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Sierra Nevada erosion control crews shift course ahead of storm

Engineering and erosion control crews faced a time paradox Wednesday in a scorched Sierra Nevada region.

For weeks since the devastating King fire burned through 97,717 acres of timberland and watershed north of Pollock Pines, multiple agencies launched a long-term project to protect water supplies and wildlife habitat from destruction due to burned mountain terrain being unable to handle seasonal rains.

Agencies including the United States Forest Service and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District have been conducting helicopter “helimulching” flights, dropping tons of rice straw to hold fragile hillsides and promote regrowth. They hope to resume the flights as soon as dry weather returns.

But with a major storm system barreling down, crews Wednesday shifted to more immediate concerns by building earthen berms to help prevent roadways from washing out and to keep sediment from fouling the upper American River and nearby tributaries.

Higher in the mountains, heavy trucks dumped rock into natural drainage passages framed by blackened Ponderosa Pines.

“What we want to do is slow the water down and reduce the corrosive impact on the soil,” said Barrett McMurtry, a U.S. Forest Service engineer.

The approaching storms presented a particular problem for SMUD, which operates two reservoirs – Brush Creek and Slab Creek – amid the King fire terrain.

SMUD engineer Grant Nelson said crews were working Wednesday to widen roadside culverts to prevent them from getting clogged with debris. Crews were also putting in metal grid drainage caps above some mountain drainage passages to protect reservoirs and hydroelectric systems.

“This is going to be a heavy storm and the faster the rain comes down, the more erosion occurs,” Nelson said.

Jennifer Chapman, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman, said officials were going to be on watch for potential mudslides near where homes were destroyed by the fire and a few others that may now be vulnerable to flooding.

But the short-term challenges remain only part of a long-term renourishing plan to restore the sensitive forest environment and watershed.

“I see this as a two to three year project – not something for a couple of days before the storm,” McMurtry said. “We’ll be dealing with the effects of the King fire for the next few years.”

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

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