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Restoring California's Wild Watersheds

Why more water for wildlife means more water for people.
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Jim Wilcox is sitting on a rock near a quarter-acre pond watching a pair of willow flycatchers flit in and out of the brush across the water. The 15-inch rainbow trout he spied a week ago does not flash on this summer morning, but Wilcox knows it’s down there somewhere beneath the surface.

He allows himself a small smile. Three years ago his pond-side perch was in the middle of a sagebrush field high in the headwaters of California’s Feather River, 170 miles northeast of Sacramento. Red Clover Creek trickled through in a braided network of rutted gullies.

A century of logging, road-building, and intensive overgrazing had reduced this and other meadows throughout the Sierra Nevada to baked and barren flats. Today the stream meanders through a meadow lush with native grasses and small ponds.

Jim Wilcox Photo by Jane Braxton Little

Jim Wilcox is among those who have worked for 25 years to improve the land and water that runs through the Feather River watershed.

Photo by Jane Braxton Little

Wilcox, a former logger, is part of a 25-year effort to restore all of the meadows within the upper Feather River basin, an area larger than Delaware. As program manager for the Feather River Coordinated Resource Management group, he works with ranchers, timber owners, anglers, and federal and state agency officials—anyone who shares an interest in improving the land and the water that cascades down to the Sacramento Valley and the delta that empties into San Francisco Bay. At a time when climate change is putting unprecedented pressure on water supplies, 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 the alpine water.

Water, after all, delivers most of the effects of global warming: melting icebergs, rising sea levels, lower stream flows, reduced snowpacks, and increased tropical storms. Throughout the American West, communities, cities, and entire state economies have relied on mountain snowpacks, which replenish the streams that feed water supplies. Now, as climate change is altering historic snowfall patterns, land managers are turning to meadows to help reduce the effects of a warming planet.

Nature’s Reservoirs

Mountain meadows store water, acting as natural reservoirs that hold back floodwaters. By slowing the heavy spring flows and releasing them gradually over the dry summer months, healthy watersheds can increase the quantity of water available downstream.

In California, where agriculture is the economic mainstay, the impacts of climate change could be devastating. The Sierra Nevada snowpack supplies two-thirds of the state’s water needs. The Sierra’s 22 major river systems nourish farms and orchards in California’s Central Valley, which produces

Restoring the Wild Main by Jane Braxton Little

The restored Red Clover Creek.

Photo by Jane Braxton Little

8 percent of the nation’s crops. Over the last century, however, late spring runoff has declined 25 percent. Scientists predict even more dramatic reductions over the next 90 years, as global warming restricts snowfall to the highest elevations. The timing of peak snowmelt throughout the range is already earlier and could occur a full two weeks sooner by the end of the century, according to climate scientists.

Scientists and land managers are launching innovative plans to maximize the storage capacity of meadows throughout the Sierras, which stretch 400 miles along the state border with Nevada. The most ambitious project involves nearly 300,000 acres of floodplains, an area about 20 times the size of Manhattan. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit created by Congress, is providing $15 million and coordination for work in as many as 20 Sierra Nevada watersheds over the next 10 years. Along with restoring fish and wildlife habitat, their goal is to continue delivering fresh water to the rest of the state.

“Everyone agrees that California will have less snow and more rain in coming decades. There is no doubt that water is the crisis here and now,” says Timothy Male, the foundation’s director of wildlife and habitat conservation.

The diminishing snowpack is likely to provoke more skirmishes in the statewide water wars that pit the north against the south, farmers against environmentalists, and rural interests against urban. The underlying problem is a demand for water that has outgrown today’s supplies, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told The Los Angeles Times. California, he said, is “sitting on a ticking time bomb, and you better get your act together, because otherwise the bomb’s going to go off.”

Making Up for Lost Snowpack

The Feather River watershed lies at the northern end of the Sierra range among its lower peaks. The impacts of diminishing snowpacks will take their toll here first, says Wilcox, who has lived in these mountains since the 1970s. The effects on the quantity and timing of the downstream flow will be dramatic, he says. That puts even more pressure on restoring meadows in the watershed that provides more than 5 percent of California’s freshwater supply.

Wilcox wasn’t thinking about climate change when he began working with the Feather River alliance 25 years ago. The group’s focus was on the erosion that was choking the river. Instead of conventional dredging of reservoirs and riverbeds, a handful of local entrepreneurs decided to try reducing the sediment buildup where it began: upstream in the tributary creeks and meadows.

In 1985, just before winter closed the roads, they built four small U-shaped rock and gravel dams in Red Clover Creek, 60 miles above a series of hydroelectric dams owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Company. The dams were designed to slow the water flow and trap in-stream sediment. That winter tested the experiment. The 20 inches of rain that fell in five days washed out century-old bridges and roads. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the dams not only survived; they also held back their share of sediment.

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