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"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive
with the people who lived it."
by Don Baumgart
Some of the most peaceful and pleasant walks in Western Nevada County are along the public trails that flank Nevada Irrigation District (NID) canals. The gurgling water gives no present day indication of the raging torrents that once poured past, some giving power to Gold Rush mines and hydraulic nozzles. In 1882 the South Yuba Water and Mining Company dug the Leonard Ditch, now known as the Lower Cascade Canal. The canal's purpose was to deliver water to turn the Pelton wheels at the Idaho Mine, generating electricity to run the underground search for gold. In this land of hard rock mines, power was key and with the help of rushing water the Idaho-Maryland mine produced $12.5 million in gold by 1900. Most canals in Nevada County were built to bring water to the hydraulic mining operations that washed away hillsides in search of nuggets. Construction of the Leonard Ditch for use as a power source was unique. In other Gold Country counties water wheels were in wider use to power underground mining efforts, according to local historian and writer Hank Meals. By the turn of the century the Rome Powerhouse on the South Yuba River was delivering cheap, reliable electrical power to the mines. The Lower Cascade Canal continued to power mining operations, serving the North Star Mine until 1933.
Through the early 1900s, many of the old reservoir and canal systems built during the California Gold Rush had become under-utilized and were falling into disrepair. Community leaders were determined to acquire these invaluable assets, make improvements, and recreate them as the backbone of a new public water system. In 1921 the NID was created and it acquired holdings in the Upper Deer Creek watershed, including Leonard Ditch. Now NID provides drinking and irrigation water to nearly 25,000 homes, farms and businesses in Nevada and Placer counties in the foothills of Northern California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. On March 15, 1921, local organizers presented petitions carrying 800 signatures of irrigation district supporters to the Nevada County Board of Supervisors. On August 5, 1921 a public election was held with voters favoring the new district by a margin of 536-163. Nevada County Supervisors authorized the new district and 10 days following the election, on August 15, 1921, NID was officially formed. The district's first board meeting was held that day in Grass Valley's Bret Harte Hotel.
Today NID collects water from the mountain snowpack and stores it in an extensive system of 10 reservoirs. As water flows to customers in the foothills, it is used to generate clean hydroelectric energy and to provide public recreational opportunities. NID supplies both treated drinking water and irrigation water. On some of those storage areas, camping, fishing, swimming, sunning, boating, water skiing, sailing, board sailing and other activities are popular. At both Rollins and Scotts Flat reservoirs in the Sierra foothills, day use parks, campgrounds and beaches are operated by the district and in some cases by private operators under contract with NID. At its formation, NID included 202,000 acres in Nevada County. Five years later, in 1926, residents of Placer County chose to join the district and another 66,500 acres were added. Today, NID includes more than 287,000 acres. Those Gold Rush era canals built to bring water to power the underground mines and hydraulic nozzles have become a legacy that both moves water and adds to the quality of recreational life.
Don is a former daily newspaper reporter, now a magazine journalist living in Nevada City, California. He has written articles for national publications taking readers to such diverse experiences as dining aboard California's Wine Train and a Nevada burger stop for outer space aliens.