Spotlight: ACWA Members Working With Partners on Watershed Health – Oct. 2019

  • by Will Holbert
  • Oct 18, 2019

Ecological tree trimming plays an important role in treating overstocked forests, which are an unnatural consequence of previous fire suppression policy.

Across a swath of the Sierra Nevada, multiple projects underway that aim to restore resilience to vital watersheds share one thing in common: active engagement by an ACWA-member water agency.

Yuba Water Agency, Nevada Irrigation District, Placer County Water Agency and El Dorado Irrigation District are among the ACWA members working within collaborative partnerships with diverse memberships ranging from the U.S. Forest Service and California Department of Conservation to local government, land conservancies, environmental agencies and other nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.

Headwaters serve a vital role in California’s water management system. Healthy forests have multiple benefits, including increased water supply reliability, improved water quality, reduced impacts from catastrophic wildfires, increased renewable energy supplies, improved response to climate change and enhanced habitat.

But improving the health of headwaters on any meaningful scale presents an enormous challenge: Reversing decades of well-intentioned efforts to suppress fire that paid off with the unintended consequences of overstocked, brush-choked forests that instead became fuel depots waiting to feed catastrophic wildfires. 

The aftermath has left behind barren slopes that shed ash and debris into the watershed, while also altering snow runoff. Individual tools such as tree thinning have been around for many years. But during the past 10 or 20 years, the approach has become more comprehensive with the utilization of different tactics in concert with one another. These include meadow restoration along with mechanical and manual ecological forest thinning that leads to safer opportunities to apply prescribed fire to maintain a relatively clear forest floor. Take out the overstocked undergrowth, and you take away a fire’s ladder. The idea is to “get the fire out of the crown and onto the ground.” 

Here is a look at what four ACWA members within the Sierra Nevada are doing to create healthier and more sustainable watersheds.

Yuba Water Agency

During the past year, Yuba Water Agency has launched multiple forest management projects within its namesake river’s watershed in the Tahoe National Forest. One of them relies on a Forest Resilience Bond, a public-private funding partnership formed through Blue Forest Conservation. This new approach in funding forest restoration projects matches private foundations acting as investors with public agencies as beneficiaries, who agree to repay investors over time. The actual restoration work now underway includes ecologically based tree thinning, meadow restoration, prescribed burning, and invasive species management.

At the same time, a three-megawatt biomass plant currently in the planning stages would create a market for wood waste generated from the restoration work. Yuba Water Agency also participates in a wider collaborative headwaters health effort that includes the Camptonville Community Partnership and the South Yuba River Citizens League. 

Nevada Irrigation District

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) recently awarded $981,000 in grant funding to NID to continue a fuels reduction program that began in 2013. The latest phase of work began this summer and will be completed by January 2022. In total, 300 acres of forested land will be treated. Much of the fire fuels reduction work focused on the forest surrounding Scotts Flat Reservoir northeast of Grass Valley. NID has treated a total of 466 acres of forest within its territory in 2018 and 2019.

By removing small diameter trees and shrubs that compete with larger trees for water, NID not only reduces fire fuels, but allows more water to flow from the watershed before it is absorbed by vegetation through evapotranspiration. Additionally, selectively thinned forests are able to grow faster, allowing trees to capture more carbon, which helps reduce global warming and other effects of climate change.

Placer County Water Agency belongs to a collaborative partnership that is engaged in forest health work around the agency’s French Meadows Reservoir on the Middle Fork of the American River.

Placer County Water Agency

The French Meadows Forest Restoration Project is an innovative forest health project aimed at reducing wildfire risk in a critical municipal watershed. This landscape-scale project, covering 30,000 acres of public and private land around French Meadows Reservoir (west of Lake Tahoe) is a public-private partnership that can serve as a model for increasing the pace and scale of ecologically based forest management and fuels reduction throughout the Sierra Nevada. 

The project involves clearing underbrush, thinning smaller trees, removing biomass to renewable energy facilities, reforestation, restoring meadows and prescribed fire. The goals are to promote forest resilience to stressors such as wildfire, insect and disease outbreaks and climate change, as well as protect and restore habitat for fish and wildlife and safeguard water supply and resources.

El Dorado Irrigation District

In 2018, EID received three grants from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection under the California Climate Investments Fire Prevention Grant Program. EID’s Vegetation Management Project will implement vegetation management activities on approximately 522 acres within its territory in the Placerville area east of Sacramento.

In addition, EID partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, Eldorado National Forest and Sierra Nevada Conservancy to undertake a forest restoration project in the Caples Lake area within the South Fork American River Watershed. Work on this restoration project commenced during early fall of 2017 and addresses accumulated fuels associated with a century of fire suppression in the Caples Creek Watershed.

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