Tahoe National Forest

Headwater Meadow Restoration in the Sierra Nevada: Adapting to Climate Change


Julie Fair and Luke Hunt, American Rivers
Project process and implementation: 

As noted above, the four sites included in this project were chosen for their mid-elevation location and because they had been identified as priority sites for restoration for their ecological value. In general, American Rivers takes a five step approach to meadow restoration projects: 1) Assessment and Design, 2) Environmental Compliance and Permitting, 3) Implementation, and 4) Adaptive Management and Monitoring. Specific details of the process and implementation of each site are included below.

In Hope Valley, a 2007 watershed assessment by MACTec Consulting identified the upper reach of the meadow as incised and unstable. In 2011, project partners hired design consultants to evaluate restoration options and develop concepts. These concepts were reviewed by a technical advisory committee of stakeholders, with the Forest Service as the ultimate decision maker.  Restoration designs were completed in 2014 and the partners pursued funding for restoration.  During the fundraising effort, the Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) requested that the project team extend the restoration boundaries downstream onto CDFW-owned land.  Designs were completed for this extended reach, and the project became a multi-agency partnership, with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), CA Wildlife Conservation Board and Wildlife Conservation Society as primary implementation funders. NFWF and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy funded the design and permitting phases.

China Camp Meadow is important sage-grouse habitat, and meadow restoration efforts were aimed at improving this habitat. The project used rock grade controls to improve stream channel slope and elevation, and controlled burning to encourage native vegetation growth. The project was completed in 2015.

In 2005, grazing permittees identified a moderate headcut at the lower end of Shell Meadow that was threatening to erode through the meadow. Since that time, the headcut has grown many times in size and has begun to move upstream. The site is breeding habitat for Yosemite toad. Headcut stabilization was scheduled for 2013, but the Rim Fire and subsequent Endangered Species Act listing of the Yosemite toad caused delays.  The project will be completed in 2015.

The Forest Service identified a constructed ditch that concentrates flow and drains groundwater from Elliot Meadow for restoration in 2007. Trees have grown up adjacent to the ditch, some 24 inches in diameter and more. In 2015, project partners will restore the site by removing the trees, filling the ditch with material from offsite, and grading the berms flat to restore natural surface flow. Invasive Klamath weed will be treated with releases of Klamath weed beetle.

The roles of project partners are as follows:

  • American Rivers: Write and manage grants and subcontracts, convene stakeholders, apply for permits for Hope Valley, manage Hope Valley, project specific monitoring.
  • Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest: Review and approve designs, complete NEPA, oversee construction in the field for Hope Valley.  Design and construction in China Camp.
  • Stanislaus National Forest: Design, NEPA permits, construction and monitoring
  • Tahoe National Forest : Design, NEPA and construction oversight in Elliot meadow.

Additional partners for Hope Valley include:

  • California Department of Fish and Wildlife: Approved funding through Wildlife Conservation Board. Approved designs for CDFW-owned lands. Consulted on designs for restoration.
  • Alpine Watershed Group and Friends of Hope Valley: Outreach to stakeholders, flow monitoring, coordinate volunteer plantings.
  • Institute for Bird Populations Avian monitoring, consult on designs from a migratory bird perspective
  • Trout Unlimited: Aquatic monitoring, consult on designs from a fish perspective
  • Waterways Consulting: Site assessment, project designs, oversee construction in Hope Valley

American Rivers, The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and Waterways Consulting worked closely throughout the design review and permitting process.

Project Outcomes: 

The overall goal of this project is to increase resiliency of headwaters regions through the protection and restoration of mountain meadows.Anticipated outcomes include:

  • Implementation of four on-the-ground restoration meadow restoration projects in headwater regions in the Sierra Nevada. This will result in improved hydrologic processes on 400 acres in four meadows across four watersheds, and will help to lessen the effects of reduced snowpack due to climate change.
  • 4,500 feet of stream habitat enhanced for fish and wildlife, enhancing climate adaptability for a range of species including the following sensitive species: willow flycatcher (Endangered), Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog (Candidate sp.), Yosemite toad (Candidate sp.) and sage grouse (ESA candidate species)
  • Enhancement of the benefits healthy meadows provide including: increased groundwater storage capacity, reduced peak flows, prolonged summer base flows, reduced in-stream water temperatures, and reduced sedimentation downstream.
  • Outreach to key stakeholders regarding meadow restoration tools, processes and incorporating climate change science in meadow restoration.

Learning Objectives: 

Partnerships can greatly accelerate the pace of restoration, especially in landscapes with active stakeholders. This is an example of a federal/state partnership that is working; however, a critical element is a non-government partner intent on involving stakeholders and able to efficiently contract for consulting and construction assistance.

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