taking that bigger picture view, I would like to see a plan for a secure and sustainable water future that addresses human and environmental needs, an assessment of how we’re currently using our water, options for increased efficiency, incentives and/or mandates we can put in place, how can we utilize technology. Let’s look at the reality of projected growth and water demands, and then incorporate smarter growth so we can meet water needs based on availability. Conversations with water managers, counties, conservation groups need to get real about what a sustainable future means and how we can maintain our quality of life.