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Doctor leaves lasting natural legacy to public, nature

By: Dori Barrett
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Dr. Jarret Laban Rollins moved from Auburn to Colfax in 1900. He was a successful physician, a prohibition leader and a father of five. But he would be remembered for his commitment to creating a system of providing a fresh year-round water supply to the Sierra Foothills. Many of Dr. Rollin’s friends and patients were farmers struggling to keep their crops and cattle thriving in the parched, dry land during the early part of the 20th Century. Relying on dry-farming, where rainfall runoff is diverted to provide water for crops, was unpredictable and ineffective for large production purposes. Farmers from Nevada and Placer counties joined efforts to establish the Farmers Bureau, a group of agriculturists with a mission to create sources for abundant cheap water for large crop production. By 1921, after years of political activity, Nevada County residents voted to form their own irrigation district and the Nevada Irrigation District was established. When NID was formed, it acquired and inherited a historic system of reservoirs, dams and canals, many dating back to the Gold Rush era. Some of the early systems had supplied large hydraulic gold mines and were recognized as significant engineering and construction accomplishments for their time. When hydraulic mining was suspended in 1884, the private companies then operating the water systems turned to opportunities in water and power productions. Dr. Rollins and a small group of businessmen had already established the Bear River Water and Power Company. They were utilizing existing canals from exhausted gold mines in the Colfax area along the Bear River. The group mapped out a solution to the irrigation issues in the area to include the construction of a dam and a reserve of water in the lower elevations of the Sierra Mountains. They forged an alliance with NID and aided them in acquiring many of the private systems from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. A public water infrastructure was developed to supply water from the Yuba and Bear River watersheds to farms and orchards on the western slope. But even with abundant water flowing from the high mountain snow pack, NID lacked the complete network of canals to carry water to where it was needed. In a 1962 election, 97 percent of NID voters supported a $65 million bond measure to construct the Yuba-Bear Project, according to a company newsletter. Groundbreaking for the project was held Aug. 23, 1963 at the site that would become Rollins Reservoir. The ceremony included demolition of an 810-foot-long, 196-foot-high trestle used to carry trains of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. According to the Aug. 22, 1963 Colfax Record, “The NCNGRR carried more gold per mile than any other railroad in the world, an estimated $300,000,000 worth of the precious metal.” Dr. Rollins never saw his dream realized; he died from a heart attack in August 1933, at the age of 75. But at the May 7, 1966 dedication ceremony of the reservoir named in his honor, the Colfax Record recorded this statement from the day’s program. “A giant stride has been taken in providing facilities through which innumerable opportunities for economic development, recreation and a richer life will open to the people of the region, and during which the people of the district have assured themselves a great additional reserve of precious water.” Today, Rollins Reservoir is a popular recreational lake featuring 26 miles of shoreline, providing fishing, boating and camping opportunities to thousands of visitors each year.