British writer tells intriguing story of local water war

October 2, 1994
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

``The River Stops Here: How One Man's Battle to Save His Valley Changed the Fate of California'' (Random House, $23, 1994) is the story of Richard Wilson's attempt to prevent the government from flooding his home.

Author Ted Simon would have had a story whether the government succeeded or not, but fortunately this tale has a happy ending: Round Valley in Mendocino County has not been turned into a lake.

Simon does an excellent job not only describing the details of this successful environmental battle, but weaving into the narrative details about Wilson's personal history and the history of California.

Simon, 63, a former Fleet Street journalist and sometimes organic farmer, was in Davis last week giving a reading from his book.

In an interview before his reading, Simon said he moved to Round Valley in 1980. He was building a cabin in Covelo but time was running out. He and his wife had a 1-month-old son, winter was coming, the cabin wasn't finished. Wilson invited them to move in with him until the cabin was done. And they did.

``Five or so years after that I realized that Wilson had a terrific story to tell,'' he said. ``It dawned on me that he had pulled off something quite extraordinary.''

But when Simon sat down to start writing he became completely lost in the history and lore of California water politics, which he calls ``the stuff of life.''

He'd gotten an advance from one publisher, but had a terrible time getting the book under control.

Christmas of 1992 found Simon facing foreclosure when his first publisher cancelled his long overdue contract. And he'd already spent the advance.

``I had to cut 40,000 words,'' says Simon, ruefully.

He also had to get a new publisher. Fortunately, he knew an editor at Random House from his days on Fleet Street and disaster was averted.

``I came through with what I think is a rattling good read,'' said Simon in his pronounced British accent.

``I thought it was essential to tell a really good make this a sexy matter for people who don't have concerns about environmental matters,'' he added.

The result is a 380-page book that will interest anyone engaged in an environmental battle. Ironically, Simon's hero, Wilson - who now is the director of the state Department of Forestry - is not held in universal high regard by environmentalists today. This book will serve to remind people of Wilson's credentials, said Simon.

``Wilson, a rich Republican, caught the tide (of the environmental movement) before anyone knew it was there,'' said Simon. People were upset when the government in 1967 announced plans to flood Round Valley. But it took Wilson to do something about it. Simon says Wilson was successful because he knew his way around men of wealth and power. Still, it was an uphill battle from the very beginning.

Now the town of Covelo, a stretch of the richest agricultural land in Mendocino County, and a large Indian reservation in Round Valley - all these things are secure, at least for the time being. The Eel River is protected by state and federal wild and scenic river laws.

Simon was looking forward to getting together with many of the principals in the book and old friends at a publication party last week in Sacramento.

The party was being held at the home of fellow writer Eric Hansen, author of ``Motoring with Mohammed.''

Simon said he and Hansen met in India a number of years ago while Simon was on a four-year journey around the world by motorcycle.

That journey was recounted in a book called ``Jupiter's Travels,'' now out of print in the United States. It continues to sell well in Britain and Europe.

Simon still calls Covelo home, but give him any excuse and he'll drop everything and fly off to Europe.

His latest book, for instance, is called ``The Gypsy in Me'' and recounts his recent travels looking for family roots in Eastern Europe. That book will be out in spring of '96.

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