Basin fire safety will now be a factor in considering stream-zone projects | SierraSun.com

Basin fire safety will now be a factor in considering stream-zone projects

Adam Jensen
Sun News Service

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Following a change to how Lahontan Water Board staff is expected to interpret its stream environment zone regulations, the board, as well as members of the bi-state fire commission, toured what could be the future of fuels reduction in Lake Tahoe Basin stream zones.

At its regular meeting Wednesday night on the South Shore, the water board directed staff to include a project’s capacity to decrease fire risk when deciding which projects in stream environment zones to bring before the board.

In the past, exemptions to soil disturbance regulations were granted only when a project could show an overall benefit to water quality.

The direction broadens what may be allowed in stream environment zones in the basin under Lahontan Water Board regulations.

Because of years of fire suppression, many areas near streams in the Basin are overgrown and present a fire hazard.

On Thursday morning, board members joined members of a bi-state fire commission’s Wildland Fuels Committee on a tour of the Heavenly Stream Environment Zone Fuels Reduction Demonstration Project.

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Located in South Lake Tahoe and completed on Oct. 5, the demonstration project used methods with the potential to decrease the impacts of mechanized equipment to stream zones.

Traditional mechanical equipment can compact soil, decreasing its potential to absorb water and causing greater amounts of runoff to carry sediment to Lake Tahoe.

Researchers from UC Davis have identified fine sediments as the major cause of Lake Tahoe’s clarity decline.

Low ground pressure harvesters and “slash mats” – paths of branches laid out by the harvesters – were used during the demonstration project.

Preliminary results have shown the mats can significantly reduce soil compaction, but use of the mats can also encompass half the cost of a project because of the extra time and travel a machine will need to lay out and pick up the paths.

“Is that difference worth the cost?” Harold Singer, executive director of the Lahontan Water Board, asked the group on Thursday. “That’s the key question.”

Costs for the demonstration project ran at $6,760 per acre treated. This cost per acre could be reduced for larger fuel reduction projects incorporating areas of forest next to stream zones, Scott Parsons, vegetation program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said Thursday.

Mechanical fuel treatments to the general forest typically cost between $1,000 and $1,600 per acre, Parsons said.

How widespread the techniques used during the demonstration project will become in basin stream zones will depend on a final analysis of the demonstration project, expected to be completed before this winter.

These results will guide the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the forest service during their design of future fuel reduction projects in stream zones.

Stream zones encompass 1,275 of 12,500 acres included in the South Shore Fuel Reduction Project, scheduled to begin in Fall 2008.