Threat: New Dam
One of the great rivers of the Sierra Nevada, the Bear River supports Native American culture, fish and wildlife and community recreation. Much of the watershed has been dammed and developed for water supply and energy production, making the few remaining free-flowing stretches of the Bear River all the more valuable. But now, one of these last free-flowing reaches is threatened by the proposed 275-foot tall Centennial Dam. Instead of rushing to build an expensive, damaging and unnecessary new dam, Nevada Irrigation District must consider other water supply solutions, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must fully analyze alternatives at a critical time for water planning in California.
About The River
The Bear River flows 73 miles from the rocky crags and conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada to the oak woodlands, open grasslands, pastures and fields of the Central Valley in Northern California. The Bear River supports recreation, cultural use, rare habitat, and water for agriculture and municipal supplies in Auburn, Placer County, South Nevada County and Lincoln. Locals and visitors enjoy hiking, birdwatching, camping, angling, gold panning, rafting and kayaking on the Bear’s four-mile class II whitewater run. The river is home to numerous historic sites, including Nisenan village and burial sites. Today, the mature mixed conifer and oak woodlands along the river are used by Nisenan for plant collection and ceremonial purposes.
The river’s woodlands are an incredibly diverse ecosystem that provides habitat for an abundance of sensitive species, including California black rail, bald eagle, foothill yellow-legged frog, ringtail cat and big-eared bat. The lower reaches of the river support numerous iconic species, including Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, and green and white sturgeon. The Bear River flows to the overtaxed Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta, providing critical seasonal flows and groundwater recharge.
Much of the Bear River has been altered over the last 200 years, primarily by gold mining and dam building. The Bear is already impounded behind eight dams, leaving only a few free-flowing sections in the middle and upper reaches of the river. The undammed portions of the river are vital for local communities, including the native Nisenan tribe.
Today, the Bear River is threatened by the development of Centennial Dam— a 275-foot tall structure proposed by Nevada Irrigation District (NID). NID claims that additional water storage is needed to meet future demand and replace snowpack storage that will be lost due to climate change. However, NID has not demonstrated that it is following best practices for water conservation and efficiency, or that the water to fill this new reservoir will be available to communities in the Bear River watershed under predicted future climate conditions. Further, the project’s massive costs (which NID currently estimates to be $500 million to $1 billion) would undermine more effective climate change management strategies, such as water use efficiency and optimizing existing systems. Centennial Dam is a costly and damaging project that may never be able to meet its stated goals, and less damaging alternatives exist to meet future demand.
Centennial Dam would flood the last six miles of publicly accessible free-flowing river, including popular recreation sites and numerous native Nisenan village sites and burial grounds. The dam would also flood 2,200 acres of mature riparian and oak woodland, destroy habitat for many sensitive species and pose a serious threat to vulnerable fish populations by reducing flows downstream. In addition, the project will appreciably reduce seasonal flows critical to the Feather and Sacramento Rivers, the Delta and San Francisco Bay.
What Must Be Done
Building Centennial Dam is a 19th-century solution to the 21st-century challenge of climate change. NID must involve the community in future water planning, rather than pursuing an expensive, risky and unnecessary dam project at the expense of local communities and ecosystems. NID should work with the community and river advocates to pursue common-sense water conservation measures and alternatives that promote resilience to climate change without destroying invaluable natural, cultural and recreation resources. A new dam should be the last alternative considered, not the first.
Fortunately, Centennial Dam must pass through many hurdles before construction, and faces multiple turning points in the next year from state and federal decision makers. It is imperative that organizations and individuals maintain pressure on NID and other key decision makers to reevaluate the need for this new dam.
Right now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is conducting a federal environmental review for the project and has the authority to deny permits to build the dam. Join us in asking the USACE to deny permits for the dam in favor of alternative actions that would improve water security in light of a changing climate, while preserving and enhancing the rich natural, social and cultural resources of the Bear River.