We’re approaching mid-January, the time of year when the Following Deer Creek (FDC) Project first came into being (2017). Like the Earth circling around the Sun and the planetary water cycle, we’ve completed a journey.
I set out to tell the story of the Deer Creek watershed from its tectonic and cultural origins to the people and animals who live in it today. Working backward, I posted blog articles as I researched in preparation to compile the film.
In early January of 2021, the film was complete. Like the FDC blog posts, it’s a birds-eye view of the watershed that hints at depths.
I smile when I think back to the initial idea seed. Of course, there is no one story, there are more than can ever be told.
FDC and the Aerial Views film is a decent outline, but it also illustrates how much more remains for investigation and study.
Before we ever see water in Deer Creek, most of it has rained, snowed, and been stored in NID’s Mountain Division and PG&E Lakes. It’s moved from lake to lake, going through multiple powerhouses, generating electricity. It enters Scotts Flat Lake where swimmers, motor boaters, and fisherman enjoy it. Flowing into Lower Scotts Flat Reservoir, human or wind-powered boaters recreate on it.
Another portion of water entering Deer Creek comes from the watershed. A watershed is an area of land that channels water to a low point, such as a stream, river, lake, or ocean.
History of Water Management in Nevada County: 1850 Water Business is Born
Placer miners needed water for rockers; hydraulic miners needed it to move mountains.
The first miner’s ditch, to which PG&E traces its tap root, was built in 1850 by The Rock Creek Water Company. Historians locate this ditch is near Coyote Hill. Constructed by Charles Marsh, William Crawford, John & Thomas Dunn, and C. Carol at a cost of $10K, the ditch was nine miles long.
After only two weeks of operation, The Rock Creek Water Company investment paid off.
Successful, and profitable, water transportation soon spread to neighboring counties— Placer, Eldorado, Amador, Calaveras, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne County.
Before water management, Deer Creek was seasonal.
An 1854 drought caused local economic hardship. Mines stopped working, miners couldn’t pay debts, and real estate values crashed.
After assessing the lakes in the Yuba Watershed, water companies understood that gravity and elevation would work in their favor. They built systems to move water to the mines using flumes, tunnels, high-pressure pipes, siphons, and trestle bridges.
The water transportation system was an engineering marvel of its time.
Early engineers and savvy businessmen realized the potential of a year-round water supply for ranching, mills, and establishing towns.
When the Sawyer Decision washed-up hydraulic mining in the mid 1880s, the South Yuba Water Company, and its subsidiary, the Central California Electric Company, was poised to capitalize on a new industry—hydroelectrisity.
Following Deer Creek’s Water Path
Deer Creek water begins in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, north of I-80, fifty-five miles northwest of Lake Tahoe.
French Lake–elevation 6,676 ft.
Faucherie Lake–elevation 6,135 ft.
Sawmill Lake–elevation 5,869 ft.
Bowman Lake–elevation 5,600 ft.
Fuller Lake–elevation 5,344 ft.
Canyon Creek Drainage
Bowman Spaulding Canal
Spaulding Hydro Power Plant
Spaulding Lake–elevation 5,014 ft.
Hwy 20 & Bear Valley–South Yuba Canal Big Tunnel
Deer Creek Forebay–elevation 4,477 ft.
Deer Creek Hydro Power Plant
North and South Fork Deer Creek Confluence
Scotts Flat Lake–elevation 3,069 ft.
Lower Scotts Flat Reservoir–elevation 2,094 ft.
“There’s very little natural water in Deer Creek,” says Les Nicholson, retired Nevada Irrigation District Hydroelectric Manager.
Burlington Ridge, the apex of the North and South Fork of Deer Creek isn’t high enough to maintain a snowpack (4,160 ft elevation).
“Most Deer Creek water is imported,” Nicholson says. “Imported water means it comes from another drainage.”
In Deer Creek’s case, that drainage is the Yuba Watershed.
Nicholson generously shared his time to explain the complicated route water takes before we see it in our ditches, creeks, and rivers.
*After leaving Lower Scotts Flat Reservoir, the video tour back-tracks to Burlington Ridge, the physical headwaters of the North and South Forks of Deer Creek.
Run-off and gravity always show the direction water is flowing.
Since 1921 the Nevada Irrigation District has supplied domestic, irrigation, and domestic water for Nevada and Placer Counties. It is an independent California special district governed by an elected board.
Most rivers in California have been changed by mining, water control, and the introduction of new species. Professor Erika Zavaleta of UC Santa Cruz explains the history and biology of California’s watersheds. She also presents current watershed management issues.
When responding to the urge to spawn, Salmon become a powerful delivery system. If allowed to move freely through rivers and streams, they transport ocean nitrogen and other nutrients thousands of miles inland while providing humans and animals with a rich source of food. They did this successfully until man decided to industrialize their reproduction.
Now billions are spent each year attempting to repair a disrupted cycle of nature.
“In 1851, we could observe a great decrease. Like the poor Indian, they are being driven westward into the sea. During hydraulic mining in the 1870s and 80s the salmon population of California was reduced to near extinction” – C. A. Kirkpatrick reporting on the fate of the salmon
Ocean Fertilizer Transport
Conditions necessary for successful spawning;
access to inland rivers and streams
cool water temperatures (45° – 58° F)
highly oxygenated water
correct sized gravel
not being eaten
“Salmon and steelhead are indicators of river health, from the headwaters to the ocean, when a watershed is able to support strong salmon and steelhead populations, the entire ecosystem can thrive.” – SRYCL and Partners
“West coast salmon runs have been in decline for decades… Analysts estimate that only 0.1 percent of the tens of millions of salmon that used to darken rivers every summer and fall up and down the west coast before white settlement still exist.” – Scientific American
Fish hatchery managed salmon reproduction has weakened the species.
The video below shows numerous corrective attempts that have been made to restore the salmon along the Columbia River.
Salmon Running the Gauntlet | National Geographic
Deer Creek Salmon Restoration Efforts
April 2017 – 1:29 – A partnership between the South Yuba River Citizens League and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has resulted in leadership and funding for adding spawning gravels to the Yuba River near the confluence with Deer Creek.
“SSI has been monitoring salmon and steelhead in Deer Creek since 2009. From 2011-2013 we implemented three gravel augmentation projects to increase the availability of spawning habitat in Deer Creek, resulting in over a 500% increase in salmon redds observed in Deer Creek in 2013.” – Sierra Streams Institute report