In November of 2016, local nonprofit California Trout and its partners released a document called “The Sierra Meadows Strategy”, the first document that outlines a comprehensive approach to increase the paces, scale and efficacy of meadow conservation throughout the greater Sierra Nevada.
One might wonder why should we worry about increasing the pace and scale of meadow restoration? More than 60 percent of California’s developed water supply originates in the Sierra Nevada, and much of this water has spent time in meadows. There are approximately 17,000 meadows in the Sierra Nevada, comprising about 191,000 acres of land. Meadows, when healthy, act like sponges, storing water from precipitation, snowmelt and other sources as groundwater and gradually releasing these stores into streams. Healthy meadows help produce consistent flows in rivers and streams, trap sediment, and store water like naturally occurring reservoirs. That stored water can be used for irrigation, hydropower, drinking water, and is essential to preserving downstream fish habitat.
Since 2014, California Trout’s Sierra Headwaters Office, located in Mammoth Lakes, has been leading a multi-stakeholder effort to protect meadows. “We work to restore and protect healthy watersheds by focusing on the services they provide for regional biodiversity, communities, and water quality,” said Sierra Headwaters Director Dr. Mark Drew.
In 2014, California adopted the State Water Action Plan. That document acknowledged the importance of Sierra meadows to California’s water resources and economy and set the goal of restoring 10,000 acres of Sierra meadow systems by 2019. It is estimated that approximately 40-60 percent of High Sierra meadows were in a degraded state, and do not provide the same benefits to communities and ecosystems as they could if they were more ecologically functional. To complicate things further, meadows are managed by a wide range of stakeholders, from the U.S. Forest Service to private land owners and local municipalities, all of which have their own needs and processes for going about conservation projects.
In 2015, California Trout spearheaded the formation of the Sierra Meadows Partnership to bring public agencies, non-profits, and other meadow stakeholder groups together to create a process for how to meet the goals set forth in the State Water Action Plan. The composition of the Partnership thus far has included stakeholders from non-profit and for-profit natural resource organizations, public natural resource agencies, academia, and funding institutions.
In November 2016, CalTrout and The Sierra Meadows Partnership released the “Sierra Meadows Strategy,” which provided a scientifically-based approach to meadow conservation and set the statewide interagency goal of conserving 30,000 acres of meadows by 2030.
According to Drew, each meadow conservation project must be place-driven and guided by the unique needs of the ecosystems, communities, and watersheds to be successful. The Sierra Meadows Strategy provides guidance in that process by recommending a scientifically-based approach to determining the needs of a given meadow. First, there has to be pre-restoration monitoring to determine the current conditions of the meadow being studied. What type of meadow is it? What type of vegetation is present? Where does the water come from? Is the surrounding forest encroaching on the meadow? Are there unnatural incisions or gullies in the meadow? Next, the desired conditions of the meadow are identified by collecting data to determine characteristics of a healthy meadow in that region, and through stakeholder involvement to determine flora, fauna and community needs. The difference between the existing conditions and the desired conditions of the meadow is the meadow’s Conservation Need. If the Conservation Need indicates that restoration is necessary, design, planning and permitting for a restoration project ensues.