Browns Valley Irrigation District Information and History

The Browns Valley Irrigation District (BVID) is one of the oldest continually operating irrigation district in the state of California. It was established on September 19, 1888 under the “Wright Irrigation Act.” The first order of business on September 26, 1888 was to set a date for a $110,000 bond election.  The reason for the bond sale was to raise funds to construct a diversion dam and ditch to divert water from the North Yuba River into the Browns Valley area. On March 21, 1890 a notice of Approbation of 47.2 CFS (2,500 miners inches) water from the North Yuba was recorded in Yuba County Records.

The District’s water project started in August of 1890 and was completed in the spring of 1892 after considerable difficulties. The water for the ditch was diverted from the North Yuba River, a little over a mile below Bullards Bar. A 30 foot high wood crib diversion dam was built and a wooden flume was constructed along the canyon wall a distance of over seven and one half miles. The upper five miles of flume were 5 feet wide by 3 feet high. It was at this point that the contractor went out of business. The district stepped in and finished the work with day labor. They decided to reduce the flume width to 4 feet from that point on, since lumber had become in short supply.

old flume and construction crew

The BVID ditch from the flume section contoured down the canyon, with mostly ditch construction, for 22 miles to the vicinity of Dry Creek. At this point the water dropped down  a vertical drop of nearly 300 feetwhere the water was picked up in a lower ditch and delivered to the Dry Creek siphon. The water district was now in business but troubled financial times laid ahead. Judge Ross of the United States Circuit Court ruled that a provision of the “Wright Irrigation Act” was unconstitutional and did not allow the districts to assess property owners for maintenance and operation costs. BVID was in bad need of financial help.

This is when John Martin who had just successfully built a pioneer electric power plant on the South Yuba River near Nevada City appeared on the scene. It was the 300 foot fall that attracted Martin’s attention.. He made a proposition to BVID to maintain and operate BVID’s main canal in return for the right to use the 300 foot water drop for a powerhouse. The agreement also called for an annual lease payment to BVID of $100 per year. The deal was for 50 years and BVID signed the contract on August 12, 1896. Martin immediately took over maintenance responsibility some 19 months before he actually started to use the water for “mechanical purposes.”

This plant launched Martin and his associates as the most important power men in Northern California. Within 5 years, after several reorganizations, acquisitions and new projects, their California Gas and Electric Company purchased San Francisco Gas and Electric Company giving birth to Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) on January 1, 1906.

The Yuba Powerhouse was shutdown at the end of 1911 and PG&E continued to maintain the BVID ditch from the diversion to nearly 22 miles beyond Dry Creek until 1940.  An agreement was reached with BVID to “buy out” the remaining six years of the contract for $180,000. PG&E would become owner of the head dam and deliver water through a newly constructed tunnel and abandon the flume. The agreement called for PG&E to deliver BVID’s water (47.2 CSF) at the Colgate Power House penstock, NY10.

BVID continued to operate the system delivering water to the Browns Valley Loma Rica area however, water demand in the area far exceeded the available water from the Yuba River diversion. The possibility of a dam on Dry Creek at Virginia Ranch had been explored for several years from as early as 1919.  In 1950, a permit was issued to build Virginia Ranch Dam and store water. Original request was for a dam 105′ high, 1870′ long 10′ freeboard, which would have created a lake with 175 surface acres and a capacity of 35,000 acre feet.  Estimated cost to build was $1,360,000 with a project completion date of 1955. Lack of finances prevented the dam from being built at that time.

acient bvid workers

In September 1960, BVID voters authorized the Bureau of Reclamation loan for construction of Virginia Ranch Dam and approved a tax for the repayment of the loan and operation of the dam and irrigation system. The interest free USBR loan was for $4,839,371. The dam was completed and put into service in 1963.  The dam as completed is more than 1/3 larger than the design proposed in 1950. It is 152′ high, 2800′ long with 13.5′ of free board. The body of water held back by Virginia Ranch Dam is named Collins Lake which has 1009 surface acres with a capacity of 57,000 acre feet. The name Collins Lake is in honor of Merle Collins who as a Yuba County Farm Advisor was instrumental in getting the dam constructed. The construction of Virginia Ranch Dam enabled BVID to lease a portion of the water that was being diverted at NY10 to PG&E for power production at Colgate and Narrows hydroelectric plants. BVID retains the right to use the water for irrigation. The water is pumped from the Yuba River at a point 1 mile down stream from Browns Valley and used in the lower portion of BVID. A small amount of water continued to be diverted at NY10 for several years for use in the upper part of the district.

In 1990, a pipeline was constructed by BVID from Collins Lake to serve the portion of the district that was receiving water from the NY10 diversion. The pipeline construction made it possible to abandon over 22 miles of ditch line including several flumes that ran along the Yuba River canyon.  This freed up additional water to lease to YCWA for use in the Colgate and Narrows hydroelectric plants.

In 1984, a 1,000 KW hydroelectric plant was built at the dam by a private power developer and operated by BVID. BVID negotiated a contract to purchase the hydroelectric plant in 1990 and as of May 2005 BVID owns the plant free and clear. Power is only generated using the water available from overflow water in the winter and irrigation releases in the summer.

some bvir board members

In the mid 1980’s, BVID started a program of installing pipelines in the district. Pipelines have been installed to areas not previously serviced, as well as lines to replace high maintenance open ditches.  Whenever possible, the pipelines take advantage of elevation to provide water under pressure.   In some areas where the elevation doesn’t allow the installation of gravity fed lines electric pumps lift the water.   One area is supplied by a water driven pump using a drop in elevation in the open ditch system to drive a pump that raises the water over 600’ in elevation.

At present, there are 55,000 acres in the District served with 200 miles of open ditch and 70 miles of pipeline. The district has experienced rapid change over the past few years. What was a district serving water to pasture and orchard lands is now serving water to family orchards, garden areas and landscapes.  The number of customers has grown from 300 to over 1500. Some water is being sold for domestic use and it is anticipated that more domestic water will be sold in the near future.

It is very likely that BVID will continue to change significantly over the next several years.  Surrounding areas are being looked at for possible annexation. Miles of new pipelines are being planned to presently un-served areas as well as for piping existing ditches.  Most of the changes will be driven by development in the area as BVID strives to keep up with the growth.

-by Robert Bordsen