Climate Dispatches: Our community and nature – Together for a resilient future
Our future depends on the watershed. Its future depends on us. The 435 square mile Middle Truckee River Watershed is vital to all life in our area. The watershed provides habitat for hundreds of species; fish, including the famous Lahontan cutthroat trout; amphibians such as the endangered Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog; and birds, notably the sandhill crane and willow flycatcher. The watershed also supports a sizable human population, with over half a million people receiving their drinking water – either from the Martis Valley Aquifer (Truckee and its surrounding areas) or directly from the river (Reno and Sparks). The watershed also fills snowmaking pipes and greens the golf courses, supporting world-class recreation opportunities for the 20 million visitors to the Tahoe area each year.
However, the watershed has suffered drastically from 150 years of habitat degradation, logging, railroad construction, and grazing. Barren hillsides and collapsing riverbanks fill the waterways with sediment, leading both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of California to classify the Truckee River as “polluted” for excess sediment. Sediment chokes the tiny organisms at the base of the food web, and congests gravel, resulting in spawning difficulties for fish. Sediment-filled water is warmer, meaning the water column holds a smaller quantity of dissolved oxygen. Dramatic erosion leaves meadows disconnected from their water source, resulting in a complete change of vegetation, from water-loving meadow plants to drier sagebrush.
Though those potentially dried out meadows are commonly found in the upper reaches of a watershed, they can have tremendous influence on the entire watershed. One such influence is on surface water flows and groundwater recharge. In a hydrologic system such as the Truckee River watershed, a substantial amount of the yearly runoff comes in one large pulse (the spring snowmelt) and little precipitation occurs the rest of the year. Healthy meadows act as sponges, soaking up water during wetter periods, and then slowly releasing this water as base flow during subsequent drier times. This helps to both lessen floodwaters and increase stream flow during drought. Additionally, the higher water table, year-round wet soils, and lush grasses help a wetter meadow slow down a rapidly moving wildfire as a natural firebreak. This spring has seen the Western United States gripped by a drought continually increasing in severity. Ensuring healthy meadow systems will become even more vital, as our watershed will experience smaller and less consistent water inputs.
Additionally, healthy meadows help to ensure water quality and combat the climate crisis caused by rising carbon dioxide levels. The dense meadow vegetation acts as a filter, trapping pollutants, excess nutrients, and sediment. This creates cleaner, colder water – which helps our native fish species thrive. Meadow plants capture carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in the soil as they grow. Meadows in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, including meadows in the Middle Truckee River watershed, can be large net carbon sinks, storing somewhere around 600 grams of carbon in each square meter of soil each year, quantified by Dr. Cody C. Reed during her doctoral studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Healthy meadows will continue to sequester carbon as they grow, however, it is important to note that if a meadow system erodes, the previously sequestered carbon will be released back into the atmosphere. We must keep our meadow systems healthy, keeping that carbon in the ground, and working to restore degraded meadows to sequester even more.
For all the above-listed reasons and so many more, the Truckee River Watershed Council works to protect, enhance and restore the Middle Truckee River Watershed. Since 2016, we have restored 760 acres of degraded meadows, 50 miles of roads and stream banks, and over 125 acres of forests. We have a goal of completing 50 meadow, stream, and forest restoration projects over the next decade to keep our natural environment resilient into the future! We are grateful for all our partners, funders, and donors, without whom this work would not be possible. To learn more, please visit our website http://www.truckeeriverwc.org or follow us on Instagram (@trwcnews) and Facebook (@TruckeeRiverWC). Join us for a River Talk, happening every other Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. We invite the community to come ‘Together for the Truckee!’
Meghan Christie is the 2021 Intern at the Truckee River Watershed Council. Prior to making her way to the Tahoe-Truckee area, she studied environmental studies at Dartmouth College, and spent her summers doing field work on the Kuparuk River in Alaska. Her days at the Watershed Council include work on database management, communications, fundraising, and project maintenance, and one of her favorite spots in the watershed is where the Little Truckee River flows into Stampede Reservoir
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