A Confluence and A Dam

IMG_5375So far, on my journey along the American River, I haven’t strayed outside the American River Parkway — that most wonderful bit of nature that stretches for about 30 miles from Old Sacramento up to Folsom.  That changed yesterday.

I went for a hike around the Stagecoach Trail area near Auburn.  There are a number of bridges that cross the American River here.  The one in the distance is the Mountain Quarries Rail Bridge, built in 1912.  Here’s a better picture.


The area has many miles of hiking trails that are also favorites of the mountain bikers amongst us.  I started off walking from the bottom of the canyon up the Bridgeview Trail.  It’s basically straight up for a mile.  Just as I started, two bicyclists came roaring down.  It’s pretty amazing to see them do that.  This is not a smooth trail.  While the trail is wide, it is rutted and full of rocks of all sizes.  That didn’t stop them from blazing their way down hill.  I wonder how many skinned knees and broken bones they’ve had as a result of their love of mountain biking.

After I got to the top, I took a smaller side trail that took a more meandering route back down to the river.  IMG_5357Much more shaded, much more green.  For the next 30 minutes or so I was by myself as I made my way back downhill.

About halfway down, I came across a gurgling creek, with some small waterfalls that just made my day.


What is most notable about the area for my purposes is that it is where the confluence of the North Fork and Middle Fork of the American River is located.  The quiet trail I took downhill dropped me off right at the confluence.

IMG_5369This is the first time I’ve ever been to this area, so I can only guess what it might look like in a normal year.  California is in its third or fourth year of a severe drought.  I can only guess how much higher the river might be if there was a normal snow pack feeding the creeks and streams that feed into the American River upstream.  But this is it this year.

Which leads to the larger point.  The bigger question.  If the planners had their way, this entire area would have been submerged by a 1,000,000 acre feet lake created by the Auburn Dam, which would have been located just a little further downstream from where this picture was taken.  That dam would have created a 40-mile long lake behind it.  The miles and miles of trails, the old bridges, the beauty of the area would have been changed forever.

It’s a thing I struggle with.  California needs more water storage to do a better job of managing our water needs in times of drought.  We need a lot of other things as well — more conservation, fewer lawns, maybe a few desalination plants along the coast.  All sorts of things, but, yeah, I think we need some more storage as well.  But when I walked along this stretch of the American River and thought about not having it here if the Auburn Dam had been built, I got furious at the idea of the thing.  How could people possibly imagine the dam in that location as a good thing?  But if not there … where?  That’s the thing about our human needs.  We will inevitably alter nature’s course in far too many places to meet our ever growing needs.  We don’t seem to have a choice.  So, as we continue to grow and expand our reach, we will lose places like this…IMG_5379The good news though at least with this part of the world is that it seems like the Auburn Dam has ceased to exist as a credible idea.  The environmentalists and preservationists and other interested groups pulled off a rare success and have stopped it from being built.  At least for now.  The one thing I fear for this area is if there is ever a time when both the Presidency and Congress are controlled by the Republican Party, this could become a topic of conversation again.  And they may just push this through.  It is stunning that the Republicans who represent this area favor the Auburn Dam rather than preserving the area for this children and grandchildren.  It’s not surprising though.

So about that storage.  If not here … where?

15 thoughts on “A Confluence and A Dam

  1. Last I heard, the Auburn Dam was stopped because it was on an earthquake fault. On the road from Placerville to Auburn where it crosses the river, back about a 1/4 mile there is a gate across some dirt road. It probably sits 100 feet or more above the river and I’ve seen it underwater during one of our good water years. A lot of good gold panning at the confluence and up both rivers. Don’t have to worry about claims because it’s in the Auburn Recreation area. Just a few things I can pass on about the area.


    • I agree. The dam was stopped because of seismic issues, but the environmentalists were also able to slow it down for quite some time before the fault was discovered. Thank you for commenting and sharing what you know. Next time I’m up there, I want to find the location where the dam was going to be built. I should bring a gold pan with me from now on when I walk along the river. Probably more likely to find something there than to win the lottery!


  2. My stomping grounds! We walk across that bridge twice a week nowadays, and there’s an amazing network of trails all through there.

    It’s hard to believe that whole spectacular scene could be under water. I understand that the dam was canceled because of an earthquake that put into question the design, but from what I’ve heard the thing wasn’t scrapped for good till 2008! Looks like the area will be protected now for the foreseeable future.

    But you’re right in that everyone has a NIMBY attitude. We need reservoirs but not here. Still, even if the lake had been created, it would be less than half capacity right now…


    • Some day I’ll live in a place where I don’t have to drive to get to a place like this. Or at least not for an hour before I get there.

      As for NIMBY … There is some validity to it in this case. A dam at Auburn doesn’t do anything for its residents. All if its benefits are downstream. This is the great conundrum of water. Most of it is where the people aren’t.


      • We drove up to Tahoe for a hike a couple of weeks ago. Well worth the 90 minutes in the car.

        Just occurred to me, if that lake had gone through, I wouldn’t be able to get to Auburn via 49. It’d be a long trek down to El Dorado Hills or Placerville for provisions! Yikes!


      • My understanding is that the Foresthill Bridge was built to provide a way across if the dam had been built. The thing that amazes me about that area is how narrow the canyons are. In some respects, I don’t understand why a dam there ever made sense.


  3. Lagoon or ground storage is perfect for California. Keep the sun off the water. Your evapotranspiration rate is out of control, building lakes is not efficient.

    Cheers to the people who stopped that dam. I know it’s not easy. As an environmental engineer, we try to mitigate the effects of progress ,but you really can’t mitigate flooding an entire area like that. Once it’s done, it’s done.


    • Far too much damage was done in the middle part of the last century in the name of progress. Rather than learning how to live in a more limited way, in our need to have everything, we’ve destroyed a lot. I’m not sure if there is a way to turn things around and get people to understand the wisdom in less is more, but it’s the only thing that will stop the inevitable destruction. The Auburn Dam fortunately fell victim to the twin powers of the environmental lobby that grew up in the 70s and the risk of earthquakes. Supposedly, it is in a seismically unstable area. Doesn’t explain the many dams that are already built in the same area.

      You are the second commenter to recommend groundwater storage. I know that is a part of some of what is being done now. Just don’t know how much of it.


  4. Pingback: The Confluence, Revisited | The American River

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