Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada this spring approached average levels for the first time in five years, meaning that the rivers that supply most of our fresh water will flow with cold, clean water as it slowly melts through summer and fall. Tens of millions of Californians use this water all year, for everything from drinking and cooking to farming to showering and flushing the toilet.
As Gov. Jerry Brown recently noted, one encouraging snow year is not enough to end this drought. Forecasts about precipitation patterns indicate we must make the most of every drop, starting with Sierra snowfall.
Sierra snowpack is an essential part of California’s water infrastructure. Since long before we built dams and reservoirs, deep drifts of snow have piled up on vast meadows in the coldest months. Porous meadows absorb and filter melting snow and channel it into some of California’s mightiest rivers.
Healthy mountain meadows keep snow and run-off cooler to the benefit of people and wildlife during summer months. Water that filters through these ecosystems also leaves the meadows cleaner than it arrives and deposits nutrients to maintain meadows in a healthy state.
Unfortunately, huge portions of these ecosystems have fallen into disrepair. Cattle grazing, poorly placed roads and efforts to divert natural streams have all contributed to the degradation of these mountain meadows.
Sierra meadows also may provide another important benefit: storing greenhouse gases. A Sierra-wide research project is underway to help us better understand the role that meadows play in capturing harmful gases.
The Sierra Meadows Partnership includes a broad group of state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations working to develop a protocol to quantify greenhouse gas emissions in Sierra meadows and to establish related carbon credits that could be transacted in a carbon market. Funds raised through selling the credits could support meadow restoration and management.
Data collection to document greenhouse gas changes will be collected from 18 distinct meadows throughout the Sierra over the next several years. Scientists believe that restoring the health of meadows will result in increased capture of greenhouse gas emissions.
Over the coming years, we will restore about half of the meadows under study. Work will include restoring streams to support natural flows, removing invasive species and replanting native vegetation.
This research is coming at a critical juncture in California’s efforts to adjust to the likelihood of long-term droughts and to simultaneously plan for and prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Sierra meadows are the first stop for the flakes of snow and drops of rain that comprise the water supply for most Californians. With climate change models projecting that more rain and less snow will fall in the Sierra in decades to come, the role that meadows play in storing water is likely to become even more important.
The Sierra Meadows Partnership also aims to provide a valuable window into the obstacles that currently prevent meadows from functioning at full capacity – and what we can do to overcome those obstacles. At this early juncture in the process, a few opportunities already stand out.
Increasing funding to restore meadows and expand current research efforts should be a top priority for policymakers. State and federal agencies should encourage local and regional collaborative efforts – across disciplines and jurisdictions – to support the full recovery of these meadow ecosystems. And agencies and policymakers should identify opportunities to simplify the permitting process for the type of restoration work that is currently underway.
Protecting and restoring Sierra meadows should be one of California’s top priorities for addressing the water and climate crises facing the state.
Mark Drew is Sierra Headwaters Program director with California Trout. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.