Restore California Meadows, Help Farmers

Yes! magazine’s summer 2010 issue focused on water, and my favorite article therein described the ongoing restoration of the Feather River watershed in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Planned and carried out by ranchers, timber barons, fisherpeople, and government officials, it is aimed at raising the quality and quantity of the water that ends up in the Sacramento Valley and San Francisco Bay. According to the article,

[restoring] these mountain meadows may be a first step in preserving both the environment and the economy. Restoring them helps revitalize the watershed and wildlife, and it also helps sustain the downstream farms, ranches, towns, and cities that depend on alpine water.

Water, after all, delivers most of the effects of global warming … Now, as climate change is altering historic snowfall patterns, land managers are turning to meadows to help reduce the effects of a warming planet.

How Is This Restoration?

So what do land managers do to these meadows? Much the same thing that Wildlands Restoration Volunteers did to Carnage Canyon near Boulder, Colorado. WRV hired a backhoe operator to regrade the area along Left Hand Creek, which had been degraded by four-wheel-drive traffic, and to fill in gullies caused by erosion. Then I and many, many other volunteers showed up on at least 10 days over a period of years and built check dams to redirect water flow to reduce erosion, seeded bare areas and covered them with mulch or erosion matting (if they were steep), dug up small trees and shrubs and replanted them, and in general did everything we could to help native plant communities recover on their own.

What does restoring the Feather River watershed do for California farmers?

According to the article, “Over the last century … late spring runoff has declined 25 percent.” Why? Because the snow is melting sooner and filling the rivers earlier. Why is that bad for farmers? Because just as temperatures rise in late spring, less water is available for crops.

How can restoration of meadows help? Restored meadows store water, cleanse it, and release it more slowly.

Twenty-five years of restoration along the Feather River have convinced the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the US Forest Service to expand the project to other parts of the Sierra, possibly restoring up to 20,000 acres a year through 2014.

The Sierra projects are unique among large-scale water restoration efforts in the United States because of their potential to increase the amount of water available in a river system.

Note the word “potential.” There’s debate as to whether restoring mountain meadows can actually produce more water; some scientists think restored meadows will produce more vegetation that will use up the extra water. But certainly water that’s flowing through a meadow instead of down a packed-dirt gully will be cleaner, which helps cities save on water treatment costs.

Why do I love this so much?

Because in this case, increasing beauty has an economic effect.

Source: “Restoring the Wild: Why More Water for Wildlife Means More Water for People,” Jane Braxton Little, Yes! magazine, summer 2010