The Yuba River
The Yuba River, blessed with golden riches and great natural beauty, rises at the crest of the Sierra Nevada some 8,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean and tumbles through a hundred miles of canyons in just 48 hours to join the Feather River at a confluence that stands only 67 feet above sea level. It drains 1,357 square miles of a watershed never more than 35 miles wide.
Peaceful Indians harvested grapes among its willows and cottonwoods when Jedediah Smith guided the first party of white settlers into Northern California in 1828. It took on the name Yuba in 1844, either derived from the Spanish word “uvas” for grapes or the Indian tribal name “Juba,” depending on whether you believe Gen. Mariano Vallejo or Capt. John Sutter.
From the days of Jonas Spect, a prospector who hit pay dirt in the river in the summer of 1848, it produced the greatest lode of gold of any stream in the United States. But by the turn of the century panning was no longer profitable, placer mining had displaced the prospector and silt was clogging the channel from Smartsville to Marysville. Even as the gold hunt flourished, enterprising men created farms on the fertile valley floor and were tapping the Yuba for an even richer lode of irrigation water to flood their fields and streams.
As early as 1875, levees were rising to protect against the winter flow in farm country and Marysville was beginning to surround itself with dikes that now stand 35 feet above its urban streets. Old Bullards Bar dam was built between 1922 and 1924 by the Yuba River Power Company and, lower downstream, the Federal Government created, just prior to World War II, the debris dam at the Narrows and Englebright Reservoir. But even the checking of the river mining debris and the erection of small dams did little to safeguard against the terrible temper of the Yuba River in full flow.
There have been ten major floods on the Yuba during this century. In 1950 the Yuba cut through its banks at Hammonton and inundated southern Yuba County, causing millions of dollars in damage. Then in 1955 as every watershed in California was hit by tropical storms, the Yuba became a ravaging torrent that choked its mountain channel, poured over the dams at Bullards Bar and Englebright Reservoir and ripped into the valley. The 1955 Yuba River flood came within inches of flooding Marysville, wreaked havoc in Yuba City, killed 40 people, forced almost 30,000 people to flee the county, and reinforced the contention that there was an urgent need for a major water program.