Water to be released from Donner Summit dam, per California law | SierraSun.com

Water to be released from Donner Summit dam, per California law

Using pumps, crews drain water behind Van Norden Dam.
Courtesy George Lamson |

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Visit tdlandtrust.org and click on “Royal Gorge / Van Norden Meadow Update” to learn more.

SODA SPRINGS, Calif. — Water that has been allowed to illegally collect within the reservoir known as Van Norden Lake will begin immediate draining to comply with California law and to address public safety requirements.

“Our goals as responsible land owners and stewards is to come into compliance with the law, minimize short-term impacts by lowering during a drought and the low-water season of fall, and address potential public safety issues in the face of the forecasted strong El Niño weather pattern this winter,” said Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, which has co-owned and managed the meadow within the 3,000-acre Royal Gorge property since 2012.

The land trust vetted a number of options before deciding to drain the lake, said John Svahn, a spokesman with the land trust.

In prior reports, Norris has stated the Land Trust explored rebuilding the dam near Donner Summit that was illegally shoring up water at the reservoir. However, the cost proved to be too much for the land trust and wouldn’t resolve the state’s water rights issue.

Dismantling the dam was another option, Norris explained; however, that option also would have become too expensive and had the potential for releasing foreign sediments downstream into the South Yuba River.

Other options included constructing a weir in the middle of the lake, effectively creating two reservoirs, or lowering the spillway and lowering the water level. Both options would have removed the property from the state’s Division of Safety of Dams jurisdiction; however, neither proved viable.

In the end, working with the Department of Water Resources and California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the land trust was informed that emergency conditions, including the state’s ongoing struggles with four years of drought, justified the immediate release.


The dam was built in 1928 and was one of a series of regional dams operated by Pacific Gas & Electric.

The Van Norden dam and dams at Cascade Lakes and Kidd Lake managed the flow of snowmelt into the South Yuba River as part of a large hydroelectric system in California.

Svahn said the decision to release the water was met with mixed response from nearby residents who use the area for recreating.

“Restoring the Van Norden Summit Valley to its original watercourse meadow processes is what some would like to see out there,” Svahn said.

Others, however, believe the area to be a valuable tourist attraction and area for local recreation.

Mitzi Hodges, a 57-year resident of Norden, said the lake should have been drained years ago, long before the land trust acquired the property from PG&E.

However, since it wasn’t drained, it became an area popular with local and visiting outdoor enthusiasts. That draw, Hodges said, has helped boost the local economy for years.

“I don’t think (land trust officials) have come up here and sat in our shoes,” Hodges said. “For the people living here, trying to make a living here, to see once the freeway was built, diverting people away from the summit, it has been a slow death.”


Following the purchase of the Royal Gorge property in 2012, the land trust vowed to transfer the property over to the U.S. Forest Service for “long-term management.”

A lot will depend on the timing, however, said Joanne Roubique, Truckee District Ranger for the USFS.

If the land trust is changing the structure of the dam or removing the dam – any of the prior options vetted – then that would require a California Environmental Quality Act report.

“We are actively talking with the land trust and the nonprofits interested in the area for the potential of building trails and meadow restoration,” Roubique said. “The appraisal and title search is time consuming. I think everyone is hoping for sooner rather than later.”

Removing the dam and returning the reservoir to its original watercourse, however, is a separate project from that transfer process, Norris said.

“(The Forest Service) is the only organization that has the capacity to provide the amount of restoration work necessary up there,” Norris said. “It’s important to distinguish the lowering of the dam as completely separate from the emergency exemption based on the drought.”

According to a statement released by the Land Trust, six conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land, American Rivers, the Truckee River Watershed Council, the Sierra Business Council and the South Yuba River Citizens League “have had their scientific teams express strong support for lowering the water in the reservoir.”

A permanent solution for the dam and spillway will be decided under full CEQA review in the near future, Svahn said.


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.

For the short term, the open water habitat would remain classified as a mix of unconsolidated bottom, saturated, seasonally flooded and intermittently exposed wetlands or mudflats, under the Cowardin — Classification of Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats of the United States.

These ecological areas are of vital importance to migratory birds, Svahn said.

“Due to the slow timing of water release, soil stabilization will occur via temporary best management practices around the inlet pipe, and once freezing temperatures cause the underlying soils to become firm enough to support a person’s weight, native seeds will be broadcast before snowfall precludes soil stabilization efforts,” he said. “In the spring, the native seed bank will germinate and vegetate naturally.”

Eventually, the open water habitat will convert to both seasonal and perennial wetlands. The current fish habitat, which primarily supports non-native fish species, will be reduced. Non-native fish are not eligible for transportation to other areas.

“Long term, we expect that native fish species will be able to thrive in the South Yuba River and Upper Castle Creek habitats,” Svahn said.

Wildlife habitat that favors wetlands will flourish, and it’s anticipated that willow flycatcher, which is listed as state endangered and is protected under the California Endangered Species Act and regulated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, will increase.

Svahn added that nesting migratory songbirds would also benefit from the change of open water to wetlands.

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