Follow virtually any river from the crest of the Sierra Nevada westward down toward the Central Valley and eventually you come to a major dam. One of the rare exceptions is the South Yuba River, which begins a sprightly and relatively short course near Donner Summit northeast of Sacramento and joins the Middle Fork of the Yuba at Englebright Reservoir.
The 39-mile South Yuba, all within Nevada County, is a favorite of kayakers and swimmers. But there is talk of building a dam on the South Yuba to enhance flood protection for the Marysville-Yuba City area in the Sacramento Valley. Farmlands there were flooded in 1997 when levees failed.
Aficionados of the South Yuba believe with good reason that there is greater value in keeping the river dam-free. The state Senate has passed a bill, SB 496, by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), to include the South Yuba in the state wild and scenic rivers system. The vote was close, 22 to 14, just one more than the minimum needed. As the bill awaits action by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, foes are trying to nit-pick it to death. Supporters will have to wage an effective campaign to win approval in the Assembly.
Another dam is not the answer to the valley’s flood problems. The U.S. Corps of Engineers has rejected the proposed dam sites as either technically or economically infeasible. There is money available to strengthen existing levees, which should be done anyway. And ways should be found to re-engineer the lower river so that it follows more natural floodways capable of carrying more water.
New dams would not guarantee flood safety. And once a wild river is dammed, it’s likely never to be wild again.