Van Norden Meadow: A look at the South Yuba River Headwaters

Van Norden Meadow: A look at the South Yuba River Headwaters

By Rachel Hutchinson, River Science Director

The headwaters of the South Yuba River are an incredibly special and beautiful place. On a warm spring morning you can sit within Van Norden meadow and watch birds flit from willow to willow, munching on insects as the sun warms them after a long winter. As the season moves into summer, I love watching bees and other pollinators scurry from flower to flower as afternoon thunderstorms roll in over Donner Summit.

With the purchase of the Summit Valley properties in 2012, the Truckee Donner Land Trust (TDLT), with support from many other organizations and local residents, was able to protect this beautiful area and the South Yuba Headwaters for generations to come. Now landowners, the TDLT must make decisions about how to best manage the land for those future generations, including a small dam and reservoir at the base of Van Norden meadow.

Photo Credit: Eric Holmes
Van Norden Reservoir and Meadow, 2013 (Photo Credit: Eric Holmes)

The reservoir at Van Norden is almost 150 years old. It has equilibrated to its surroundings and is what restoration ecologists call a “novel ecosystem”- a place that did not form naturally but that functions like a natural place and provides habitat for many species (Hobbs et al. 2006). At Van Norden this has created a place that boasts foraging habitat for bald eagles and pelicans and creates one of the most incredible western toad populations that I have ever seen.

The diverse beauty of Van Norden Reservoir and the habitat that it creates is not disputed. But there are 3 important caveats: 1. the reservoir and dam negatively impact the health of the South Yuba River downstream (SYRCL, 2015), 2. the dam is out of compliance and is a safety hazard, and 3. the TDLT does not have the water rights necessary to store the water in the reservoir.

This article will summarize why the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) views this as an opportunity to improve habitat quality in Summit Valley with benefits that will be watershed wide. The article will also dive into water quality issues created in the South Yuba River downstream that will be improved by restoring Van Norden meadow.

Dams in our headwaters
When Van Norden was saved from development and permanently conserved for future generations, it was also an ecological victory for the headwaters of the South Yuba River.

Our headwaters are special places not only because they are beautiful and full of life, but because they are the source of our rivers. Limiting development in these places is the main means by which we can protect them. Understanding how dams in our headwaters, like Van Norden, impact the source of our streams and rivers is of critical importance to the health of a watershed (Freeman et al. 2007; Alexander et al. 2007). These headwater dams are generally small, make no power, and store very little water of use to farmers and people. In California, dam development throughout the 19th and 20th centuries was solution focused. Dams kept polluted mining sediment from reaching farmers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, it generated hydropower to feed our ever growing need for electricity, and it generated storage used for agriculture and drinking water. Across the country, we are now in an era of dam evaluation, repair, and removal (Stanley & Doyle 2003). Dam owners are asking: is this dam necessary, will it fail, and how should it be modified to lessen the negative impact on stream and river health?

Members of the scientific community have been studying the impacts of smaller headwater dams for decades. Now that scientific papers are so much easier to access online, it is easy to do a literature review yourself: just Google “effects of headwater reservoirs on stream health” and hundreds of papers appear. Many scientists are specifically interested in looking at what is known as the “serial discontinuity concept” or the impacts on water quality, nutrient exchange, and biological diversity when we create lakes within rivers (Ward and Stanford 1983; Wohl 2006). What scientists have found is that headwater dams increase stream temperatures, decrease dissolved oxygen content, and alter the conductivity and nutrient exchange in the stream downstream of the dam (Lessard and Hayes 2003; Freeman et al. 2007; Smock et al. 1989).

What does this mean for fish, bugs, amphibians and birds in the river? In California, native fish, bugs (aka fish food) and amphibians have very specific water quality requirements and don’t like living in warm water with limited oxygen and high salinity. Birds like to eat bugs, fish, and amphibians, and don’t like living in places where they can’t eat. Would you?

South Yuba Headwaters Ecosystem Benefits
It is my particular view that having self-sustaining, healthy habitat above and below a headwater dam, in this case Van Norden Dam, is preferred. We must take the long view when it comes to Van Norden and accept that, regardless of the illegality of the dam, there is a huge watershed wide benefit to reducing the reservoir. This is a trade-off whose benefits will be felt and observed for generations to come. What are we gaining? Over 2 miles of reconnected headwater streams flowing through the South Yuba and Upper Castle Creek, improved stream habitat for native fish, native birds, and native wildlife, improved meadow habitat- of which over 70% is impacted in California, and the sense that we fight for the natural flow of our rivers.

Arguments can be made that modifying how Van Norden dam functions and releasing more water to improve water quality is one solution. However operating a dam in that way requires more water, more infrastructure, and more cement. California’s streams and rivers often went dry in the summer before we built our Hetch Hetchys and Englebrights. How would adding more water change the habitat that our California native species need to thrive? Should we be continuing and adding to the more recent developments at Summit Valley or should we allow this landscape to re-equilibrate without the assistance of cement and continuous management as it did for thousands of years?

Van Norden Reservoir is restricting the natural flow of the river, which alters the biology and the ecology of the entire river below. In 2000, SYRCL began its citizen-science based water quality monitoring program to help us identify threats and understand the impacts of those threats. Since 2006, SYRCL citizen scientists have been monitoring water quality above and below Van Norden meadow to understand how water quality is impacted by Van Norden Reservoir. Our findings, all available online on (SYRCL 2015), show that while cold water enters Van Norden meadow on the South Yuba River (Site 41) and at Upper Castle Creek (Site 40), water temperatures are elevated above 20 degrees centigrade, a key threshold for fish survival, below the dam (Site 39) during the spring and summer months (see graph below). Impacts from the dam have also been observed for dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and turbidity (SYRCL 2015;


The graph shows that every year, the water below Van Norden Dam is up to 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees F) warmer. This, combined with related issues with pH, conductivity, and dissolved oxygen content, is an impact to water quality in the South Yuba River that is inhospitable to aquatic species. The map and graph show water temperature data collected at Site 38 (Kingvale), Site 39 (Below Van Norden Dam), Site 40 (at Upper Castle Creek), and Site 41 (on the South Yuba above Van Norden).

SYRCL is concerned about the water quality in the South Yuba River and about promoting long-term, healthy headwater habitat for the entire watershed. We have listened to the other options that have been presented and reviewed all of the data that has been collected. With respect towards the reservoir and the species that call that special place home, it is our conclusion that in order to best protect the Yuba’s headwaters and the species that live there for generations to come, the best possible outcome is to lower this reservoir. This will restore natural flow, bring native fish back, and restore the meadow to protect the natural water storage basin and quality of the water. This is the best outcome for our headwaters.


SYRCL was founded by community activists who banded together to fight against new dam developments on the South Yuba River downstream of Spaulding Reservoir. This was a huge conservation and ecological victory. SYRCL continues to work to unite the community to protect and restore the Yuba River. Our collective vision is that of a healthy river where potential threats to that health are identified, studied, understood, and then removed, stopped or restored.

To view more water quality data, please visit

To read more about the impacts of dams on our river systems:

American Rivers

International Rivers

References Cited:
Alexander, R. B., Boyer, E. W., Smith, R. A., Schwarz, G. E., & Moore, R. B. (2007). The role of headwater streams in downstream water quality1. JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 43(1), 41-59.
Freeman, M. C., Pringle, C. M., & Jackson, C. R. (2007). Hydrologic connectivity and the contribution of stream headwaters to ecological integrity at regional scales. JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 43(1), 5–14.
Hobbs, R. J., Arico, S., Aronson, J., Baron, J. S., Bridgewater, P., Cramer, V. A., … & Zobel, M. (2006). Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order. Global ecology and biogeography,15(1), 1-7.
Lessard, J. L., & Hayes, D. B. (2003). Effects of elevated water temperature on fish and macroinvertebrate communities below small dams. River research and applications, 19(7), 721-732.
Smock, L. A., Metzler, G. M., & Gladden, J. E. (1989). Role of debris dams in the structure and functioning of low-gradient headwater streams. Ecology, 764-775.
South Yuba River Citizens League. 2015. South Yuba River Headwater Water Quality Data.
Stanley, E. H., & Doyle, M. W. (2003). Trading off: the ecological effects of dam removal. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 1(1), 15-22.
Ward, J. V., & Stanford, J. A. (1983). The serial discontinuity concept of lotic ecosystems. Dynamics of lotic ecosystems, 10, 29-42.
Wohl, E. (2006). Human impacts to mountain streams. Geomorphology, 79(3), 217-248.