Foothills Water Network

Awakening the Bear

Assessing Flow Improvement Needs and Opportunities
in Northern California’s Bear River Problemshed

April 2005
Bear River
Prepared by

David Yardas
Consulting Analyst(1)

Allan Eberhart
State Conservation Chair, Sierra Club

Prepared for

Environmental Defense
Western Resources Program
5655 College Avenue, Suite 304
Oakland, CA 96161



Over the past three years, Environmental Defense and its partners(2) undertook a variety of efforts to address the needs and potential opportunities for improving flows in northern California’s Bear River, among the most heavily-manipulated and environmentally-neglected rivers in our state. The following pages summarize our work and key findings through the end of 2004, including efforts to ensure that the needs of the Bear River will continue to be addressed as part of a comprehensive regional portfolio of conservation initiatives for the Bear, Yuba, and American River water management systems.  This report also includes selected links to the library of project-related documents on the accompanying CD, including notes, data, analysis, digital maps, contacts, and references.  (The project bibliography references many documents which are not included on the CD, however most are available online and/or are on file with the authors.)


Sandwiched in between the Yuba and American River basins in the west-central Sierra Nevada, the Bear River – an early victim of geologic and glacial stream capture – supported thriving populations of salmon, trout, and other native species throughout its pre-development history.  The Bear River’s riparian zone served as an important wildlife migration corridor from its confluence with the Feather River to its headwaters near Bear Valley, and its watershed was a central part of the Nisenan people’s ancestral homeland. 

The Bear’s real problems began during the gold rush era, when the combined effects of hydraulic mining and massive imports of mercury severely degraded the once-pristine River.  By the late 1800’s, hydraulic mining had largely given way to inter-basin water and hydropower development which served agricultural water supply and power generation needs throughout the western foothills region (and beyond).  By the turn of the 20th century, much of the region’s contemporary water infrastructure was in place.  

Bear Canal
The Bear River Canal headworks

In the 1960’s, when foothills-area growth got underway in earnest, some of the original water and hydropower infrastructure was replaced or expanded while several new dams, powerhouses, and conveyance works were added.  Throughout this period, the Bear River became, quite literally, the region’s hydraulic workhorse, conveying water for consumption and energy generation from the upper Yuba, upper American, and its own headwaters and tributaries into the middle and lower Bear, the lower American, and the associated foothill creek-ravine region.

Today the Bear River can be divided into three basic reaches: (1) an “upper” or headwaters reach from just above Bear Valley to Rollins Reservoir; (2) a “middle” reach from the Bear River Canal headworks immediately below Rollins Dam through Combie Dam and Reservoir to New Camp Far West (NCFW) Reservoir; and (3) a “lower” reach from the South Sutter Water District (SSWD) diversion dam below NCFW Dam to the Bear-Feather River confluence.  (The enclosed Bear River plumbing schematic combines (2) and (3) above into a single “lower” section.) 

Diversion Dam
South Sutter Water District (SSWD) diversion dam

The Bear River “problemshed”

For much of the past two decades, considerable attention has been drawn to the plights of the Yuba and American Rivers, and much has been accomplished to address at least some of their basic needs. Among the most recent of these efforts has been the Upper Yuba River Studies Program (UYRSP), a $9 million agency-stakeholder collaborative funded by the CALFED Bay-Delta Program to determine the feasibility of restoring salmon and steelhead into the upper Yuba River system (

One of the early outcomes of the UYRSP was an agreement to leave water purveyors “whole” in the event that restoration efforts led to adverse water supply impacts. An important consequence of that commitment was the realization that the contemporary water management system inextricably commingled waters from, and to, a number of different watersheds.  The relevant “problemshed” thus includes the entire Bear River watershed; the associated “source” watersheds of the Middle Yuba, South Yuba, and North Fork American Rivers; the many foothill watersheds that depend in part upon those same inter-basin supplies; and the associated service areas of the Nevada Irrigation District, Placer County Water Agency, South Sutter Water District, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company, among others. 

After considerable early progress, the UYRSP ground to a temporary halt in 2001-02 due to a combination of state budgetary woes and related problems at CALFED.  At that time, Environmental Defense decided to focus on the non-Yuba portions of the problem-shed, seeking to better understand the potential for UYRSP-related impacts on consumptive water supplies, hydropower operations, and the environment.

Flow needs related to anadramous fish

The non-Yuba portions of the problem-shed include a number of sites that are worthy candidates for conservation action in their own right.  Among these are the “salmon occupied” reaches of the lower Bear River as well as Auburn Ravine-Coon Creek, Dry Creek-Secret Ravine-Miners Ravine, and Dry Creek-Spenceville; the middle reach of the Bear River, where gold-rush era mercury deposits continue to cause problems; and the upper reaches of the Bear, including a viable native trout fishery (in Bear Valley) that was already the focus of important restoration efforts. 

While modest flow improvements would no-doubt be beneficial in the upper reaches of the Bear, our efforts came to focus on its middle and lower reaches, and on the various foothill streams, where diversions are greatest, where flow improvements will depend on the effective re-management of co-mingled inter-basin supplies, and where the regional potential to protect and restore anadramous fish across a diverse array of sites remains high.  (In each instance, of course, both flow and non-flow improvements will be needed.)  Work to improve flows across a diverse array of sites also underscores the need for a region-wide alliance of restoration advocates, as discussed further below.

Flow-related challenges

The middle reach of the Bear River is perhaps the least understood of the sites noted above when it comes to identifying flow-related improvement needs and opportunities.  Key challenges for the middle Bear include the following:  

  • While pre-development conditions throughout the watershed supported native trout and other species year-round, pre-development flows during summer and fall months were generally modest across all year types due to the Bear’s relatively low-elevation headwaters
  • Contemporary conditions in the middle reach of the Bear are such that ecological justifications for improved flows (e.g., protection of native aquatic species) are limited, especially when compared to the lower reach of the Bear or the various foothill streams that continue to support anadramous fish
  • Colder water temperatures due to improved summer/fall flows may help to reduce the potential for mercury methylation in this reach and in NCFW Reservoir, but they could also lead to potential conflicts with non-native fisheries (e.g., bass)     
  • Combie Dam
    Combie Dam
    The middle reach of the Bear has a predominantly deep canyon profile such that improved flows would likely provide few riparian habitat benefits, however its tributary regions (e.g., Magnolia Creek, Wolf Creek) may serve as refugia for aquatic and wildlife species and the entire middle reach remains an important wildlife migration corridor
  • The middle reach contains predominantly private land holdings and provides few opportunities for public access, thus limiting development of an active public constituency for flow-related aesthetic or recreation improvements
  • In order to facilitate flow improvements below Combie Dam during minimum release periods, both operational and structural improvements maybe needed

In the lower reach of the Bear, flow improvements may be easier to justify due to the below-dam potential for anadramous fishery restoration; these, in turn, could also serve as a “magnet” for accompanying middle-reach improvements.  Even so, a number of problems remain: 

  • Conditions conducive to mercury methylation in NCFW Reservoir, and the resulting accumulation of mercury in fish tissues and other biota, could complicate efforts to improve the downstream fishery (though it is hoped that improved flows would also help to address these problems)
  • Due to the past accumulation of mining sediments and the presence of overly-constrictive levees, the lower channel has become narrow and incised and will likely require physical remediation as part of any flow-related restoration effort (invasive plant species like Giant arundo will also have to be eradicated)
  • Like all below-dam environments, downstream gravel recruitment has been limited for many years and would have to be actively supplemented (along with improved flows) to provide suitable habitat conditions for anadramous fish 
  • NCFW Reservoir is both shallow and warm and may not be able to provide releases or through-flows when needed (i.e., late summer and early fall) at temperatures acceptable to downstream salmon; the result will depend upon the particulars reservoir storage and mixing, as well as the volume, timing, source, and temperature of any upstream flow improvements.

In addition to all the above, any effort to improve flows in the Bear River system will depend on the development of agreements and understandings with Nevada Irrigation District, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, South Sutter Water District, Placer County Water Agency, and possibly other entities who control and manage water in the system.  Flow improvement initiatives can also be advanced through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license renewal processes for the Drum-Spaulding, Yuba-Bear, and Middle Fork hydropower projects, and/or through other regulatory proceedings, however cooperative strategies have been the focus of this project.

Finally, the contemporary reliance on Yuba (and to a lesser extent American) River imports into the Bear River system leads to concerns among advocates for those resources when considering Bear River and related flow improvements that might constrain future opportunities to “recapture” even a portion of those supplies. 

Strategic responses

With the above challenges in mind, Environmental Defense and its partners sought to develop and refine the following multi-pronged approach in order to build the case for improved flows across a number of program elements: 

  • Launch a comprehensive assessment and outreach effort relating to flow improvement needs in the Yuba-Bear-American system with the goal of developing joint recommendations for the re-structuring of Yuba-Bear and Drum-Spaulding hydropower project operations by not later than 2013 (i.e., when the existing FERC licenses for those projects expire)
  • Promote the need for agency-sponsored salmon and steelhead restoration studies below NCFW Reservoir in order to clarify the potential for anadramous fishery restoration in this reach and in the associated Dry Creek/Spenceville drainage  
  • Pursue conditionally-authorized levee setbacks and habitat restoration opportunities in the Bear-Feather confluence region (i.e., opportunities that will greatly enhance the potential for a self-sustaining anadramous fishery) 
  • Develop agency-NGO collaborative monitoring and flow-improvement experiments for the middle reach of the Bear River in order to adaptively test (and ideally reduce) the potential for mercury methylation due to summer/fall flow and water temperature improvements, and in order to explore mechanisms for enhancing flows in the lower reaches of the River based on releases from and wheeling through NCFW reservoir 
  • Ensure that proposals to establish a Sierra Nevada Conservancy (since enacted) include the need to address problems related to both water quality and flow, and then explore regional pilot-project opportunities as part of the Conservancy’s implementing mission  
  • Promote and pursue efforts to re-route surplus deliveries to SSWD from the Bear River Canal system to NCFW Reservoir via the middle Bear River reach in order to take advantage of SSWD’s increasing capacity for main-stem diversions and conveyance
  • Reach out to environmental, conservation, and watershed groups who are active in the region and seek to broaden the scope of their efforts to support a comprehensive and diversified regional flow improvement initiative that includes the Yuba, Bear, and American Rivers and associated foothill streams
  • Complete and make available to the above groups and others a collection of digital problem-shed maps as well as a CD compilation of our accumulated notes and analyses
  • Continue to participate in the Upper Yuba River Studies Program process to build relationships and trust with participating public agencies and to ensure timely development and completion of a publicly-accessible Yuba-Bear-American Rivers system simulation model        
  • Monitor regional waste water treatment plant proposals and pursue mitigation options through the environmental compliance process if/when appropriate
  • Explore purchase/transfer of the PG&E hydro system by regional water agencies and/or a “regional hydropower trust” to provide improved operational flexibility as well as sustained revenues for water supply security, river and stream restoration, and watershed reinvestment
  • Urge NID and PCWA to develop a public process for comprehensive evaluation of canal lining and piping opportunities to ensure that the adverse impacts of conservation investments on seepage-dependent environments are avoided or fully mitigated
  • Advance the idea of creating a water bank at Spaulding and/or Rollins Reservoirs in conjunction with the Yuba-Bear and Drum-Spaulding FERC license renewal proceeding, and/or with any regional hydropower divestiture negotiations, and utilize that “bank” to store and release acquired or dedicated environmental water

Progress through 2004

While it was not possible to undertake or complete this entire “action agenda” over three short years, we are able to demonstrate significant progress in at least the following areas:   

Foothills Water Network:  The Foothills Water Network was established in 2004 as a regional network of water, environmental, and conservation activists.  The FWN serves as a forum for sharing information, airing and resolving differences, and with luck, developing a mutually-supported portfolio of aquatic ecosystem restoration objectives for the Yuba-Bear-American Rivers system as a whole.  The CD library of information developed as part of this project will be vested with the Network to provide a foundation for ongoing work.  A modest initial grant resulted in the hiring of a part-time coordinator, who is already engaged in bridge-building and outreach efforts throughout the region. 

Bear River Workgroup:  In 2004 the Bear River Workgroup secured a three-year, $306,000 grant to hire a Bear River Workgroup coordinator.  The coordinator’s job description envisions pursuit of a 4-point program that includes specific efforts to “enhance and restore habitat, flows, and temperatures to increase anadramous and trout fisheries to sustainable levels in the Bear River and other regional streams.”  (The Bear River Workgroup differs from the FWN in that it includes both stakeholder and agency representatives whose goals will sometimes vary from those of FWN participants.) 

Lower Bear River Restoration Study:  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has developed a competitive Request for Proposals (RFP) for studies to evaluate baseline conditions as well as fishery restoration needs and opportunities on the lower Bear River below New Camp Far West Reservoir.  Issuance of the RFP now depends on the provision of federal funds through the USFWS’s Anadromous Fish Restoration Program in 2005-06. 

Lower Bear River Levee Setback:  The past three years have seen substantial progress towards approval and funding of a $40+ million levee setback project in the Bear/Feather confluence region.  As part of its Proposition 13 Yuba/Feather Flood Control Project, the Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA) is now considering, with the support of CDFG, USFWS, and NOAA, a Final Environmental Impact Report (see Feather-Bear Rivers Levee Setback Project, November 2004) for a preferred alternative that would result in the restoration of more than 300 acres of riparian wetlands along the lower Bear River.  The design of the setback project will also meet CDF&G and USFWS criteria for an enhanced fishery and wildlife area.  (The Reclamation Board has approved the project, conditioned on restrictions on the total number of new houses to be constructed nearby and the provision of matching funds from residential developers.) 

Agency Outreach:  We engaged representatives of the South Sutter Water District over the potential for water exchanges and flow improvements in the lower Bear River and in Auburn Ravine/Coon Creek as well. We also continued with efforts to build and sustain strong working relationships with key representatives of NID, PCWA, and PG&E, and with the various state and federal agencies who have an interest in Yuba, Bear, and American River conservation efforts.  (Among the concepts explored was a near-term series of “pilot” experiments in the middle and lower reaches of the Bear River that would help to improve our collective understanding of the benefits and costs of alternative flow improvement scenarios.)    

Sierra Nevada Conservancy: We played only a minor role in the successful campaign by others to establish a state-chartered Sierra Nevada Conservancy in 2004.  We did, however, help to ensure that its mission and authority included actions that would both protect and improve water quality. 

Upper Yuba River Studies Program: We have continued to press for timely completion as well as open and transparent calibration and verification of the UYRSP-sponsored water and hydropower simulation model of the Yuba-Bear-American Rivers system.  We also initiated efforts to ensure that, on completion, the model will be housed at an appropriate public agency for ongoing public use and access. 

Problemshed Maps and CD Compilation: We helped to complete an initial inventory of applicable GIS resources as well as a series of GIS-based maps that document regional water infrastructure, inter-basin water mixing, and the like.  These maps are available at, or in the “images” folder in the accompanying CD compilation.

Recommendations for continuing efforts

The work and accomplishments described above have laid a foundation for “awakening the Bear” by advancing a comprehensive vision for improving flows and restoring habitats throughout the Yuba-Bear-American River problem-shed.  We have also made progress on a number of initiatives that will be critical to realizing that vision.  Yet much work remains, including the following: 

  • The ongoing lack of a publicly-available system-wide simulation model (as has long been promised by, and expected from, the UYRSP) has limited our collective ability to assess the implications of modifying operations and improving flows throughout the region.  At the same time, ongoing questions about the feasibility of restoring salmon and steelhead in the upper Yuba system have complicated efforts to reach a regional consensus among a diverse array of advocates.  It is time for the UYRSP to complete its work, or for all involved to look elsewhere for answers to these very important questions.
  • The above capabilities would help to “groundtruth” our estimates of the likely range of annual costs associated with the proposed re-routing of surplus water deliveries to SSWD as well as other means of improving flows in the middle and lower reaches of the system. 
  • A final agreement over levee setbacks and riparian habitat improvements in the Bear-Feather confluence region remains crucial to the prospects of fishery restoration in the lower Bear River.  (The same is true regarding timely release of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “baseline studies” RFP.)  Both of these initiatives deserve focused near-term attention.  
  • Our review of the “raw” and “urban” water management plans for both NID and PCWA, as well as supply and demand projections compiled for NID, PCWA, and SSWD, suggests that – in most years anyway – there is ample room for improvement in the conservation, allocation, and management of regional water supplies.  In all cases, however, care must be taken to ensure that conservation actions are combined with affirmative measures to mitigate adverse impacts, including concurrent dedication of conserved water as an appropriate way to “firm up” at-risk environmental water supplies. 
  • While many improvements can be made without impacting regional hydropower production, the foregone costs of such production will nonetheless play an important role in a number of “re-management” scenarios, particularly in the near-term.  Given the likely cost of modifying existing contract operations at the region’s aging hydropower facilities, it will probably be most effective to pursue long-term changes in conjunction with renewal (in 2013) of the Drum-Spaulding and Yuba-Bear project hydropower licenses.
  • The ongoing potential for divestiture of PG&E’s aging hydropower resources suggests that affirmative alternative strategies (e.g., a “regional hydropower trust” to acquire and co-manage those resources) should be developed and considered to ensure that local and regional water supply, river restoration, and watershed re-investment priorities are advanced and sustained over time.   
  • An interim series of cooperative pilot-scale experiments along the middle and lower reaches of the Bear could help to implement the commitments of the Bear River Watershed Group grant as well as build trust, test flow improvement assumptions, and build knowledge and understanding about the entire Yuba-Bear-American Rivers system. 

In addition to all the above, it is imperative that local and regional environmental, conservation, and watershed groups develop a shared vision of and commitment to addressing river and watershed needs throughout the problem-shed. With luck, the Foothills Water Network will evolve as a critical means to this end, and the resources at issue will prosper because their needs will have been addressed through a comprehensive, diversified, and flexible set of mutually-supported options and approaches. An awakened Bear River remains a crucial part of this contemporary restoration vision.

1. Mr. Yardas oversaw work on this project as a Senior Analyst with Environmental Defense from late 2001 through September 2004, and as a contract consultant through the end of 2004.  
2. Project partners included Allan Eberhart (research, local outreach, strategy development); Doug Johnson (research); Sarah Yarnell (hydrography); Beth Thomas (hydrologic analysis); and Peter Tittmann (GIS).
3. Environmental Defense was a member of the UYRSP collaborative, including its water and hydropower and socio-economic workgroups, from 1999-2004
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