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Sandwiched in between the Yuba and American River basins in the west-central Sierra Nevada, the Bear River — an early victim of geologic and glacial stream capture (see Bear River Geomorphology (PDF*, 99 KB) — supported thriving populations of salmon, trout, and other native species throughout its pre-development history. The Bear River's riparian zone served as an important wildlife migration corridor from its confluence with the Feather River to its headwaters near Bear Valley, and its watershed was a central part of the Nisenan people's ancestral homeland.

The Bear River Watershed:
Basic Orientation

The Bear River rises on the west side of the Sierra Nevada just below Lake Spaulding at the 5,500 foot elevation. From there it flows southwest some 65 miles to its confluence with the Feather River at mile 12 of the Feather, draining portions of Nevada, Placer, Sutter and Yuba counties.

The 292 square mile Bear River watershed includes over 990 miles of streams, creeks, and rivers, and reaches 20 miles across at its greatest width. It can be divided into three major reaches (click on icon to see detailed map):

The upper Bear, including approximately eight miles of relatively undeveloped river from its spring-fed headwaters above Bear Valley to Rollins Reservoir at approximately 3300 feet elevation.

The middle Bear, stretching from Rollins Dam about 15 miles downstream at 2100 foot elevation; then another 10 miles to Lake Combie at 1600 foot elevation; then another 17 miles to New Camp Far West Reservoir at the 300 foot elevation.

The lower Bear, running from New Camp Far West Reservoir 16 miles to its confluence with the Feather River at 23 foot elevation.

(View a plumbing schematic (PDF*, 108 KB) which combines the middle and lower reaches into a single "lower" section.)

The main tributaries of the Bear River include Steephollow and Greenhorn creeks above Rollins Reservoir; and Wolf and Little Wolf creeks between Lake Combie and Camp Far West Reservoir. Rock Creek drains into Camp Far West Reservoir. Dry Creek runs through the Spenceville Wildlife Area and into the Bear River below Wheatland. Yankee Slough, from the south, and Best Slough, from the north, enter the Bear just below the confluence with Dry Creek.

An excellent GIS-based overview of the Bear River watershed is contained in the Bear River Watershed Disturbance Inventory (PDF*, 3 MB). For additional information, see Bear Ecology (PDF*, 47 KB) and Bear River Summary (PDF, 42 KB).

Historical Situation

The Bear's real problems began during the Gold Rush era, when the combined effects of hydraulic mining and massive imports of mercury severely degraded the once-pristine river. By the late 1800's, hydraulic mining had largely given way to inter-basin water and hydropower development which served agricultural water supply and power generation needs throughout the western foothills region (and beyond). By the turn of the 20th century, much of the region's contemporary water infrastructure was in place.

In the 1960's, when foothills-area growth got underway in earnest, some of the original water and hydropower infrastructure was replaced or expanded while several new dams, powerhouses, and conveyance works were added. Throughout this period, the Bear River became, quite literally, the region's hydraulic workhorse, conveying water for consumption and energy generation from the upper Yuba, upper American, and its own headwaters and tributaries into the middle and lower Bear, the lower American, and the associated foothill creek-ravine region.

The Bear River "Problemshed"

For much of the past two decades, considerable attention has been drawn to the plights of the Yuba and American Rivers, and much has been accomplished to address at least some of their basic needs. Among the most recent of these efforts has been the Upper Yuba River Studies Program (UYRSP), a $9 million agency-stakeholder collaborative funded by the CALFED Bay-Delta Program to determine the feasibility of restoring salmon and steelhead into the upper Yuba River system.

One of the early outcomes of the UYRSP was an agreement to leave water purveyors "whole" in the event that restoration efforts led to adverse water supply impacts. An important consequence of that commitment was the realization that the contemporary water management system inextricably commingled waters from, and to, a number of different watersheds. The relevant "problemshed" thus includes the entire Bear River watershed; the associated "source" watersheds of the Middle Yuba, South Yuba, and North Fork American Rivers; the many foothill watersheds that depend in part upon those same inter-basin supplies; and the associated service areas of the Nevada Irrigation District, Placer County Water Agency, South Sutter Water District, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company, among others.

After considerable early progress, the UYRSP ground to a temporary halt in 2001-02 due to a combination of state budgetary woes and related problems at CALFED. At that time, Environmental Defense decided to focus on the non-Yuba portions of the problemshed, seeking to better understand the potential for UYRSP-related impacts on consumptive water supplies, hydropower operations, and the environment.

Continue your tour as you discover Flow Needs & Challenges

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