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Visitors to Silver Lake, located in the Bucks Lake Wilderness near Meadow Valley, saw an unusual sight this summer and fall — a lake nearly empty of water.
Soper-Wheeler Co. LLC is the entity responsible for maintaining the lake and its dam. According to president Dan Kruger, the company received notification from the California Division of Safety of Dams that the dam and gate valve had to be replaced.
The original dam and emergency spillway had a 99-year warranty that ran out some time ago, Kruger said. The company began developing plans for upgrades to the aging, yet serviceable, dam and gate valve more than a year ago.
|Two men shoot from the Silver Lake dam gate valve walkway in this circa 1900 photo from the Ted Huskinson collection. Photo courtesy of Plumas County Museum|
In November 2012, the company opened the gate valve and water started draining from the historical lake.
The first dam was built in 1857 to raise the level of the natural lake for mining purposes. A series of canals were dug down the mountainside and the water was utilized for hydraulic mining in places such as Bean, Badger, Shores and Gopher hills.
Once the mining boom was over, lumber companies purchased the dam, ditches and water rights and generated power for sawmills around 1915.
As the need for water grew, the height of the dam was raised several times, enlarging the lake by approximately 1,200 acre-feet, according to Soper-Wheeler Chief Forester Paul Violett.
When Soper-Wheeler purchased the land in 1968, pre-1914 water rights came with it. The land purchase included more than 15 houses in Spanish Ranch, most of which continue to be rented out today.
Silver Lake still serves as the domestic water supply for these homes in Spanish Ranch, as it has done since the 1960s. (That’s why swimming is not allowed in the lake.)
Soper-Wheeler is a household name in Meadow Valley and Quincy, where the company owns vast tracts of land it uses for sustainable forestry.
Kruger, president of the family-owned company, said Soper-Wheeler was the first timber company to plant trees in California more than a hundred years ago, in California’s earliest known reforestation practice.
In the early logging years when clear-cutting was the industry standard, Soper-Wheeler stood out for its unusual sustainability philosophy.
Kruger said the company’s forefathers used to buy up the clear-cut land, which was sold cheap after logging outfits had denuded the forests, laid railroad tracks for access, hauled the timber away and moved on to the next forest.
The foresight of Kruger’s wife’s great-grandfather, the first owner of the Strawberry Valley-based Soper-Wheeler Co., allowed it to amass more than 97,000 acres of forestland across 10 counties, Kruger said. He noted that not many companies plant a crop that takes 65 – 80 years before it can be harvested.
“We’re planting trees for our grandchildren,” he said.
The lake was mostly drained by July, and restoration work began. Officials determined that the dam and gate valve were actually in pretty good shape and did not need major repairs.
Violett said that crews dug out about 2 feet of debris from the outflow channel on the creek side of the lake. They cleaned out the box culvert that runs for 54 feet from the gate to the outlet.
Violett crawled through the tunnel and was amazed at the workmanship that has withstood the test of time. The first 30 feet of the box culvert are built from hand-stacked rock — with only small areas of the tunnel being grouted.
The last 24 feet of the culvert are lined with what Violett thinks is incense cedar, possibly circa 1900.
Work crews built platforms to anchor six new vertical posts, did bank and ditch stabilization, reinforced the screw jack, cleaned and treated the original rusty gate, and are nearly finished building the walkway, railings and gate.
Now all that remains is for the lake to fill up. Meanwhile, the low water levels allow for exploration of the lake bed and banks below the usual waterline.
Concurrent with the dam project, the Forest Service has been renovating Silver Lake Campground, adding picnic tables and more parking spaces.
If fall rains and winter snows cooperate, next spring the lake level will be back to capacity.
Then recreational kayakers and canoers can resume exploring the pristine mountain lake in its entirety. Anglers can cast their lines and hikers and campers can appreciate the lake situated in the shadow of Spanish Peak and Granite Gap.
Editor’s note: Information for this article was provided by archaeology consultant Trudy Vaughan and Plumas County Museum Director Scott Lawson.
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