My Turn: Dont let a sewer run through the Yuba | SierraSun.com

My Turn: Dont let a sewer run through the Yuba

Kathryn Gray

That the upper South Yuba River still exists in its stunning, bouldered beauty, is a bit of a miracle. In the Gold Rush, rivers were diverted, channeled through canals, and dammed in order to provide water for the hydraulic mining that so scarred the northern gold country, and the South Yuba was no exception. Minerals were the prize most desired in the Gold Rush, but lumber and water ran them a close second, both in utility to the mining enterprises, and profit to the clever entrepreneur. The South Yuba and its watershed were cruelly used to provide for all these needs. The scars, and mercury and arsenic contamination consequent to mining remain to this day, mixed testament to the benefits and perils of development in the Sierra and its foothills.After the gold rush frenzy, dams and diversions were still built, for water supply, and hydroelectric purposes. Summit Valley was dammed in the very early 1900s for water purposes; the dam was christened Van Norden Dam, after Dr. Charles Van Norden, an official of the South Yuba Water Company. Lake Van Norden, pooled on top of the historic Summit Valley, later went on to provide water for PG&E’s use. In the late 1970s, Van Norden Dam was ordered breached to remedy seismic hazards; as the dam was only partially breached, the remnants of the artificial lake linger on. Sometime after Van Norden Dam was breached, Sugar Bowl Ski Resort and Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort pooled together to buy the recovering meadow, and residual one-time lake, and then divided the property between them. Following the breach of the dam, Van Norden Meadow had made an amazing recovery, once more functioning as a vital component of the headwaters of the South Yuba River, and a haven for both resident and migratory wildlife. Despite the diversions of Lake Angela’s water to Norden and Soda Springs, and Lake Mary’s water to Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, the future of the South Yuba River’s headwaters began to look encouraging.A few years ago, however, the former owner of Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski resort began pursuing plans for development along the edges of Van Norden Meadow. His plans engendered concerns from environmental groups, as by this time the importance of this meadow to the health of the South Yuba River had become better understood. Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort was subsequently sold to a new group of investors before an EIR was completed. The new investors, Royal Gorge LLC, initially promised to preserve Van Norden Meadow, but had continued pursuing the earlier development plans in a desultory fashion.Now, this new group, Royal Gorge LLC, has encountered serious problems procuring a water source at the summit for their proposed development, as they have no water on their lands, and the small Sierra Lakes County Water District is probably tapped out with present development. Additionally, the Donner Summit Public Utilities District (DSPUD), which handles sewage disposal for the Summit, is running at or near capacity. Even if the DSPUD expands capacity, there are limits to the ability of the South Yuba River to absorb yet another drop of treated sewage effluvia: At present time effluvia must be sprayed over the Soda Springs Ski hill during dry months.So, in a flip-flop, Royal Gorge LLC, which in March promised to preserve Van Norden Meadow, now seeks to re-raise the Van Norden Dam, in order to procure a water supply, and, perhaps more importantly, to impound water in order to dilute treated sewage effluvia from over 1,000 new units, hotels, and restaurants. Royal Gorge LLC, to the shock of all parties involved, somehow thinks they can sell this as beneficial to the health of the South Yuba River. Basically, they’re saying to incredulous environmental groups, what’s not to like with more liquid flowing down the South Yuba?Well, there’s plenty not to like. Even if the sewage product is processed by sophisticated technology, remnants of drugs and hormones ingested by humans, residues of cleaning chemicals, and perfumes can disrupt the life-cycles of fish, reptiles, and other riparian dwellers. Frog populations have been subject to sudden collapses in the state lately, and there is some thought that chemicals present in treated sewage effluvia could be a factor in that collapse. In the San Francisco Bay area, local sewage districts are aware of problems with chemicals in effluvia, and are pleading with residents to dispose of old drugs, cosmetics, and chemicals through other methods, rather than pouring them down the drain or flushing. Unfortunately, however diligent residential consumers might be in disposal of unwanted products, they can’t control that which flows down the drain through natural means. So, how will this affect the upper reaches of the South Yuba River? I won’t tell you a pretty fish story, as religion and fishing weren’t equated in my childhood, but if Royal Gorge LLC is allowed to raise the dam and dump yet more treated sewage effluent, well, a river won’t run through it. A sewer will. Kathryn Gray, a Serene Lakes homeowner, believes water should flow through rivers.