Photo by Bill Stevenson

Photo by Bill Stevenson


More and more dams constructed across the country in the first half of the twentieth century are in disrepair to the peril of downstream communities. Moreover, mounting scientific evidence increasingly supports the removal of many of the nation’s dams. The Truckee Donner Land Trust is owner of one of those obsolete deadbeat dams on Donner Summit, constructed in the late 1800s.

The Truckee Donner Land Trust took ownership of the Van Norden Dam as part of the 3,000-acre Royal Gorge acquisition in 2012. While the purchase is a tremendous conservation win for Donner Summit and the region — extinguishing a potential 950-unit resort development — it came with a hazardous and illegal dam.

The dam has been a hazard for downstream folks along the South Yuba River for nearly five decades. An inspection in 1971 noted leakage and deteriorated conditions of the dam core and embankments. A visible leak was also detected in 2011 and a dam break analysis rated it as a dam of significant hazard. Ultimately, the State Division of Safety of Dams rated Van Norden Dam as out of compliance with safety regulations. Beyond issues of safety, the California Department of Water Resources stated the dam was illegally impounding water in 2014 when previous rights holder, Pacific Gas & Electric, transferred a portion of those rights to another reservoir, and abandoned the rest to be used by other downstream users.

In considering all options to rectify these issues, the clear and only path forward to compliance is modifying the dam’s spillway to no longer impound water, fixing both safety and water rights issues. Other alternatives, such as rebuilding or repairing the dam at the existing or at an intermediate height, are astronomically expensive and wouldn’t address the water rights issue.

The benefits of notching the dam go beyond safety and legal compliance, according to every conservation group in the Northern Sierra including Mountain Area Preservation, Sierra Club, Sierra Watch, Truckee River Watershed Council, South Yuba River Citizen’s League, American Rivers, Point Blue Conservation Science and the Nature Conservancy.

Those benefits include restoration of Van Norden Meadow, as well as improved water quality and habitat downstream in the Yuba River.

“The Van Norden Dam impounds the South Yuba River and is altering the timing of flows. The water heats up in the shallow lake that forms and warmed outflow degrades habitat for sensitive species that rely on cold, natural flows. The small amount of man-made, open-water habitat that the reservoir once provided is duplicative of other nearby habitat. Notching the dam and restoring the meadow would provide significant public benefit in terms of increased natural meadow habitat, improved water quality, improved safety and reduced management costs,” according to American Rivers.

Let’s finish what we’ve started with the important preservation of Royal Gorge by making Van Norden safe for downstream users, improving the water quality in the South Yuba River and restoring habitat in both the meadow and river.

Click here to download the update.

View Letters of Support for the Royal Gorge/Van Norden Meadow Update:

The Truckee River Watershed Council

The Nature Conservancy, American Rivers, SYRCL

The Sierra Business Council

Department of Fish and Wildlife

View previous Letters of Support:

The United States Forest Service

The Truckee River Watershed Council

The Nature Conservancy, American Rivers, SYRCL

Download Anne Chadwick's informative piece on meadow restoration at Van Norden Meadow,  "Just Add Water".

Click here for Yvon Chouinard's Op-Ed in the New York Times on obsolete dams.



The Land Trust hired Lori Carpenter, a remarkable consultant and hydrologist. Lori is also a certified wetland expert. Lori has been onsite at Van Norden Reservoir overseeing the release of the water in the reservoir back into the South Yuba River.

Lori Carpenter, PWS, CPESC, Hydrologist/Hydrogeologist

"A river (once) ran through the Van Norden meadow and will again; run wild, unfettered and flow in response to temperature and snow pack. I’m speaking of the South Yuba River above Lake Van Norden Reservoir.  I’m a hydrologist who worked with the Land Trust to responsibly release water from the reservoir. The water release was conducted under State regulatory directives and emergency protocols.  The actual spillway is not being disabled now, rather the impounded water was released such that inflow would equal outflow. The water release also supported other downstream fish flows.  

I’d like to share with you just a bit of the process of what’s it’s like to lower a reservoir and find a river. A river not seen since the turn of century when water was plentiful and environmental and building standards were far different than today. Each day as the pumping proceeded, volunteers from Save Van Norden Meadow monitored the lake level in conjunction with the historic Yuba River channel to protect both the channel and discharging water quality. Each day we saw a bit more of the historic Yuba and marveled at nature’s resilience, using kayaks to follow the River’s historic path.  Finally, there was the river, the Yuba. A river, renewed, waiting for spring, waiting to run. The work isn’t over, it’s just began and the Land Trust wants you to be a part of it."

Click here to view a map of the phased lowering.