Nevada County Water, Explained: From Rough and Ready Ditch to Seven Hydroelectric Plants

How the county’s water delivery system has evolved from the Gold Rush era to what it is today.

PUBLISHED OCT 30, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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Nevada County’s water system started with a ‘crazy’ man digging a ditch.

Nevada County’s water system started with a ‘crazy’ man digging a ditch.   Dick Lyon / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 Share-Alike License

In August of 1850, at the height of California’s Gold Rush, a man whose name is recorded by history only as “Moore” set his shovel to the dirt alongside Deer Creek. His plan: to dig a ditch that would channel water for gold mining from the creek to the bustling town of Rough and Ready—a settlement of 3,000 so feisty that earlier that year it officially, albeit briefly, seceded from the United States and declared itself its own “republic.”  

Rough and Ready was about 13 miles away, but Moore, who according to one account from that era was “generally accounted crazy for his pains,” made it just one mile. Which is actually pretty impressive for one guy and a shovel. In fact, his effort caught the attention of one of the region’s more enterprising businessmen of the early Gold Rush era, Alfred Lorenzo “A.L.” Williams, and his brother Benjamin, known as “B.O.”

Natives of faraway Concord, Massachusetts, the Williams brothers moved to Michigan in 1830, when A.L. was just 22, and made their fortune in fur trading, becoming so successful that in 1837 they founded their own town, Owosso, which today is situated about 90 minutes northwest of Detroit. They used their newfound cash to invest in the burgeoning railroad business—including the Amboy, Lansing and Traverse Bay railroad in Michigan—as well as in California gold operations.

Nevada Irrigation District Takes Over Gold Rush Canals

A.L. Williams sailed from New York to Panama in February of 1850, and from there to San Francisco, arriving on April 30. In January of 1851, he and his brother and their business partners took over Moore’s “crazy” project, extending the canal another 12 miles to Rough and Ready—the first large mining ditch in California. By the early years of the 20th century, however, Rough and Ready Ditch along with many other mining ditches in the area had fallen out of use and become run down.

In 1921, voters in Nevada County approved creation of the Nevada Irrigation District and over the next decade the newly formed entity bought the water rights to the Rough and Ready Ditch once held by the Williams brothers—who sailed back to New York shortly after their company completed the dig. Today, the Rough and Ready rights are believed to be the oldest water rights in California.

The district also bought rights to numerous other obsolete gold mining ditches, converting them to irrigation districts for local farmland. As the decades passed, water needs expanded in Nevada County—and parts of Placer County, which joined the district in 1927. Residents needed treated water for drinking, bathing, washing and the various other functions of household water, while California’s new hydroelectric power industry, providing much-needed energy for a state whose population and industrial base was growing at an exponential rate, created an even more voracious demand.

Yuba-Bear River Power Project Adds Massive Capacity

In 1962, voters in the district approved a $65 million bond issue (about $590 million in today’s money) to build the Yuba-Bear Hydroelectric Power Project, which not only created a new power source but also a network of new canals and reservoirs—as well as 145,000 new acre-feet of water storage capacity for the district. (One acre-foot equals about 360,000 gallons of water.)

Today, the NID serves about 22,000 customers within its 287,000 acres in western Nevada County and the northwest section of Placer County. Managed by an elected, five-member board of directors, the district also serves “raw” water (for industrial and agricultural use) to parts of Nevada City and Grass Valley. A century into its existence, Nevada Irrigation District now operates seven hydroelectric plants that provide enough electricity to power 60,000 homes, according to the NID website.

Seven reservoirs—and the hiking trails, parks, and campgrounds around them—also come under the district’s jurisdiction, as do 200 employees with a total payroll of $30 million.

Western Nevada County’s Smaller Water Districts

Two other, much smaller water districts also provide water for small slices of western Nevada County. The San Juan Ridge Water District was formed in 1958 in an area around the small town of North San Juan. In 1971 the district merged with the neighboring French Corral County Water District, but by 1975 the district no longer had that capacity to provide water to the original San Juan district lands, so those were split off. The current San Juan Ridge WD is now made up only of territories that were previously part of the French Corral district.

The district contains almost no residential areas, covers just 2,000 acres, and serves about 40 people with 24 irrigation connections, delivering just 200 acre-feet of water per year. The district’s only water source is Shady Creek, according to a report by the Nevada County Local Agency Formation Commission.

The other small district serving the western part of the county is the Washington County Water District, established in 1962. Covering about 1,300 acres, the Washington district provides drinkable, treated water sourced from Canyon Creek to 122 household and business connections, as well as water for fire protection.

Water Service Providers in Eastern Nevada County

In the eastern region of Nevada County, two separate public utility districts are responsible for providing water services. The Truckee Donner PUD started life in 1927 as an electricity provider for Truckee and surrounding areas. Eight years later, it began providing water as well, expanding its services as new residential development spread throughout the region through the next three several decades. In 2001, the Truckee Donner district bought out the Donner Lake Water Company, and also acquired the Glenshire Mutual Water Company the following year, making the district the sole water provider in the Truckee area. The subsequent couple of decades also saw new developments at Alder Creek Middle School, Pioneer Commerce Center and the Sierra College Campus, requiring the district to bump up its services even further. 

Like the Nevada Irrigation District, Truckee Donner also serves areas in Placer County, but most of its 47.35 square miles of territory lies in Nevada County. The largest portion of the district’s population sits within the town of Truckee. The residentially developed areas around Donner Lake are also served by the Truckee Donner PUD.

The Donner Summit PUD also serves an area of eastern Nevada County, though most of its 13-square-mile territory lies in Placer County. The district was formed in 1947 in Placer County, with the Nevada County section joining a year later. The official population of the district is under 100, but it also provides water and other services to Boreal, Sugar Bowl, Soda Springs, and Donner Ski Ranch ski resorts—the district is situated at elevations between 6,500 and 8,000 feet above sea level—as well as to several rest stops along Interstate 80.

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