Mountain meadows are wetland areas of extremely high value for natural water storage, water quality, and wildlife habitat. Mountain meadows occur in relatively flat areas where sediment and water accumulates. Meadows habitats are highly diverse, sequester carbon, and often provide habitat for sensitive or threatened species. Meadows store and filter water, releasing cool water slowly into the summer months when California needs it the most.
However, most meadows in the Sierra Nevada have been degraded by past human land use activities, such as intensive grazing practices, climate change, fire suppression, hydrologic modifications, timber harvesting, and road and trail building.
Background for Haskell Peak Meadow Restoration
SYRCL, in partnership with the Tahoe National Forest, is wrapping up the planning phase and moving toward restoration implementation on 229 acres of meadow habitat within five high priority meadows in the North Yuba Watershed: Haskell Headwaters Fen, Chapman Saddle Meadow, West Church Meadow, Freeman Meadow, and Bear trap Meadow. Existing habitat degradation in these meadows was initially caused by a variety of historic human impacts. This degradation is expected to get worse due to the impacts of climate change. Specifically, stream channels at these three sites are currently incised, and increased precipitation in the form of rain will increase erosion, further degrading and incising these channels. An incised channel prohibits meadows from sustaining their hydrological functions by narrowing the flow of water.
SYRCL and the TNF are in the final stages of the planning phase of this project and are looking toward implementation in late summer of 2023. The planning phase included the development of watershed assessments and restoration designs, permitting, and baseline monitoring. Baseline monitoring as part of a long-term monitoring plan is an important part of the greater restoration project because it will allow SYRCL and partners to document the effects of restoration actions based on reliable data.
Why we measure streamflow for meadow restoration
Meadows are important because they are nature’s “reservoirs” that slow down and clean water in the early summer and extend the time period that the water is released. Meadow stream channels typically run dry in late summer or fall when there is no more snowmelt or groundwater to continue supplying water. Thus, there is a fairly small window of streamflow monitoring that can be as short as a few weeks up to a couple of months.
Why the timing of streamflow for meadow restoration is critical
SYRCL staff headed up to the Haskell Peak meadows in early June in order to access a couple of meadows (Freeman and West Church) to measure the amount of snowmelt running through the meadow stream channels. The timing of this effort changes every year and is dependent on the amount of snow, rainfall, air temperature, and sun exposure at the meadow, as well as staff availability to go all the way out to the North Yuba upper watershed. Ideally, we aim to monitor streamflow at the intersection of the date of peak snowmelt and there being just enough access to do the monitoring itself. This would result in capturing peak stream flow.
This photo of our River Monitoring Coordinator, Wrenn Cleary, shows a stream channel in West Church meadow completely covered in snow on June 1, 2023, rendering us unable to monitor for the amount of water in the stream channel.
Collecting stream flow data is important for calculating the amount of water entering and leaving the meadow throughout the year. This is one way we are able to measure the change in hydrology before and after restoration efforts.
A picture from last year shows how quick stream channels can run dry in the meadow (August 6, 2022).
The more measurements we are able to get while the streams are running, the better. But also, we want measurements at different flow rates, such as when the stream channel is full and running fast or when the channel is low and barely flowing at all. This helps our calculations for determining more accurately how much water is passing through the meadow and at what times.
Do the meadow stream channels cease to flow in mid-July or in late July? Is peak streamflow in May or June? Even just a week of difference can be impactful to ecosystems since all organisms depend on water to survive. For example, annual plant species need to sprout, grow, and flower within the short window between the snowmelt and the loss of available water. The same goes for fish and insects too.
How we determine stream flow
– The SYRCL team does manual measurements, which is only possible every two weeks or so. We also leave equipment there that is continually recording data, which our team then can relate with the manual measurements in the coming year.
– Kyle McNeil, SYRCL’s Ecohydrologist, downloads the data and creates relationships with manual measurements and recorded data, converting that into hydrographs and interpretive scientific records
Example of a hydrograph:
The outflow at Loney Meadow in the 2016 water year is shown in the hydrograph above. Since Loney Meadow is at a lower elevation than the Haskell Peak meadows and is also fed by a small reservoir on Texas Creek, it has larger water pulses earlier in the Spring, starting in even December and January. You can see that the area underneath the graph (i.e., total volume of water released over a time period) is largest March to June. Once July rolls around, there’s much less snowmelt. But even within the month of April, there’s quite a bit of variation in how much snowmelt is occurring on a day-to-day basis, likely influenced by the air temperature and amount of sunlight each day.
This photo is from 6/1/2023 and is of the outflow of West Church meadow.
This photo is from 8/6/2022 of West Church meadow.
This photo is from 8/6/2022 of West Church meadow.
More photos from our first visit to Haskell Peak Meadows Project to measure streamflow:
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