The Middle Fork of the Upper American River: An Endangered Watershed (part 3)

The North Fork of the Middle Fork—A Wounded Beauty

In the June 2001 issue of California Fly Fisher, I gave a brief description of The North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American, a small-stream treasure. There are some upstream access points that I did not mention there. One of them is via theDeadwood Ridge Road off Foresthill Road, 16 miles east of Foresthill. Six miles down this gravel road there is a trailhead on the left with a rudimentary parking area. This is the Last Chance Trail, part of the trail used by the Western States 100 footrace. It dives straight down almost 2000 feet over a winding 2-1/2 mile course to the river, where there is a footbridge. The fishing is good either upstream or downstream using small caddis dries, searching patterns, and small nymphs such as the Bird’s Nest in olive or tan. Good hiking boots are a necessity here, because the steep hike down will punish your toes. Carry lightweight wading shoes and plenty of water and food. The hike out can charitably be called brutal, so save plenty of time at the end of the day. A water filter or filter bottle is a necessity here, because you will need to drink plenty of water while on the river and leave with a full bottle for the hike out. Watch for rattlers and poison oak and carry a walking/wading staff.

The stream can also be reached via the El Dorado Creek Trail, which begins at tiny Michigan Bluff. To get there, take Foresthill Road to Baker Ranch, located about five miles east of Foresthill, and turn right at the Michigan Bluff sign. It’s about two miles down to the village, where some parking is available near the trailhead. The trail, also part of the Western States Trail system, leads down to beautiful El Dorado Creek, which is a North Fork of the Middle Fork tributary and a prime small-stream fishery (also covered in the June 2001 article). There is a footbridge where the trail intersects the stream. After you cross the bridge, there are signs pointing out the trail to the North Fork, about a two-mile moderate hike. I fish this area and all of the North Fork with my 7-1/2-foot 3-weight rod. The fish are smallish, and a 16-inch specimen is a lunker, but the environs are so stunning and the fish so greedy that size, at least in this case, doesn’t matter.

This stream is not directly affected by hydro projects. I know of no diversions or man-made obstructions. However, it is affected by excessive suction-dredge mining. The BMI population has declined steadily over the years, with Golden Stoneflies being the only population still with decent numbers. The October Caddis, once prolific, is few and far between, and mayflies are a rarity. The fish population has declined also, based on my observations and those of fellow anglers. In some stretches, miners have removed the rubble-lined bottom so critical to aquatic life and turned it into sterile bedrock channels with downstream siltation. While gravel recruitment occurs naturally during high flow periods because the stream is free flowing, the damage to BMIs and fish done in recent years is, in my view, cumulative and enduring. Some miners also poach and overfish the river, thereby compounding the adverse effects they cause. Anyone who has fished below a suction dredge knows that because the bugs are washed into the current by mining equipment, the fish can be found just downstream, greedily mopping up. Miners are well aware that this creates vulnerability to bait drifted downstream. While I have met pleasant, ethical miners in these canyons, their presence is overshadowed by others of a different ilk.

One last point about mining — which, incidentally, affects virtually every stream in the Middle Fork drainage — bears mention. It appears that under the federal and state mining laws, claim ownership can be transferred from an individual to a group such as a mining club. I have seen this happen and have observed the drastically increased impact on the stream. Whereas a single claim owner may have a small impact, when the claim is transferred to a club or other group, the increase in the damage is exponential.

Several years ago, on a beautifulJuneday, I hiked into a favorite spot. On arrival, I found not just the one normal dredge working, but nearly a dozen in a section not longer than 1000 yards. Fishing was impossible. When I inquired of a particularly pleasant individual, I learned that the claim had been sold to a mining club, and they were enjoying their claim. Astounded and unwilling to risk confrontation, I left for quieter water.

While the mining issue is not related to hydro operations, it certainly adds to the overall cumulative problems in the watershed and needs to be taken into account in the relicensing proceedings. In other words, in order to have a clear picture of the environmental setting when assessing their own impacts, the PCWA needs to recognize that there are adverse impacts associated with suction dredging in the watershed. It will become an interesting and possibly precedent-setting discussion — one in which anglers should become involved. Interested anglers can educate themselves on the effects of suction dredge mining by reading an excellent paper done by scientists Bret Harveyand Thomas Lisleand published in Fisheries Journal in 1998. It can be found at http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/7773.

The recent Ralston fire began near this stream and burned some of its protective canopy. It is too early to tell whether that will cause warming of the stream, with consequent fishery issues, but there will probably be siltation from erosion along its course. Fortunately, the fire was not of the variety that chars everything in its path right to the ground. It skipped around, erratically, burning underbrush — and I hope a lot of the poison oak — along with some of the canopy. This may limit the erosion. But as in the case of mining, the Ralston fire is an impact that the PCWA will need to take into account in assessing the cumulative effects of its project.

TheRough-and-TumbleRubiconRiverand Its Tributaries

In the June 2001, article I covered mainly the lower portion of the Rubicon River, which is a major Middle Fork tributary and a state-designated Wild Trout Stream (http://www.dfg.ca.gov/fishing/html/WildAndHeritageTrout/waters/Rubicon.htm). There are access points in the higher reaches of the rugged canyon through which the Rubicon flows. Ellicott’s Bridge is one of those, as is a trail called the Lawyer Trail. These trails can be reached most easily via roads fromGeorgetown, on the south side of the divide. TheEl DoradoNational Forest map clearly depicts the route. The Lawyer Trail is clearly marked on the road to Ellicott’s Bridge. It is a steep descent into the canyon, but very well worth the effort. Large fish have been taken in this stretch using standard dries and nymphs. Ellicott’s Bridge has plenty of parking for the upstream hike along the river. Fishing is good near the bridge, but gets better up the canyon. Various offshoots drop off the trail to the river, but care must be taken, because the terrain is steep and rocky. Snakes, poison oak, ticks, and even bears can be a problem here.

Several miles upstream, the South Fork of the Rubicon enters on river left. This is a beautiful little stream with wild rainbows eager to take small caddis patterns in the summer. The main trail continues all the way to Hell Hole Reservoir, with numerous fishing opportunities along the way, including at Hale’s Crossing. Anglers traveling beyond Hale’s Crossing should plan on remaining in the canyon at least overnight. It is inadvisable to try to walk out in the dark. Backpacking anglers can hike into the Granite Chief Wilderness area above Hell Hole via this trail or can drive to Hell Hole, park there, and commence the hike. The Rubicon above Hell Hole is smallish and filled with eager wild rainbows and browns. In this backcountry area, a topographic map, compass, and GPS unit are essential.

The main road past Ellicott’s Bridge continues up to the top of the Foresthill Divide. Along the way, there are small creeks to fish, such as Wallace Creek. While a friend calls it “No Fish Creek” to keep others from fishing it, this little creek holds plenty of small wild rainbows that see few if any flies. Past Wallace Creek, the road crosses another Rubicon tributary, Long Canyon Creek, at Ramsey Crossing. This creek is intersected by various trails shown on the TahoeNational Forest map and can be fished from the road or via the trails. It, too, has dams on both of its North and South Forks, with large pipes that transport water from behind the dams into the Hell Hole–Interbay pipeline. As in the case of the Middle Fork and Duncan Creek, some of this piped water should be returned to Long Canyon Creek for fishery purposes as part of the hydro project mitigation conditions attached to the PCWA’s renewed license.

There are other creeks and sites in this watershed that I haven’t covered for practical reasons. And although I’ve fished the canyons for over 30 years and have guided hearty guests into the backcountry for 10 of those years, there are still spots that I have yet to experience. Using U.S. Forest Service maps, anglers can find trailheads leading to many fishable waters beyond those mentioned here. For a good overview of the geography, I recommend the U.S. Forest Service Tahoe and El Dorado National Forest maps, which are available at many outdoor stores, bookstores, and from ranger stations. The upperAmerican RiverCanyon area is located on the south end of the Tahoe National Forest and the north end of the El Dorado National Forest.

The California Fish and Game Commission has adopted regulation changes that will open the Middle Fork and its tributaries to fishing year-round, with gear and take restrictions during the off season. I, for one, will enjoy the extended season and keep searching those maps for new places to chase trout.

Sidebar: FERC Relicensing Proceedings and Other Watershed Projects: What Anglers Can Do

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process takes a minimum of five years. During that time, studies are conducted to determine the environmental effects of the facilities. Opportunities for public input abound during the process, and there are trial-type hearings available should disputes develop over material factual issues or conditions proposed by the numerous state and federal agencies charged with participating in the process (for example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Forest Service). Potential conditions imposed upon a renewed license include higher in-stream flows, flow-release schedules that resemble seasonal flow cycles, enhanced fish and wildlife habitat, improved water temperatures, provision for fish passage, increased recreational public access, trail improvements, and long-term monitoring. This is where anglers and environmental advocates can exert significant influence in the proceedings. (For an overview of the FERC relicensing process, see the Friends of the River’s publication entitled Rivers of Power.

The PCWA’s and SMUD’s hydro facilities that affect the fisheries of the Middle Fork of the American River watershed include dams and associated powerhouses, huge tunnels and pipes that move large amounts of water around the watershed, and various other diversion structures that redirect the natural flow direction of streams. Directly affected streams are shown in the sidebar’s schematic diagram.

The PCWA intends to commence its aquatic studies in 2007. A number of these studies are of particular importance to anglers, including a technical study of the benthic macroinvertibrate community’s distribution and abundance, an in-stream flow study, a fish passage technical study to determine fish distribution and habits, and various water-quality-related studies. The latest versions of the study protocols can be found at the PCWA’s project Web site, http://relicensing.pcwa.net/drafts.php.

Many stakeholders have appeared in the proceedings. Angling-related organizations have yet to appear, however, and thus far, BillTemplin and I are the only voices for fish. Bill, a retired U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist and avid angler, is the watershed coordinator for a large and diverse group known as the American River Watershed Group. My role is and will be to provide input from the viewpoint of an angler who has fished virtually all of the accessible water in the study area, providing perspectives on BMIs, fish populations, and stream conditions. We will be participating in the relevant studies and reviewing all study products.

We are also in the process for forming an organization to be called the Upper American River Foundation, http://groups.msn.com/uarf, a nonprofit corporation patterned after the renowned Henry’s Fork Foundation, for the purpose of developing funding for watershed projects that will benefit the watershed fisheries. Angler input can help vaporize the bureaucratic view of this river as condemned to be inundated by the Auburn Dam. For a description of this attitude, I recommend ranger Jordan Fisher Smith’s book Nature Noir.

Concurrent with the PCWA relicensing process, the Auburn State Recreation Area is developing a general plan for management of its recreational facilities in the drainage of the Middle Fork of the American. While the studies conducted for this process, including any required Environmental Impact Report or Environmental Impact Statement, have a different objective, they will generate baseline information that will be useful in the relicensing process. In the process of developing the general plan, anglers will have an opportunity for input and the ability to advocate for recreational and access improvements that can complement measures that will be imposed on the PCWA as FERC license conditions.

As mentioned above, SMUD’s FERC license for its hydropower facilities expires in 2007. Things were looking bleak for SMUD due to some very large and controversial fishery-related issues — until very recently, that is, when an agreement in principle was reached between the environmental constituency, fisheries advocates, SMUD, and a slew of other stakeholders in the proceedings. This agreement has been described as “historic” in press releases

I did not involve myself in the SMUD relicensing process, because virtually all of their facilities are on the South Fork of the American, outside of the Middle and North Fork drainages. However, there are a few SMUD facilities that affect the Middle Fork drainage: a dam at 6500 feet on the Rubicon, where water is diverted from the upper Rubicon over to the South Fork, where SMUD’s main facilities are, Robbs Peak Reservoir, directly on the South Fork of the Rubicon, and Gerle Creek Reservoir, which traps Gerle Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of the Rubicon. SMUD has been in trouble in the past for taking too much Rubicon water out of the AmericanRiver’s Middle Fork system.

Based on my reading of the “historic” agreement, SMUD will be required to mitigate its Middle Fork system impacts by releasing more water from its Rubicon Reservoir at specified times into the upper Rubicon. This water will end up in Hell Hole Reservoir. Because the Placer County Water Agency operates Hell Hole, this element of the agreement will likely result in little or no change to the Rubicon below Hell Hole in terms of flows unless the PCWA’s new license conditions dictate otherwise. With regard to Robbs Peak Reservoir, a small increase in the South Fork of the Rubicon’s flows will occur, which will put a bit more water into the Rubicon below Hell Hole. With regard to Gerle Creek Reservoir, the creek is a tributary to the South Fork of the Rubicon, which enters the main Rubicon below Hell Hole. Thus, to the extent that there is more water in the South Fork of the Rubicon from Gerle Creek, there will be more water in the Rubicon itself.

In the PCWA relicensing process, the increase in water for Hell Hole, together with the potential for more water in the South Fork of the Rubicon due to new flows from Robbs Peak and Gerle Creek Reservoirs, will provide fishery advocates with an argument that overall, the PCWA now has more water and can spare some for fish flows. The agreement also sets precedents regarding flows, fish habitat, and other fish-related issues, as well as issues concerning recreational facilities, including angler access. Interested readers can review the full agreement in PDF format at http://elibrary.ferc.gov/idmws/file_list.asp?accession_num=20061116-5007.

There are other ongoing projects that could have effects in the relicensing process, including watershed improvements designed to assist in downstream flood-control efforts and to address issues generated by the Bay-Delta process. These projects are massive and far beyond the scope of this article. Other information is available at http://www.consrv.ca.gov/DLRP/rcd/pubs/watershed/Calfed%20Reports/05-06%20WCG%20Report%20part%20I.pdf.

At present, however, in effect, the Middle Fork of theAmericanRiveris virtually dewatered between the various impoundments enumerated above. Flows during trout season, except in very high flow years, are minuscule, resulting in stagnation, oxygen depletion, the overgrowth of mosses and algae, and stranding of fish. The reach between Interbay Reservoir and Oxbow Lake has few trout. Those that exist are so stressed that it seems unethical to fish for them. The Rubicon River, Long Canyon Creek, and Duncan Creek all need more flows. Something should be done to limit suction-dredge mining and the devastation that it causes.

Anglers can help in the effort to revitalize the BMI populations and fishery in the Middle Fork watershed by volunteering to help in the effort to convince decision makers to include license conditions that will benefit the Middle Fork fishery over the 50-year license period; by providing in-kind and financial assistance to the Upper American River Foundation (http://groups.msn.com/uarf), by learning about the fishery while partaking of its bounty — in other words, by getting out and fishing the canyons; by becoming involved in the FERC process, either individually or through a stakeholder group; and by contacting environmental groups and fishing clubs and organizations, for example, Trout Unlimited, California Trout, and the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers.

For more information, anglers and other interested parties can contact Bill Templin at (916) 601-9954, or wtemplin@surewest.net.