Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Yuba River Watershed

South Yuba below Poorman Creek

Where to begin? Since, in my estimation, the most characteristic Yuba watershed landscape is dominated by streams and ridges let’s begin with water. In the beginning, according to a Nisenan creation story, there was only infinite water and infinite sky. Where the line was drawn between the ocean and sky floated a raft. Two spirits, Turtle and Peheipe, the clown, had floated on the water for as long as they could remember. Eventually World Maker opened the sky to send down a feather rope, which he descended after securing the raft. To make the world he required a bit of earth found only at the bottom of the ocean. Turtle dove to the bottom and returned with a tiny bit of earth beneath his nails for World Maker to create the land, people, oaks and Coyote. This version is highly abridged but suffices to make the point that it all begins with water.

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, Mexico’s Comandante-General of the "Free State of Alta California", claimed that Gabriel Moraga, on an 1824 expedition for Spain, named the river Rio de las Uvas for the profusion of native grapes growing along the river. Uva is the Spanish word for grape. John Sutter disagreed and said that he named it Yuba after a Nisenan village that existed where Yuba City is located today. Sutter’s map is in the California State Library and on it he named most of the Rancherias, or Native settlements. But he did not name the one depicted on the Feather River across the river from the mouth of the Yuba River – presumably this is the village of Yuba. Yuba appears on various historic maps as Yubu, Yupu or Juba.

Four rivers flow from the Sierra Nevada to the Sacramento Valley, they are from north to south, the Feather, the Yuba, the Bear and the American Rivers. The Feather River is joined by the Yuba, Bear and American Rivers as it flows to the Sacramento River, which flows to the San Francisco Bay delta and the Pacific Ocean.

Watershed has become a popular word but do you understand what it means? There are various scientific definitions yet many people can’t really visualize it. Here is my attempt to put it in plain words. A watershed collects precipitation, it’s basically a drainage basin or catchment that gathers and combines surface water, lakes, streams, reservoirs, wetlands and all the underlying ground water. Large watersheds typically contain many smaller watersheds. Ridges and hills that separate watersheds form topographic boundaries or drainage divides.

In the Sierra Nevada a watershed seldom begins as a single point source. I’m sure there’s a hydrologist out there who will take issue but I’m seeing this from the perspective of a free-range primate. More often a watershed begins with headwaters consisting of a series of streams fed by precipitation, springs, seeps, wetlands and meadows that combine as they respond to the pull of gravity. The series of ridges and peaks forming the topographical arc defining the eastern boundary of the Yuba basin extends from Pilot Peak (7,457’), near the LaPorte/Quincy Road on the north, to Lincoln Peak (8,383’), just below Donner Pass on its south end. The Pacific Crest Trail between these two points is approximately 83 miles long. Keep in mind that the trail is longer than the actual crest because of changes in elevation, switchbacks, diversions around insurmountable peaks, etc., but you get the idea.

The Yuba watershed encompasses 1,339 square miles. Mt. Lola at 9142’ is the highest peak in the Yuba watershed. All of the precipitation and groundwater eventually funnels its way downslope and westward to Marysville, in the Sacramento Valley at approximately 60’ above sea level. Think of its shape as a rough and organic triangle with its broad side to the east and upslope and its apex as a single stream to the west in the flatlands.

There are three major forks of the Yuba River. The North Yuba is the largest basin of the three. The major tributaries of the North Yuba entering from the north are Chute Ravine, Dobbins Creek, Slate Creek, Canyon Creek, Cherokee Creek, Fiddle Creek, Goodyears Creek and the Downie River, a 5 ½ mile long tributary of the North Yuba with a dendritic pattern of tributaries that includes Rattlesnake, Lavezzola and Pauley Creeks, encompassing 34 square miles. East of the Sierra Buttes (8,587’) are Salmon Creek, Howard Creek and Chapman Creek, which originates at the base of Haskell Peak (8,107’). From the south and east come Willow Creek, Indian Creek, Woodruff Creek, Jim Crow Creek, Milton Creek, Haypress Valley Creek and Lincoln Valley Creek, which originates near Bonta Saddle, close to Henness Pass.

The Middle Yuba is the shortest of the three forks but it is the most rugged with steep slopes, three box canyons and little road access. It originates above Jackson Meadow Reservoir in English Meadow and Moscove Meadow, both on the east side of English Mountain (8,373’). Major tributaries entering the Middle Yuba from the north include Moonshine Creek, Studhorse Canyon, Oregon Creek, Indian Creek, Kanaka Creek, Wolf Creek and Pass Creek. From the south Grizzly Creek, Bloody Run Creek and East Fork Creek contribute to the flow.

The South Yuba is the most populated and popular of the three forks. Major tributaries on the north side include French Corral Creek, Shady Creek, Spring Creek, Humbug Creek, Logan Canyon, McKilligan Creek, Poorman Creek, Canyon Creek, Fall Creek, Fordyce Creek, Rattlesnake Creek and Castle Creek. On the south side the chief tributaries are Kentucky Ravine, Owl Creek, Rush Creek, Meyers Ravine, Rock Creek, Scotchman Creek and Diamond Creek.

The Middle Yuba joins the North Yuba about three miles downstream from the New Bullards Bar Dam (1969). About ten miles downstream from this confluence the South Yuba joins the North Yuba at Defiance Point, one mile west of Bridgeport. The river beyond this point is simply the Yuba River, also known as the Lower Yuba. Downstream on the Yuba River, Englebright Dam (1941) creates an eight-mile long reservoir that extends upstream a short distance past the mouth of the South Yuba.

Deer Creek, a major tributary, enters the Lower Yuba from the southeast below Englebright Dam. Below Parks Bar, where State Highway 20 crosses the Yuba, Dry Creek, enters from the north near Long Bar. Marysville, at the confluence of the Yuba and Feather Rivers, is approximately twenty miles downstream from Englebright Dam.

The indigenous Nisenan named springs and streams, for instance the contemporary Nisenan call Deer Creek “Ankula Seo.” Predictably our western ways compel us to name places after "famous" people, like most of the streams listed above. But in looking over the names you can also get a sense of the disparate origins of the gold mining population. There are ten streams mentioned with such names, for instance, French Corral, Kanaka Creek, English Mountain, Cherokee Creek and Kentucky Ravine. Animals provided the third most popular category of names.

While some might see this as too much information, the streams mentioned represent only a fraction of the complex system of drainages that create the Yuba watershed. I’m trying to give you some sense of the wonderful complexity of our neighborhood.