'Return to the river': Feather River Parkway plans introduced to help bring people back

May 28—On a cool and beautiful Friday morning, several county officials gathered for a press conference along the edge of the Feather River in Yuba City to call attention to a plan to revitalize the area and bring much-needed recreational opportunities.

Included in that plan is a new riverfront parkway consisting of woodlands, wetlands and trails along the Feather River in Sutter County, Chuck Smith, public information officer for the county said. Officials with the county also are "encouraging the community" to be a part of a citizen's committee to help shape what the new parkway will become.

"The Sutter County Resource Conservation District, which initiated the creation of a river parkway on the east bank of the Feather River at Yuba City north of the 10th Street Bridge more than a decade ago, is attempting the same from the Yuba City Boat Dock south for a distance of some three miles," Smith said in a statement. "After acquiring an initial technical assistance grant from the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation District Assistance program in 2021, the Sutter County Conservation District has spent the last year surveying the community about interest in a parkway and amenities to be included."

Mike Johnston, a board member for the Sutter County Resource Conservation District, highlighted Friday the fact that the grant was for technical assistance and not actual construction.

"It's not a funding grant, but it was technical assistance. It gave me the guidance to put the project together by connecting with the community, asking for input ... find out what people want along the parkway," Johnston said.

According to Smith, an interim parkway development plan has been completed with the following vision: "The Feather River Parkway will be a safe, healthy, and welcoming place for the Yuba-Sutter community to enjoy the Feather River and the outdoors. It will offer educational and recreational opportunities and restored riparian habitat along the Feather River, from the Yuba City boat dock south to Shanghai Bend, for the enjoyment of current and future generations."

The interim plan currently in place calls for the creation and sustainability of a public space that is both welcoming and safe, Smith said. The idea, he said, is to not only protect and improve the "riparian landscape and wildlife habitat," but also allow the public to "experience and learn about the river and natural world" around them.

Johnston said the restoration effort that will be put in place will hopefully help return the river back to its natural condition.

"What we want to see out here is native vegetation and trails that will allow access to the river. And also an interesting point about this river is it's on the Pacific Flyway," Johnston said. "There are migrating birds that come through here every year. In fact, on the river right now we have a flock of pelicans sitting out there."

Smith said there will be an expansion in the public use of the riverfront through the "development and maintenance of recreational facilities within the project area." He said there will be "connections to existing trails, nearby neighborhoods, and the rest of the Feather River Parkway."

The ability and opportunity to create the new parkway was made possible thanks to recent cleanup efforts by officials along the river. Homeless encampments and RV camping had caused not only damage to the surrounding environment but also led other members of the public to avoid the area.

"After opening Better Way, the first homeless shelter in Sutter County, and a designated overnight camping area for homeless individuals, the County of Sutter has made significant investments in general fund resources to clear homeless encampments along the river and a road leading to the boat dock," Smith said. "The County has been assisted in this effort by Levee District One, which maintains the levees in the proposed park area, many community groups, including SAYLove, and the City of Yuba City. In addition to lending a hand with the cleanup of encampments, Levee District staff has placed hundreds of cement blocks along the levee to prevent the return of RVs and other vehicles. The environment has dramatically improved, there has been increased use of the area, and officials are encouraging the public to see for themselves."

Johnston said a big reason why the new parkway project is progressing is because of the members of the Sutter County Board of Supervisors who supported it.

Sutter County District Two Supervisor Dan Flores said he found it "heartwarming" to return to the river and the site where he taught his son how to ride a bicycle. Flores thanked Johnston for his efforts in bringing the new parkway closer to reality.

"There are three types of people in this world: There are those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who ask, 'What the hell happened?' All of the things that we do, especially as county supervisors, we witness those types of people," Flores said. "And I want to tell you that Mike Johnston is one of those people who makes things happen."

Flores said after he was first elected as supervisor about eight years ago, he "recalled" a park plan for the Feather River Parkway that Yuba City had put together in 2002.

"I was wondering whatever happened to that plan," Flores said. "And the city has developed a portion of the Feather River Parkway just north of here and then nothing else had occurred and I wasn't sure what had happened. Well, I went to the city of Yuba City and visited with one of the staff members ... and he had recalled that that plan was done as well and then he actually went out and found the plan. I believe it was on top of a file cabinet over at the city and he literally pulled the plan down and blew the dust off the plan and then brought it over to me and gave me a copy."

Flores said after looking at the plan, there was an idea to try and implement it but that never happened and it "sat for a few more years."

"And then along comes Mike Johnston and he brings this idea ... and then he goes out and gets a grant with the National Park Service to actually make this happen," Flores said. "... So, thank you, Mike."

Johnston said the Feather River Parkway will include about six miles of trails with a total cost currently estimated at about $2.7 million to fully complete. He said funding would mostly come from grants.

"There'll be three miles that'll be dedicated primarily to hiking. There'll be three miles of trails that'll be dedicated primarily to pedestrians," Johnston said. "We're also planning on putting in a fitness course along the way so that as you are coming down the river, you can stop and do your exercises and get a workout as well as a good hike and a beautiful walk along the river."

Johnston said the Feather River is the most "valuable natural resource that we have." He said it brings enjoyment and helps the economy.

"It actually is just a soul-cleansing benefit when you come down here and see a natural environment, which in our time we just don't have them anymore," Johnston said. "Everything's been paved over or walked over and right now we have a completely natural environment — three miles of one of the most beautiful rivers in the country."

Johnston, who said he's been working on the project for two years, said once construction is able to start, possibly in September or October, it may not be fully completed until 2024.

"Return to the river, Feather River Parkway. This is 20 years in the making," Sutter County District Three Supervisor Mike Ziegenmeyer said. "This is an absolute gorgeous place right here in our own backyard that's going to be enjoyed for years to come from our own community and from others that want to come visit our beautiful community right here in Sutter County."