Earthwatch Adventures: Restoring Sierra Meadows

SYRCL is working on meadow restoration and greenhouse gas monitoring at Loney, Deer, Upper Loney, Van Norden, Beartrap, and Freeman Meadows. As natural water-retention basins, meadows attenuate floods, sustain stream base flows, improve water quality, and support vegetation that stabilizes stream channels and promotes biodiversity. SYRCL has partnered with Earthwatch Institute to offer research expeditions for teachers, high school students, and the general public. This year we hosted nearly 30 volunteers who  worked alongside SYRCL’s science staff to monitor our meadow restoration projects. Volunteers learn how to take groundwater measurements, tree measurements, vegetation data, and greenhouse gas data, among other tasks. This work helps us understand meadow function before and after restoration projects.

Warren Stortroen, who has participated on 94 Earthwatch Expeditions, worked with us in September and  offered to share his experience on a recent expedition.

By Warren Stortroen

Photo credit: Warren Stortroen
Photo credit: Warren Stortroen

It was the last day of our expedition and we were scheduled to leave at noon for a visit to the shops in Lake Tahoe. We were in a beautiful setting at 7000 feet at Freeman Meadow in the high Sierras plotting and measuring a grid of 30-meter squares with 24 points for taking ground temperature and moisture content readings.  But, at noon we were five 5 points short of completion, so the group of valiant Earthwatch volunteers elected to forego Lake Tahoe and finish the project!

As the 24th point was confirmed and marked with a flag and orange paint, I completed the last step by recording the coordinates on the GPS.  Then, everyone cheered our decision to stay!  They felt that completing the scientific research was the reason we had volunteered!  We still had time to get back to our quarters at the Sagehen Creek Research Station to clean up and drive to Truckee for some shopping and a great farewell dinner.

This was the Earthwatch expedition RESTORING SIERRA MEADOWS: THE SOURCE OF CALIFORNIA’S WATER.  There were eight volunteers working with three research scientists from the South Yuba River Citizens League on two of the high meadows at the headwaters of the river.  These meadows have traditionally acted as sponges to control runoff from the snowpack, but because of human intervention they no longer function properly.  Our research was designed to determine their present condition and the best way to restore them.

Photo credit: Warren Stortroen
Photo credit: Warren Stortroen

During the week we had worked in two separate teams.  One team created wells at Beartrap Meadow by pounding a pipe with a sand point into the ground in selected spots in order to measure the level of ground water over the next year or so.  This was hard work, standing on a step ladder to drive in the first few feet of pipe!  Our youngest and strongest volunteers were selected for this team.  The rest of us searched out areas of the two meadows to measure and lay out the grids in accurate squares, using 50-meter tapes, marker flags and spray paint at all of the corners.

Our quarters at the research station were quite spartan, with separate bathroom and shower facilities.  But the stars overhead were spectacular when we visited the facilities at night, and coyotes howled in the nearby meadow on a couple of the moonlight nights!  There was a well-equipped kitchen/dining room where we took turns with cooking and clean-up chores. We prepared our own field lunches from very ample supplies. And, for our entertainment there was an attached library where we had fun after dinners working on a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

This was a beautiful area to work in.  It was September so most of the flowers had gone to seed, but earlier in the year there would have been large fields of camas and corn lily in the meadows.  Blue asters were still blooming and we also saw some pretty white alpine gentians.  We spotted several mule deer, and there were golden eagles soaring overhead.  The work involved a fair amount of hiking, but at a reasonable pace and never on steep terrain, so those of us who were retired seniors had no problem with it.  I would recommend it for anyone with an interest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and California’s water supply.  Teams are scheduled for 2017, but the tasks may be different, including plant transects, bio-mass measurements and work with encroaching conifers. If you are interested check out the details on the website – I hope to see you there!

Photo credit: Warren Stortroen

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