Battle over future of wildlife-rich – yet illegal – Sierra Nevada dam heats up
June 26, 2014
SODA SPRINGS, Calif. — A solution to bring an illegal Donner Summit dam and the water it stores up to code is drawing praise and criticism from residents and Sierra Nevada conservation groups.
The dam at Van Norden Meadow is not in compliance with state safety standards and is illegally storing the public's water within the nearby reservoir known as Van Norden Lake, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
"I think there's a strong sentiment that everybody would like to keep it just the way it is, and we're not looking to spend the money or create controversy, but we have to do something here," said Perry Norris, executive director of Truckee Donner Land Trust, which owns and manages the meadow within the 3,000-acre Royal Gorge property it co-purchased in 2012. "The state has been clear that (we) need to fix this situation."
In trying to find a solution, Norris said several options were considered, including:
Rebuilding the dam to bring it into compliance, which would prove too expensive for the land trust and wouldn't solve the water rights issue. Cost figures are not available.
Dismantling the dam, which would solve both legal issues, but would also be too expensive and would release built-up sentiment downstream from the South Yuba River.
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Constructing a weir — a low dam — in the middle of the lake and creating two reservoirs, thereby removing them from the state's Division of Safety of Dams jurisdiction. However, securing the needed approvals would be difficult, and it wouldn't solve the water rights issue.
Lowering of the spillway, also referred to as "notching" the dam, and lowering the water level to remove it from DSOD jurisdiction.
The land trust is pursuing the last option, proposing to notch the dam by 5 feet, to reduce storage to 5 acre-feet. This would remove the dam from DSOD jurisdiction, Norris said, while following state orders to cease illegally impounding water.
"At the end of the day, I think it's not just an obvious decision, it's the right decision for conservation," he said.
Not all agree, however.
"This drastic move will remove the most biodiverse habitat in the Summit Valley, as well as one of the most scenic landscapes in the Sierra," said George Lamson, a resident of neighboring Serene Lakes, who helped created a Save Van Norden Lake and Wetlands website along with fellow resident Bill Oudegeest.
The meadow area serves as crucial habitat for 100 species of birds, 20 species of mammals and 115 species of butterflies, Norris said in a previous story.
"… (Van Norden Lake) is indeed the crown jewel of the Summit Valley in so many ways," Lamson said. "Removing the jewel is removing the ecological heart of the valley and demising the natural experience for all of us."
Therefore, Lamson — who previously advocated for the weir option — is asking for just shy of 50 acre-feet of the lake be kept.
"It comes down to a little bit of a hypothesis about what's the conservation value — open water or sub-Alpine meadow?" Norris said. "… Yes, we are in fact going to drain the reservoir, but what we are going to do is bring back a meadow. This is a great opportunity for meadow restoration."
Other groups and agencies agree.
"I recognize that some in the local community are more focused on flat water recreation opportunities and some are focused on watershed and/or wildlife values and some are focused on both," Joanne Roubique, Truckee District Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, wrote in a letter to Norris. "We believe the highest and best use for the area to best serve the public and the natural resource values is restoration of the meadow to a more natural state."
While the land trust would start the restoration project, it plans to sell the nearly 1,000-acre property to the U.S. Forest Service, which would continue the work, Norris said.
"From the beginning of the campaign, going back to 2011, we were pretty clear that we viewed ourselves as the interim owners of this property," he said. "… We were very clear with our donors and the public that we were going to sell this property to the Forest Service, who we think are a unique and one of the only qualified owners to steward and manage the property."
In her letter, Roubique said the US Forest Service would not purchase the land if the dam is left as is or with a weir; the maximum impoundment that the agency could accept is 5 acre-feet.
The sale price would be based on an appraisal, which is yet to be done.
Funds from the sale would be used by the land trust to manage and steward the rest of the property — approximately 2,100 acres of Royal Gorge and 355 acres in the Negro Canyon area, which was also part of the land acquisition, Norris said.
The DSOD is reviewing engineering plans for the project, said John Svahn, stewardship director for the land trust. If plans are accepted, the California Environmental Quality Act process would begin to identify any significant impacts to the environment and wildlife.
Lamson said he and others intend to participate "strongly" in the CEQA process.
The earliest notching could happen is fall 2015, with meadow restoration staring the following spring, a process likely to take years, Svahn said.
The project is hoped to cost the land trust less than $1 million, he said, with funding coming from excess money raised during the Royal Gorge land acquisition fundraising campaign.
While the property sold for $11.25 million, $15.5 million was raised to provide for future property stewardship and improvements.
The land trust knew the legal issues with the Van Norden Dam when purchasing the property, Norris said.
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