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Two of Truckee/North Lake Tahoe’s nearest west-slope Sierra watersheds are on track for a profound change in the coming years, with the planned construction of a 275-foot dam about 45 miles down the road from Donner Summit. The Centennial Dam project is an effort by the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) to create more water storage and combat climate change, and would dam the last 6 miles of publicly accessible, free flowing water on the Bear River.
The dam’s environmental and cultural aftereffects would not only be felt on the Bear River — where it would inundate 25 homes; many important cultural sites for the local Nisenan tribe; a popular campground; and habitat for more than 100 rare, threatened, and declining plant and wildlife species — but also on the South and Middle Forks of the Yuba, which currently lose up to 80 percent of their total volume to diversion canals that bring water into the Bear River watershed.
“In order to fill the reservoirs that are along the Bear River it requires Yuba water,” Rachel Hutchinson, South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) river science director, said at SYRCL’s Activist Summit in Nevada City. “One of the impacts to the Yuba that we can see being predicted over time is that if we’re predicting low snow melt, we can also predict that the Bear River will start to take more water as a percentage from the Yuba every year.”
This could be a bad sign for the boating community. While the stretch of the Bear River that is slated to be dammed is a notable class IV stretch, and would be eliminated completely, the South Fork of the Yuba is an iconic class IV and V kayak run. Professional kayaker and filmmaker Scott Lindgren has stacked up some of the rowdiest first descents in the world, but it’s the South Fork of the Yuba he always comes home to.
“The South Yuba is the gem in the neighborhood,” said Lindgren, who actually lives alongside the Bear River in Meadow Vista. “You get something like 40 or 50 miles of runnable whitewater and there’s very few drainages in the State of California that actually have top to bottom awesome whitewater... there’s just not another river like that.”
According to Lindgren a dam on the Bear and the water it would need would drive the final nail in the coffin for the South Yuba, which he said used to run anywhere from 6 to 9 months every year, but now has entire seasons that come and go without a seeing a runnable flow. According to NID the 110,000 acre-foot reservoir would have little effect on the South Fork, although a complete hydrological study has yet to be completed.
“NID really doesn’t take much water out of the South Fork of the Yuba, and we’re not proposing to import any additional water from the Yuba River watershed into the Bear River watershed,” said NID President Nick Wilcox, who stated the majority of NID water is transported from the Middle Fork of the Yuba. Together, the two forks of the Yuba contribute approximately 400,000 acre-feet of water a year to the Bear watershed.
The Draft Environmental Impact Report for the project is tentatively scheduled for fall 2017, and the NID hopes to begin dam construction by 2021. The Foothills Water Network, a coalition of 13 groups advocating for the elimination of the Centennial project, is working to hold the NID to a high level of accountability and spread the word that there is still time to oppose the dam.
“It appears that NID wants us to believe that this is a done deal, that it cannot be stopped, and yet when asked who is the decision maker, it is the NID board: five elected officials,” said SYRCL’s Executive Director, Caleb Dardick. “We just need three to consider a different future.”
Local environmental advocacy group, Sierra Watch, successfully stopped a previous project to build a 350-foot dam on the Bear River at Garden Bar in 2012. Although Sierra Watch is not currently involved in fighting the Centennial Dam, Executive Director Tom Mooers believes the current dam threatens the same values as the Garden Bar dam, and is confident in SYRCL and other groups’ ability to oppose the project.
“The Bear River is worth protecting,” said Mooers, referring to Sierra Watch’s fight against the previous dam project. “When people mistakenly looked to a dam as a way to combat climate change we decided to draw a line in the sand and say that isn’t what our Sierra rivers are for… Hopefully we’ll decide that our rivers need to be rivers and not reservoirs to support Placer County sprawl.”
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