The Yuba begins as three rivers: North, Middle and South. In total they gather water from 1,357 square miles of watershed, which is never more than 35 miles wide at any one point. Jagged, rocky ridges separate the rivers for much of their journeys.
Agreements with local, state and federal agencies determine how much of the water will stay in the rivers’ natural channels and how much will be diverted for a variety of beneficial uses. Entities such as Nevada and Oroville-Wyandotte Irrigation Districts, Pacific Gas & Electric Company and individual water rights holders divert water from the Yuba River for their needs, both within and outside the Yuba watershed, before it ever reaches YCWA’s facilities. Through their tunnels and canals, Yuba River water is taken to the Feather, Bear and American Rivers.
The North Yuba starts its trek to the valley below at Yuba Pass (elevation 6,701 feet) near State Highway 49 in Sierra County. The river journeys in tandem with the state highway as far as Downieville, where it leaves the road and flows westward to the New Bullards Bar Reservoir.
The Middle Yuba is born from snow runoff and rainwater gathered at Jackson Meadows Reservoir in Sierra County. It meanders and roars, depending on the season of the year, through narrow, steep canyons until it gets to the 75-foot-high Our House Dam, southwest of Camptonville near the Sierra/Nevada County line.
Just upstream from the dam, water is diverted into a 3.8-mile-long tunnel that carries it to Oregon Creek near Camptonville. How much water can be diverted by the Agency is spelled out in two agreements:
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Project License and an agreement with the California Department of Fish and Game (CDF&G).
Emerging from the 3.8-mile-long tunnel, Middle Yuba water flows into Oregon Creek where it travels a short distance to another dam, which is called Log Cabin. Just upstream from that 55-foot high dam, Middle Yuba and Oregon Creek water is diverted into a 1.2-mile-long tunnel that carries it to New Bullards Bar Reservoir where it joins water from the North Yuba. At the New Bullards Bar Dam, water is released into a 4.7-mile- long tunnel that carries it to the mammoth turbines that generate electricity at the New Colgate Powerhouse.
New Bullards Bar Dam and Reservoir
Almost a million acre feet of water from the North and Middle Yuba River and Oregon Creek are stored behind the 64-story high, 2,323-foot-long New Bullards Bar Dam, which is located at the south end of a 16-mile long reservoir. In addition to providing much needed flood control, the reservoir is a prime recreation area and stores water for crop irrigation and energy generation, and influences downstream river temperatures for fishery enhancement.
The South Yuba comes to life at 9,000 feet in Placer County near Castle Peak and Donner Lake. As you drive east or west on Interstate 80 between Emigrant Gap and Donner Pass, you can catch glimpses of this pristine waterway on its journey to Englebright Reservoir and the main stem of the Yuba River many miles away. Dozens of creeks large and small flow into the South Yuba as it moves downhill through Placer and Nevada Counties to Yuba County near the old townsite of Bridgeport.
A few miles from Bridgeport the South Yuba joins its siblings — the North and the Middle — and flows into Englebright Reservoir, at a location 3.3 miles downstream from the New Colgate Powerhouse.
Englebright Dam, which is about 10 miles downstream of New Colgate Powerhouse, was built in 1941 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It was designed to keep upstream hydraulic gold mining debris out of the lower parts of the river. But by the time the dam was completed, World War II had put a stop to gold mining. Two tunnels at the dam move water to the turbines that generate electricity in the PG&E-owned-and-operated Narrows 1 Powerhouse and the Yuba County Water Agency-owned and-operated Narrows 2 Powerhouse. The two powerhouses are located on opposite sides of the river.
The combined water of the three rivers enters the 6,500-acre Yuba Goldfields a few miles above the Daguerra Point Dam, which is 12.3 miles below the Englebright Dam. In bygone days as many as 12 large-bucket type dredges at a time crawled across the goldfields unearthing riches for some and then leaving behind mountains of some of the best aggregate in the country. Now just one dredge is active, the other floats amid the rocky landscape in a land-locked pond like a rusting metal ghost of California’s historic past.
Daguerra Point Dam, originally constructed in 1906, was created to keep hydraulic gold mining debris from moving down the river where it would raise the river beds and further increase flood dangers. But now it is the primary diversion point for water to enter canals connected to irrigation districts located north and south of the river. There are fish ladders on both sides of the dam to help spawning salmon on their journey up the Yuba.
Miles downstream of Daguerra Point Dam, the river flows past Marysville to a point where it joins the Feather River. The high country water and melted snow that feed the Yuba are carried by the Feather River and finally the Sacramento River to the Delta, where some is diverted onto Delta islands to irrigate crops and some is diverted by the giant state and federal pumps for irrigation and municipal supplies for the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The remainder then flows on to the Pacific Ocean through San Francisco Bay.