Why Meadow Restoration is Important for Rivers and Wildlife
One of the most significant roles mountain meadows play involves water storage, a burning topic for Californians in the face of drought and climate change.
If you’re reading this and are a Willow Flycatcher, beaver, or other adorable fauna of the Sierra Nevada, stop now. You already know how important mountain meadows are to river health and why we need to keep them healthy and functional. But if you’re a human who enjoys clean, abundant drinking water and breathtaking natural space, this is the blog post for you. This summer and fall American Rivers worked tirelessly alongside our project partners to restore 415 acres of mountain meadow in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that defines California’s skyline.
One of the most significant roles mountain meadows play involves water storage, a burning topic for Californians in the face of drought and climate change. Meadows are like green glaciers in how they hold groundwater and release it slowly, allowing our rivers to stay hydrated during periods of drought. In a similar vein, meadows are the first floodplains our rivers encounter as they tumble down steep granite slopes into the Central Valley (where American Rivers also does a lot of work on floodplain restoration). A healthy meadow is connected to its stream channel, allowing high stream flows (like historic last winter’s spring runoff) to flood out onto its broad, flat surface, where that abundant water slows down and percolates into the shallow groundwater just beneath the surface. That shallow groundwater, in turn, supports lush plant communities and willow thickets, the habitat of choice for countless wildlife and plant species in the Sierra Nevada, a global biodiversity hotspot. The shallow groundwater is held into the summer season, when the meadows begin to draw down, contributing that stored groundwater to streams headed to California’s downstream habitats and communities. Beyond water storage, healthy meadows also sequester (absorb) carbon, which directly counteracts the impacts of climate change, and meadows provide key habitat and fuel breaks that mitigate the impacts of high-intensity wildfires.
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Our meadow restoration projects require a level of adaptability and creativity as we work to balance our attempts to restore natural functions and processes with the needs of special-status species, recreation, land management, and other interests. At Faith Valley in the West Fork Carson River watershed, we are raising the water table of the meadow through the construction of beaver dam analogs (BDAs), which mimic the positive impacts of natural beaver dams. This summer and fall completed the second phase of restoration, installing 25 BDAs, which over time will allow sediment to accumulate and flows to spread, raising the water table and restoring natural flow patterns to the benefit of recreational enthusiasts and native fish and wildlife. The project aims to help the resident beaver population restore and maintain the meadow over the longer term, and in exciting news, beavers adopted one of the project structures and started making it their own. This season, the project also repaired the off-highway vehicle road alongside the meadow to protect the meadow and enhance recreational opportunities.
Restoration at Ackerson Meadow, located in the Tuolumne watershed along the western edge of Yosemite National Park, marks a significant milestone in our efforts to scale meadow restoration across the Sierra Nevada. The Ackerson Meadow Restoration Project is the largest full-fill meadow restoration attempted in the Sierra Nevada to date (in this particular ‘full-fill’ restoration, we used 150,000 cubic yards of soil, or 15,000 dump truck loads, to fill in the incised streambed that reached as deep as 15 feet). A robust coalition that includes Stanislaus National Forest (SNF), Yosemite National Park (YNP), and the Yosemite Conservancy is working to revitalize Ackerson and we look towards the next phase of implementation, set to begin in early 2024.
In designated Wilderness, you can’t move a thousand dump trucks worth of dirt because motorized vehicles and machinery are not permitted, so we needed to start thinking outside the box and looking at alternatives. Log Meadow (18 acres), located in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in the Middle Fork Kaweah watershed, presented a unique opportunity for restoration in a world-famous natural space. The meadow is in Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest, one of the most important sequoia groves based on land area, the size of sequoias within the grove, and current conditions. The meadow had a large gully which was filled with onsite grasses and soils so flows could spread across the floodplain surface. The larger goal of this project was to use low impact hand-labor techniques to conduct full-fill meadow restoration to inform potential future work in designated Wilderness. Log Meadow Restoration was a collaborative effort undertaken alongside Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, hand crews (the California Conservation Corps, American Conservation Experience, and Walker Basin Conservancy), and funded by the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife and the CA Wildlife Conservation Board.
We also finished implementation at Wilson Ranch Meadow (60 acres) in October! Wilson Ranch Meadow is in the South Fork American River watershed in Eldorado National Forest (ENF). The meadow was selected as a priority site for restoration during our 2017 assessment of meadows in the American River watershed. The fundamental issue at Wilson Ranch was a road crossing at the top of the meadow. This crossing created a pinch point and channelized flows entering the meadow, which resulted in a large gully through the entire meadow. We replaced the crossing with a series of 8 culverts and fully filled the gully with onsite soils to spread flows and improve groundwater storage. Another important aspect of this Project was building the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) capacity to conduct meadow restoration work. We did this by engaging employees to follow the lifecycle of a project, as well as providing guidance and mentorship at each stage. We worked with USFS employees to identify this project, complete planning, and implement the project. This model led to broad-based support and enthusiasm for meadow restoration within ENF and directly to additional meadow restoration efforts in the footprint of the 2021 Caldor Fire.
It’s been an exciting and expansive year for meadow restoration in California’s headwaters. And we need meadows as much as rivers do, whether for their practical functions like clean drinking water, or that sense of peace that arrives when one steps into one of these unique biomes. Mountain meadows in the Sierra Nevada have held cultural significance for thousands of years and continue to inspire generations of residents and recreators. American Rivers is working alongside our partners within the Sierra Meadows Partnership (SMP) to restore 30,000 acres by 2030 and ready the headwaters of the Sierra Nevada to face the changing climate. By leveraging private philanthropy and public funding, we are creating comprehensive impacts on California’s rivers. Get involved! Join us on-site at one of our volunteer events and get some dirt under your fingernails or reach out to email@example.com to see how you can support our work in the Sierra Nevada.