Abby Messe: Monitoring the Yuba River Watershed, one step at a time

Written by Abby Messe, Sierra Nevada AmeriCorps Partnership (SNAP) member, May 2024

The South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) River Monitoring Program officially began in October 2000, which means we are currently in our 24th year of monitoring the Yuba Watershed! The historical legacy of gold mining, as well as the dams and diversions in our watershed, influenced the River Monitoring Program, which began as a way to watch over the Yuba and maintain its overall health. The objectives of the program include assessing water quality throughout the watershed, identifying problem areas and assessing areas of interest, influencing managers and the public to protect the Yuba River, tracking trends over time, and promoting watershed awareness and stewardship.

The Yuba watershed is around 1,300 square miles and ranges in elevation from over 9,100 feet at Mount Lola to 60 feet at its confluence with the Feather River in Marysville. The Yuba watershed supports one of California’s last remaining wild runs of Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. Additionally, the Yuba Watershed is historically one of the most popular destinations for gold miners during the Gold Rush, and there are hundreds of abandoned mines and mine-impacted streams in the watershed. These mining operations also turned into hydraulic mining, which resulted in massive amounts of sediment being washed downstream, altering the course of the river. Like other rivers in California, the Yuba is heavily dammed and diverted. These dams and diversions alter the timing and amount of streamflow along with the passage of aquatic organisms, sediment, and organic material. The River Monitoring Program has 8 main Areas of investigation: 1) long-term monitoring stations, 2) mine land streams, 3) dam-affected reaches, 4) restoration success monitoring, 5) development impacts in the upper South Yuba Watershed, 6) bacterial contamination of recreational waters, 7) nutrient and chemical runoff, and 8) invasive and sensitive species.

In our monthly River Monitoring, we measure air and water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, specific conductivity, and turbidity. We use these parameters to assess the overall water quality of the Yuba Watershed as they can affect aquatic organisms and be indicators of contamination. We have 37 sites throughout the Yuba Watershed. Our sites are on the North, Middle, South, and Lower Yuba, as well as smaller tributaries. Since the Yuba Watershed is so large, our sites were selected to provide representation of the entire 1,300 square miles of the Yuba Watershed. We monitor our sites monthly from March to November. We also have a Safe to Swim bacteria sampling program that runs in the summer which is used to determine the safety of the rivers for recreation at popular swimming spots.

As the River Monitoring Coordinator, I am responsible for recruiting volunteers, leading an informational orientation, and holding field trainings. This year, 20 new volunteers were trained. In March, April, and May of 2024, we have had 55 volunteers who have donated 419.5 hours, and 88 sites have been monitored by river monitoring volunteers. The data collected can be taken seriously by policymakers because of our Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) maintained with the State Water Resources Control Board. SYRCL is part of a technical advisory group with Sierra Streams Institute, Bear River Monitoring, and Wolf Creek Community Alliance. We have regular data quality control checks and an annual data report where we evaluate our compliance with precision standards and data quality procedures. All of SYRCL’s river monitoring data can be found at

Funding for SNAP is supported by Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation’s Nature Fund and Martis Fund – a collaborative project of Martis Camp landowners, DMB/Highlands Group (the developers of Martis Camp), Mountain Area Preservation Foundation (MAP), and Sierra Watch. Sierra Nevada Alliance is a proud grantee of AmeriCorps and California Volunteers, Office of the Governor.

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