Van Norden Meadow: A Sierra Jewel
Summit Valley at Van Norden contains the largest meadow in the Yuba watershed. It is also one of the largest restoration projects undertaken by the South Yuba River Citizens’ League (SYRCL) working with the Forest Service in the Truckee Ranger District. The goal of the project is to restore the meadow to its original natural beauty before the arrival of emigrants and the building of the Van Norden dam in 1872.
In July 2023, we had an opportunity to take a look at the progress of the planned work that has been developed over the past two years. We were able to meet at the Van Norden dam with Alecia Weisman, the SYRCL scientist who is heading up this project. The major thrust of the project is to sustainably restore the natural flora and fauna in the meadow.
Before the current restoration work the South Yuba River, Castle Creek, and Lytton Creek had cut deep channels through the valley. Snow melt raced down the channels and also down the river leaving, ironically, part of the meadow very dry. Last year most of the Van Norden dam was taken down. The resulting dirt (60,000 cubic yards) was used as fill for the river channel (2.75 miles of channel fill). SYRCL also used beaver dam analogs (man-made beaver damp replicas) and fascines (bundled willow cuttings) and strategically placed them where channel fill was not done. The idea is to recharge and raise the water table. The slower moving water will cover the meadow and soak into the ground rather than race down the river channels. This makes the meadow wetter overall, encourages the regrowth of native plants, and kills off invasive species like lodgepole pines and reed canary grass.
Separately, 14 acres of conifers and three acres of invasive non-native reed canary grass have been removed and the former dam berms hydro-seeded. With the water closer to the surface the non-native plants that liked the drier areas will be flooded out and replaced by wetland plants such as sedges, grasses, and rushes. The wetland plants also work as photosynthetic power houses, according to Alecia, because they are major sequesters of carbon. This increased plant growth is also good for pollinators.
Another benefit of the slower water movement in the meadow will be a slower movement of water to downstream reservoirs. This will make more water available for late summer releases than was possible ever before. Prior action would lower the downstream reservoirs due to the expectation of rapidly approaching snow melt. The reservoirs will not be lowered as much since water will be coming down more slowly and continuously.
To collect data and measure ground water levels, twenty-eight ground water wells are scattered around the meadow. The data will start to be available sometime this fall to measure how successful the restoration project is going.
The work done so far at Summit Meadow is showing progress. The water is moving slower and is spreading across the meadow. It no longer flows down the channels and the ground water level seems to be closer to the surface. The meadow is wetter overall as seen by the lodgepoles at the meadow edges dying and native plants taking root. You can also see where the conifer and reed canary grass have been removed and the hydro-seeded areas are beginning to grow.
A new 120′ long by 24′ wide bridge, between the sheep pens and sheepherder’s hut, has been built to cross the South Yuba River. The bridge will continue to be used in the winter to accommodate the Royal Gorge ski trails. This road has also been upgraded with water bars to keep the road erosion down.
What’s next for Summit Meadow
Much has been done already to bring Summit Meadow back to its original condition. Future restoration work includes:
– Removal of an additional 50 acres of conifer. Note that in the areas where there are Native American grinding rocks, the tree removal will be done by hand by Native Americans to keep the grinding rock areas sacred.
– The sheep pen corrals will remain protected and parking will be expanded and moved east.
– The Lytton Creek fan will be reworked to slow water flow.
– More willow fascines will be installed to further slow water as they sprout new willows.
– More seeding will be planted.
– Some roadwork and swales will be reworked to improve drainage.
– Further analysis of data to check the effectiveness of the beaver dam analogs.
– Planning will begin for the alignment of a loop trail which will allow people to walk around the meadow. Some of the sections of the trail will require a boardwalk since it expected that the water will be higher.
– On the south side of the dam’s wing walls will host a parking area, bathrooms, and recreational activities and facilities.
By 2025 we should see wider results of the hydro-seeding, more native plant growth in the former river channel areas and further slowing of surface water flow. We should also see more bird and amphibian diversity. Combining collected data over that past ten years and the subsequent two years will give a better picture of the success and needed fine tuning. Perhaps some beavers might even take up residence.
How to Get the Full Story
Sign up for a Donner Party Hike! The hikes will take place on September 9 and 10. There are eight unique hikes, one of which takes you to the Van Norden meadow and dam in the Summit Valley where you can learn about the history of the area from local historians. Space is limited so please sign up at https://donnerpartyhike.com/
About the Scientist
Alecia Weisman, Headwaters Science Program Director at SYRCL, has a master’s degree in Hydrology from the University of Nevada Reno. Her work has centered on assessing water quality and carbon dynamics of high elevation lakes and wetlands and has been working on meadow restoration projects since 2019.
About the Authors
Bill Oudegeest is a well-known author, historian, teacher and community member of Donner Summit.
Judy DePuy is a volunteer with the Truckee-Donner and Donner Summit Historical Societies and a Board member for the Museum of Truckee History and the Truckee Donner Railroad Society.
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