Opinion: The unfortunate reality of draining Van Norden Lake
In the fall of 2015, the Truckee Donner Land Trust — which has co-owned and managed Van Norden Lake/Meadow located within the 3,000-acre Royal Gorge property since 2012 — opted to drain the lake after the California Department of Water Resources determined the dam there was not in compliance with state safety standards and had been illegally storing the public’s water. Visit bit.ly/2b9K8Zd to read more.
We will wager that you probably haven’t been receiving any invitations lately from the Truckee Donner Land Trust to visit the Donner Summit Valley. The reason is pretty simple. Who’s going to feel like donating money when they see the havoc that the Land Trust has wrought on the Valley?
The Land Trust has put out a lot of propaganda concerning their draining of Van Norden Lake and their fantastical meadow restoration plan. It’s pretty easy to make brochures and web pages about these topics, but it turns out the reality is pretty shocking.
It’s no wonder that the Land Trust would have everyone switch their focus away from the habitat destruction to a more scenic area like Carpenter Valley. You won’t see any “docent tours” of Summit Valley for the next few years.
At the writing of this column, we are in the first week of August at Donner Summit. This is the start of crunch time at the summit. The snow melt has drained out of the Valley and no more surface water is flowing in.
The three main water inputs into the Valley — Lytton Creek, Castle Creek and the South Yuba River — have all dried up. The ground water discharging from the surrounding slopes has fallen below the root level of the plants as a result of evapotranspiration, and the Valley is going dry and will remain so for the next three months until the fall rains.
This is the normal cycle in the Valley that has gone on for thousands of years. It was only after the first dams were built in the late 1800s that some water remained in the Valley after August. Before water storage in the Valley, it became a dried out landscape every summer.
We would challenge all those misguided people that believe that somehow “meadow restoration” is going to magically provide more water to the Valley to come up and take a look now.
Let’s hear from SYRCL about the wonders of the South Yuba River which is now just a dry creek bed from Van Norden Meadow to Kingvale.
How about the Land Trust showing us where on the dry lake and creek beds, the fishery they claim would thrive. And probably most ludicrous of all, perhaps Land Trust Board President Anne Chadwick can lead a hike out into the dry meadow and explain to us where all that water she was planning on adding to the Valley is going to come from, especially considering it was on her watch that almost six and half million gallons of stored water was drained.
We would challenge everyone to come out into the Valley in the next couple of weeks and see just what we have been talking about for the last four years.
As we absorb the shock of seeing the arid lakebed and dried-out meadow, keep in mind that if the Land Trust does lower the spillway five feet, the water situation in the Valley will be much worse.
As bad as this year is, remember that we still had a lake until the beginning of July that maintained the water table and allowed the vegetation to flourish.
If the spillway is lowered five feet, there will be no lake at all in the Valley and the water table will drop five feet. Instead of the Valley going dry in August, it will be dry by the end of June. With a lowered water table, vegetation such as the Lemon Willow will wither.
There are many people that believe that prior to the coming of the pioneers, the Donner Summit Valley was a green lush meadow during the summer. Unfortunately, that was only true in early summer.
Unimpeded, the South Yuba River drained the Valley dry for most of the summer. It is only in the last century that the Valley has been a lush, green Valley alive with wildlife and wetland vegetation throughout the summer.
What people forget is that it is only due to water storage in the valley by Van Norden Dam that the Valley thrived. If you don’t believe that, please feel free to come up and take a walk in the meadow in the next month or two and see what the Valley looks like without water.
George Lamson is a Soda Springs resident and co-chair of the group Save Van Norden Lake. Visit SaveVanNordenLake.Org to learn more.