Opinion: Van Norden Meadow rehab, lake release a good start

Tom Appelbaum

Congratulations to Truckee Donner Land Trust and the many environmental organizations involved in the Van Norden Meadow rehabilitation project. The current water release, while not directly associated with the future of the meadow, is a good start in what will be a process that will benefit all downstream users of the waters of the South Fork Yuba River.

I’d like to address several items that have been mentioned by the group Save Van Norden Lake.

1: The water rights that are mentioned, and the acquisition of same, would be an expensive, lengthy process that TDLT have decided is not worth the time and expense. A map from the Division of Water Rights indicates that the river was fully appropriated prior to when the TDLT acquired the property in 2012. Even if water rights could be acquired, the “place in line” for those rights, due to the seniority of the many water rights holders, would preclude any beneficial use or impoundment of water. In short, all the water would be spoken for before anyone here at the summit would be able to claim it. The assertion that we here at the summit would be able to keep any water by acquiring water rights is incorrect. The only other way to acquire water rights would be from willing sellers, and in an over allocated system, in a four plus year drought, it is questionable at what price and time frame enough senior water rights could be purchased and transferred to the reservoir. In fact, it’s speculative that enough water rights could be purchased to even maintain a reservoir.

2: A healthy meadow would begin with reseeding. The reseeding would occur at the appropriate time, decided upon by the several hydrologists and meadow experts, from nearly a dozen conservation groups, that TDLT have hired during the acquisition process.

3: A healthy meadow will provide cleaner, cooler water, released over a longer period of time during the summer and fall months, to downstream users far more efficiently than a shallow reservoir. The so-called lake that exists behind what’s left of the dam is a poor substitute for a healthy meadow, especially as we face potential climate change and increased water usage throughout the state.

4: A healthy meadow will have a rich diversity of flora and fauna appropriate to the area. All studies that have taken place during the meadow acquisition, again by nearly a dozen conservation groups and their meadow experts, have indicated that there would not only be no net loss of plant and animal species, but in fact that there would be an overall increase in bio-diversity.

5: With respect to the fishery, there are no native fish here at the summit. Eastern Brook Trout, found in the South Fork Yuba flowing through the eastern portion of the meadow (and in Upper Castle Creek!) were introduced over a century ago. The perch and catfish that currently populate the water behind the dam are here from the time that the dam was used to hold water for recreation. My belief, based on field studies, is that the trout fishery will thrive once the river becomes re-established in its past form.

It would be wise for those criticizing TDLT to find out more about the nature of healthy meadows in the Sierra and their increasing importance to the health and well-being of not only the watersheds those meadows are a part of, but also the downstream ecosystems these meadows supply water to.

What’s not discussed, and should be, is TDLT’s purchase of 3,300 hundred acres of land in the headwaters, which will protect the water quality in the watershed in perpetuity. This benefits both local and downstream populations for generations to come … what an incredible gift for the people of California!

For those so inclined, I would suggest you contact TDLT for the real story, based on real science, of how the process of acquiring Van Norden Meadow has progressed, and why it’s important to maintain the focus that TDLT currently possesses.

Insinuating that TDLT has a financial stake in this process is untrue, and at the very least, bad form.

Finally, my wife and I enjoy hiking and fishing in the meadow, and kayaking the waters behind the dam. This is basically our back yard.

However, for the good of all Californians, especially with regard to water quality in a healthy watershed, we would gladly give up a small amount of illegally impounded water to enable the entire ecosystem to thrive. It’s only right.

Tom Appelbaum is president of the group Save Van Norden Meadow. He may be reached for comment at

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