In 1999, the South Yuba River Citizens League won the fight to permanently remove the threat of impending dams on the South Yuba River.
Nevertheless, River Science Director Gary Reedy says threats still loom.
“Our watershed is in pretty good shape, but there are impacts that are of concern,” he said.
Most significantly, the historic legacy of hydraulic mines continues to pollute the South Yuba River, a recreational focal point for the entire region.
Humbug Creek, which filters water out of Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, typically carries high sediment loads, including mercury that bioaccumulates in fish and other heavy metals that could present potential health hazards to humans and wildlife.
SYRCL collaborates with the Sierra Fund to address the ongoing ecological hazards and attempt to formulate cost-effective solutions to the persistent problem, Reedy said.
Another lesser-known source of pollution lies in the Scotchman Creek drainage area, where another historic hydraulic mine operation, Omega Diggins, produces contaminated water during high run-off events. The steep barren slopes distinctive of former hydraulic mining sites erode rapidly during rainfall, and heavy lodes of clay are siphoned into the South Yuba River.
SYRCL is currently applying for funding to quantify sediment loads in the watershed along with testing for contaminants, according to the SYRCL website.
Aside from mining, a wastewater treatment plant that serves the Soda Springs area near Donner Summit and discharges effluents into the headwaters of the Yuba, is still legally allowed to pump 550,000 gallons of wastewater into the source of the river per day.
“Have you looked at the size of the river up there?” Reedy asked. “It’s tiny. It’s a creek. Can you imagine that much a day?”
Reedy said SYRCL’s protests have resulted in the proposed construction of a new $10 million plant capable of better filtration at the site.
Reedy further expressed concern about the potential impacts of the South Yuba River’s headwaters’ proximity to Interstate 80.
“There are 11 miles of stream that run along the highway,” Reedy said.
Reedy employed his team to begin measuring chloride, a main ingredient CalTrans uses in the salts they use to keep the road free from ice.
“We will continue to gather data to show the degree to which chloride in the headwaters is impacting the river,” he said.
The presence of salts and a wastewater treatment plant may be contributing to the growth of algae throughout the watershed, Reedy said, although data is in the process of being analyzed.
“We have algal blooms throughout the whole river, and it is not just because of water temperature,” Reedy said. “Headwaters that have this kind of pollution is likely a contributing factor.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.