A Year of Average Colors of the South Yuba River:

a mathematical determination of an aesthetic value


If you speak to people who have spent considerable time with rivers, almost everyone will eventually talk about the river as a living entity – its voice, its spirit, its knowledge. Once you have heard this voice, it’s impossible to ignore it. If you begin to listen, it commands your attention.  And then it begins to ask questions of you.

I attended meetings, listening to speakers talk about different aspects of the river to prepare for the water project re-licensing from the Federal Energy Re-licensing Commission (FERC) that the Yuba-Bear river system in the Northern Sierra Nevada underwent in 2013. Graphs were shown and studied, numbers and charts referenced. Models and studies were discussed that produced even more charts and graphs and numbers.

The Yuba River has been tapped for human consumptive needs since the first days of the Gold Rush. The first hydropower project in the nation occurred on the Rock Creek tributary of the South Yuba, by a company that became Pacific Gas & Electric. Today, the Yuba is the site of PG&E’s largest hydro-electric project (the Colgate Project, now under the operation and ownership of Yuba County Water Agency), as well as the source for water sold to industrial agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley and municipalities in southern California. For the first time in 50 years, four hydropower operators must apply for a new license for their scores of dams and hundreds of miles of diversion canals that segment and divert every major fork of the Yuba, the Bear River, and dozens of important tributary streams. Re-licensing through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to manage rivers for ecological and recreational needs, in addition to meeting power generation and water supply needs.

But what is the essence of the river itself? What understanding is absent from these discussions? Science and policy concentrate on the quantifiable aspects of the river, and this is what FERC considers in the process of issuing a new license. Science determines the best flows and temperatures for fish, the sediment distribution affected by the reservoirs, power generated by turbines, and irrigation allotments. Models designed to illustrate changes in all of these systems support or refute proposed changes in the river system.

As an artist, I felt as if I had no voice to lend to the re-licensing process. A Year of Average Colors: a mathematical determination of an aesthetic value investigates a quantifiable esthetic aspect of a river I called home, adding another layer of data to the masses. I chose four points of personal significance on the South Yuba River to conduct my study. I calculated the average color of the river for these four locations, averaging those findings to calculate the monthly averages. These findings were used to determine the overall average color of the river for the entire year. The results do nothing to further understanding of the river’s essence. That particular dialogue, a dialogue that will be absent from FERC’s discussions, must be conducted in a language other than the one of numbers.

oil on 65 wood panels, 55 in. x 151 in.


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