University of California, Merced (UC Merced) | November 21st, 2011
In this white paper on the Sierra Nevada Watershed Ecosystem Enhancement Project (SWEEP), we make the case that upstream management of Sierra Nevada forests can significa
In this white paper on the Sierra Nevada Watershed Ecosystem Enhancement Project (SWEEP), we make the case that upstream management of Sierra Nevada forests can significantly increase the value of downstream water resources by shifting water towards higher value uses and optimizing the timing of runoff. The focus of this paper is on the west-side mixed-conifer forests at elevations of about 1500-3600 m (5000-12,000 ft), which are highly productive owing to the availability of sufficient water, predominance of above-freezing temperatures and presence of other conditions necessary for growth.
California has a Mediterranean climate, with wet winters and dry summers. Precipitation falling as rain on Sierra Nevada forests enters the soil and is partitioned between evapotranspiration and runoff. Much of the rainfall leaves the forest as evapotranspiration, owing to ample water storage in the subsurface and temperatures that allow growth year round. At higher elevations, e.g. above elevations of 1800-2100 m depending on both latitude and microclimate, which are dominated by snow rather than rain, the snowpack provides an important seasonal storage of water that, together with subsurface-water storage, provides the water needed for forest growth over the summer and fall. Forest thinning to reduce vegetation and thus evapotranspiration will result in a higher fraction of precipitation, particularly snowmelt, leaving the mountain forest as runoff. Historically, the unique character of Sierra Nevada forests was defined by its tall trees, relatively mild climate and low forest density. In many areas, current forest densities are much higher than historical values. Forest thinning can also influence the timing of snowmelt and runoff. That is, a less-dense canopy can allow snow to reach the ground rather than be held in the canopy; and strategic spacing of forest openings will limit early season sunlight reaching the forest floor and retard snowmelt.
In this paper we review the forest hydrology literature relevant to management of conifer forests in the Sierra snow zone, as that management affects the timing and amount of snowmelt runoff. In order to understand the conceptual and practical challenges, we summarize the key elements of forest energy budget, with specific reference to the Sierra Nevada, and describe several relevant case studies. Although principles that govern the mountain water cycle are well known and models of water and energy balance are informed by field measurements in some areas, there is a severe knowledge gap that limits quantitative predictions of the effects of forest thinning on Sierra Nevada water and energy cycles. Nevertheless, generalizations from reviews of paired catchment studies carried out elsewhere suggest that Sierra Nevada conifer forests contain ecological attributes with a high potential for water-yield gains. Historical studies of forest harvesting in the Sierra Nevada have shown increases of between 14 and 34% in snow accumulation. Treatments that increase snow accumulation help increase water yield during low flows, when water resources’ economic and ecosystem values are highest.
Preliminary estimates based on average climate information suggest that in the Sierra Nevada, treatments that would reduce forest cover by 40% of maximum levels across a watershed could increase water yields by about 9%. Note that this white paper focused on forest management effects on the water balance. Impacts on wildlife habitat, forest health, and fire behavior were not analyzed. The projections and models reported here are designed to describe the potential for modifying water yield and timing. Before implementation of any strategy, a wider consideration of the consequences on forest structure and function would be necessary.
Because of the potential for water-yield increases and extended snow storage, the SWEEP project has developed a plan to evaluate forest thinning related to water yield in representative headwater catchments in the Sierra Nevada, as a basis for extending these treatments to broader areas of the Sierra Nevada. To that end, we outline an experiment that could be carried out in the Onion Creek Experimental Forest, Tahoe National Forest, Placer County, California that could test silvicultural treatments designed to modify the water balance of mixed-conifer, snow-dominated catchments. The treatments are based on a leaf area index (LAI) approach (O’Hara 1998) to forest management, which is well-suited to water yield and timing objectives. Our initial estimates are that treatments could increase water yield as much as 16% and extend snow storage, i.e. delay snowmelt, by days to weeks.