The Anti-Debris Association was formed in 1868 by angry farmers in Marysville and what would later become Yuba City, in response to the fact that hydraulic mining on the upper Yuba River and Feather River watersheds dropped debris such as gravel, silt, and other mine tailings into the rivers. This debris raised the riverbeds so high that the Yuba River spilled out into a two-miles-wide, 20-feet-deep flow.

As a result, the Yuba River overran hundreds of thousands of acres of orchards and pastures and (repeatedly from the late 1860s, and especially in 1875) buried the entire city of Marysville and much of what is now Yuba City in as much as 25 feet of muck. The bed of the Feather River was also raised substantially, which caused it to flood Sacramento repeatedly and has rendered it unnavigable, except by very small boats, to this day. At the time the Anti-Debris Association was formed, mining law in California was quite localized and relied on decisions of the mining towns' inhabitants. The inhabitants of the mining towns cared more about their own ability to mine for gold than about downstream residents' ability not to be buried in 25 feet of muck, so they chose to continue hydraulic mining regardless of the damage caused downstream.

The Anti-Debris Association was led by George Ohleyer and James Keyes. It hired lawyer George Cadwalader and filed lawsuits against the wealthy mining companies upstream. W. T. Ellis, Jr., for whom Ellis Lake was named, wrote in his autobiography Memories: My Seventy-Two Years in the Romantic County of Yuba, California about some of the association's efforts to gather evidence for the case:

During my term as Supervisor, I made several more trips in the mountains as a watchman; we were anxious to get information with which to get an injunction against the North Bloomfield Mine, one of the largest in the mountain area, the President of the mining company being L. L. Robinson, who was also President of the Hydraulic Miners Association. Finally we got some information from two watchmen whom we had kept there for some months. They posed as gamblers, and by keeping their ears open and taking strolls, we ascertained how the mine was operating. This mine was an immense bowl, made by washed out debris, the banks in some places being 530 feet high; the hydraulic monitors had eleven inch nozzles, and a number of years previous, what was then considered quite an engineering feat, a tunnel had been constructed through the mountain for better drainage of the mine and, through the tunnel, debris also escaped. The owner, Mr. Robinson, in an effort to stave off law suits, had constructed a dam across the westerly half of the mine and his sluice boxes emptied on one side of the dam, forming a small lake, where the debris was supposed to settle and the water, cleared of any large quantity of debris, would escape over a spillway, then through the tunnel, thence into Humbug Creek, to the south fork of the Yuba River. Our watchmen discovered, however, that, while some debris was being stored and restrained by this dam, that most of the time, the greater portion was allowed to escape through the tunnel by an extension of the sluice boxes, in which was a cleverly camouflaged secret opening in the flume, which no one would observe, should any inspections be made by occasional visitors who might be permitted to see the mine. After we had obtained information of this secret box opening, Mr. George Ohleyer, President of the Anti-Debris Association wrote to Mr. Robinson and complained that his dam must not be restraining the debris as it was reported that the tunnel was discharging heavy material. This letter was written in the hope that Mr. Robinson would invite inspection. . . .
Mr. Robinson "fell for the bait" and invited Mr. Ohleyer to come up on a certain day; Mr. Ohleyer accepted the invitation and told Mr. Robinson that it would be impossible for him to be up early in the morning but would meet him at the mine headquarters at noon time. In place of doing this, Mr. Ohleyer and myself started very early in the morning; we first went to the mouth of the tunnel and as they had no idea we would go up early, they were taking full advantage of the opportunity afforded of discharging the debris through the tunnel until we arrived. We found a full head of water discharging through the tunnel, heavily charged with debris from the mine; the force of the water was very great as when we picked up several large rocks, weighing about thirty pounds and threw them against the water, they would be tossed away like pebbles. We then continued to the mine headquarters, reaching there at noon and Mr. Robinson of course was under the impression that we had come direct from Marysville. Mr. Robinson was a very genial host; he was a large fine looking man, very entertaining and had a wonderful chicken dinner prepared for us, with champagne to assist in digestion; also some fine “two bit” cigars; the two latter I enjoyed but Mr. Ohleyer, as I remember it, never indulged in either at any time. We talked about almost everything except mining and when the luncheon was over, Mr. Robinson then invited us to visit the mine and said he was going to show us how well he had arranged to hold back all the debris. He first showed us several large monitors at work, then he took us over to where the dam was and showed us the large settling pool; to do this, we walked on top of the large flume which was conveying the debris laden water. Mr. Ohleyer then started down the flume which extended beyond the dam but Mr. Robinson held back, saying that there was "nothing to be seen down there"; Mr. Ohleyer, however, continued on his way, I following, Mr. Robinson very reluctantly bringing up the rear. Finally we came to the place where the secret escape way box was located and we then told Mr. Robinson that that was what we had really come up to discover; we also told him of our early morning trip to the mouth of the tunnel and what we had discovered there. Mr. Robinson immediately ceased being the genial host; he was about the most disgusted, crestfallen and at the same time the maddest man I have ever seen. Mr. Ohleyer told him that action would be taken, which it was; we had had a very successful trip, we had enjoyed a fine luncheon and I had enjoyed some fine cigars and champagne. Mr. Ohleyer and I were very content and satisfied on our return trip home.

In 1884, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer of the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit in San Francisco decided in favor of the farmers. Ironically, Ohleyer, Cadwalader, and Sawyer had all been gold miners in California at earlier points in their lives, and Keyes had been a miner in the state of Nevada.