Bear River Awakening
Lower Bear River
Baby Blue Eyes
Henderson's shooting star
The Lower Bear River flows south of the Spenceville Wildlife Area down into the Sacramento Valley, until it merges with the Feather River. At this elevation, huge Valley Oaks dominate, as they spread their sheltering branches above grassy meadows and hillsides of Tidy Tips, Shooting Stars, and Baby Blue Eyes. This zone was once celebrated for the beauty of its spring wildflowers, and its vernal pools, that bloomed in a rainbow of color. The Lower Bear River has been the most severely impacted of the three sections by the effects of mining, agriculture and development, but there are still beautiful, sun-filled, riverside habitats of alders, willows, and cottonwoods. There, wild roses still bloom at the river's edge and wild grape vines can be found winding their way up nearby trees, just as they used to in years gone by.
Large scale grazing has played an important role in all reaches of the Bear River. In the last century, sheep and cattle drives and extensive grazing were normal. The lean market for cattle and enticingly high land prices are transforming former grazing land to low density development. The ecosystem change is far reaching, and the quality of life questions become essential.
The lower reach of the Bear will experience the most radical change in the next few decades. Development pressure on the valley floor in the Sacramento region is intense, and is not projected to diminish any time soon. Some see a sprawling metropolis as inevitable stretching from Sacramento to Sutter City at the foot of Sutter Buttes north of Yuba City. The City of Lincoln and Placer County are already the fastest growing city and county in California.
The Bear in the valley is diverted into massive ditches for agricultural irrigation which serve rice fields, irrigated pasture, and orchards.
Much of the water flowing in the Lower Bear is agricultural drainage from irrigation.
The Bear below Camp Far West Reservoir was defined by the hydraulic mining legacy. The Placer County boundary was originally surveyed to the riverbed, but the levees and channel today flow more than a mile south of the county line. Mine tailings smothered the original riverbed causing the river to cut a new course through the farmland. Levees were built to tame the river's new route, and the river was engineered to meet the flood control needs of the day. With agricultural diversions for irrigation, the river carried tail waters from the irrigated fields to the sea and functioned as an agricultural drain. In other words, the Bear below Camp Far West is man's creation, meeting the needs of the times.
Growth and its impacts will transform the area below Camp Far West Reservoir. Farmland will likely disappear, as rooftops replace crops as the dominant economy. With people come changing needs and desires for the management of the river, and for the beneficial uses the river provides. Currently an agricultural drain in summer, new residents will no doubt demand to see their river restored to enhance their quality of life; the lower Bear will see urban interests demanding a parkway more akin to the Lower American River in Sacramento. A recent move in this direction was the Prop 13 funded levee setback project above the confluence with the Feather resulting in improved salmon habitat.
Dry Creek, a tributary of the lower Bear, flows through the Spenceville Wildlife Area and Beale Air Force Base before joining the Bear below Wheatland. At 11,213 acres, Spenceville is the largest tract of blue oak woodland habitat in public ownership in the central Sierra foothills (less than 1% of the oak woodlands in California are currently in the public trust) and home to 175 species of birds, including 19 of "Special Status" and "Special Concern." Dry Creek and the rich, protected environs surrounding it provide spawning habitat for endangered fall-run Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. Managed by the California Department of Fish and Game, Spenceville is an area, according to the Department, of "… exceptional species richness and contains many game and non-game species and unique and diminishing habitats … and animal movement corridors". In addition to its rich ecological values, Spenceville serves a wide range of recreational users from birdwatchers and hikers to hunters and horseback riders. The Friends of Spenceville have prepared a map and guide describing the flora and fauna of the area. An easy five-mile round-trip hike leads to the spectacular 60-foot Fairy Falls. Spenceville is also rich with Native American sites and in the 19th century was a thriving town centered on a copper mine.
Spenceville, however, is threatened by the proposed Waldo Dam Project — a 300,000-acre water storage project — which would flood 3,560 acres of prime habitat and recreation area. For further information contact the Friends of Spenceville at 530-265-2666 or email randtthomas @sbcglobal.net [remove the space before the @].
Lower Bear at the Crossroads
Photograph by Julie Carville
Valley agricultural areas are rapidly turning into rooftops. Will the character of the river be changed from agricultural drain to urban parkland? Will salmon and steelhead again find rich spawning grounds, or will poor water quality and degraded habitat be the fate of the Bear in the valley?
Spenceville Wildlife Area is the biggest area of oak woodland habitat in public ownership in California. Will it be protected, to enhance the quality of life for present and future residents? Or will it be dammed for revenue generation by Yuba County's Waldo dam project? What values will prevail?
Beale Air Force Base is the single biggest landowner in the lower watershed. Will the base be decommissioned, as is the trend nationwide? If so, will it be auctioned to the highest bidder? Or will public values have a balanced place in the transition of this publicly-owned resource?
In World War II, the "General's Dam" was built for the single purpose of recreation on Dry Creek within Beale's border. Will the dam be removed to provide unimpeded salmon and steelhead access to the Spenceville preserved area?
Will the growth simply sprawl across our watershed? Or will best practices inspire development to integrate with open space and river restoration, enhancing the quality of life for all who live in the Bear watershed?