In a stunning victory for the Sierra Nevada and everyone who cares about our region’s resources, Sierra Watch turned back a proposal to build a new dam on the Bear River.
In a classic water grab, Southern California interests proposed to dam the Bear River and send our Sierra waters south. Sierra Watch spearheaded a collaborative effort to protect the river’s surrounding ranchlands, abundant wildlife habitat – and the river itself.
The Bear River at Garden Bar
Running between the Yuba and AmericanRiver watersheds, the Bear River tumbles from the granite peaks of Emigrant Gap, through the remote reaches of the California foothills, and into the Great Central Valley.
The Bear serves as the Nevada/Placer County line, provides innumerable swimming holes to local residents, and lends its name to a nearby high school.
Historically, it’s one of the great markers of the Emigrant Trail; the crossing at Garden Bar was the last Sierra river crossing on the journey west.
In recent years, the Garden Bar Region – in the canyons below Highway 49 – lies at the heart of a collaborative investment in permanent protection of working ranches and thriving wildlands.
Those resources were at risk of a 350 foot tall dam that would have blocked the river and flooded the Bear RiverCanyon.
Presumably, water would have shipped south to serve the dam’s initial funders – urban water districts as far away as San Bernadino, 470 miles from the Bear River watershed.
Protected Lands Under Threat
The dam would have flooded an estimated 2,000 acres of Bear RiverCanyon. The land itself is characterized by oak woodlands, steep slopes, rocky outcroppings, and seasonal streams. It’s home to more than 300 species, including western skink, bobcat, and California quail.
With its unique set of values, Garden Bar has been a high priority for conservation funding. PlacerLand Trust and Bear Yuba Land Trust (formerly Nevada County Land Trust) have invested millions of private and public dollars to protect the region’s habitat, cultural, watershed, hiking, fishing, and ranching resources. The proposed dam would actually submerge land that’s already been protected, including Garden Bar Preserve and Bruin Ranch.
Dams, of course, don’t just flood land. They also stop rivers. The free-flowing Bear provides irreplaceable ecological functions to the region. The Bear provides important habitat for foothill wildlife and a variety of Sierra fish.
Standing Up for Sierra Rivers
The proposal posed a real danger to important Sierra resources: wildlife habitat, cultural resources, watershed function, and working ranchlands – as well as to the Bear River itself — and the project would have created a new template for an old-fashioned water grab: distant Southern California water users targeting a small, agricultural district through which to construct a dam, impound Sierra water, and wheel it south.
By turning back the dam, Sierra Watch provided a great example of how we can work together to defend what we love about the Sierra Nevada and sent a clear message throughout the state: our rivers and canyons are worth more than a dam.