Meadow 101 at Ackerson

This is a guest blog by California American Rivers intern, Jon Fairchild. Jon’s internship is supported by the Patagonia Employee Internship Program.

Ackerson Meadow | © Jon Fairchild-2

Ackerson Meadow in the Tuolumne watershed, CA | © Jon Fairchild

Have you ever watched a nature program on TV and found yourself in total awe about how many parts of the natural environment work in perfect harmony? Although much of the time I’m somewhat oblivious to the many intricacies that support healthy ecosystems, I always find it truly amazing to learn more about the dynamic structures of our planet. I recently had the opportunity to learn more about watersheds and found myself truly enlightened.

Over the years I have tried to educate myself about rivers, water management, and fresh water as a resource. I’ve found that like most things in the natural world, streams, rivers, and watersheds are dynamic systems with many processes contributing to their health and natural beauty. One piece to this water system that I had never considered is the importance of meadows and the role they play in supporting the ecology of the watershed.

As an intern for American Rivers, I had the opportunity to conduct some assessments of meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and got to learn about the part meadows play in a watershed. Our field work took us to Ackerson Meadow in the Tuolumne watershed, an area that had just been severely burned by the infamous Rim Fire less than a year prior to our visit. On the drive out to the site we noticed that the charred remains of the old forest dominated the majority of the landscape. However, to my surprise, the meadow was vibrant green against a black background, representing the first sign of new life in the recently burned forest.

Ackerson Meadow | © Jon Fairchild

Ackerson Meadow in the Tuolumne watershed, CA | © Jon Fairchild

Our objective was to evaluate the condition of the meadow, with a primary focus on the steam channel as an indicator of the overall hydrology of the meadow. In a healthy meadow, the water table is close to the meadow surface, allowing it to slow down and spread out water over a large area and, in turn, create abundant habitat for all types of life. This process not only creates habitat, but also acts as natural filtration and a storage system for the water supply, ultimately contributing to a much healthier watershed downstream.

Our journey through the meadow made it apparent that this was a very important part to the local ecosystem. We encountered a variety of living flora and fauna, including bears, frogs, birds, and all sorts of vegetation. We were also on the lookout for a particular species of owl, the Great Grey Owl, that doesn’t make its home just anywhere. Seeing the meadow thriving with the remnants of the massive fire all around was quite a spectacle. It was obvious that meadows play a vital role in the supporting local ecosystems and the water system as a whole.