As California grapples with increasing wildfire risk, a unique, collaborative forest health project has emerged in the Sierra that could soon be the model for how large-scale forest health projects are completed.
The French Meadows Forest Restoration Project covers 22,000 acres of public land around French Meadows Reservoir west of Lake Tahoe and is a public-private partnership of seven regional partners. On the adjacent private land, the American River Conservancy has funded its own treatment of 445 acres, as a collaborative aspect of the all-lands approach.
Hotter and drier conditions, decades of fire suppression and past logging practices have combined to make California’s forests more vulnerable to high-severity wildfire. Massive tree die-offs due to years of drought and widespread insect infestations, year-round fire weather conditions and overgrown young-growth forests have all combined to create severe fire risks, particularly in the Sierra.
With limited U.S. Forest Service resources already engaged on other forest resiliency projects in the American River watershed, a diverse group of partners worked to design, manage and fund the project in close partnership with the Forest Service, which has responsibility for the land the project will address.
Protecting this reservoir benefits not just Placer County’s but all of California’s water supply. Most of the water on which Californians depend originates in mountain headwaters. This water serves local residents but also offers beneficial uses throughout the state - municipal and agricultural use, ecological flows in the river system and California Bay Delta, and recreational and fisheries values.
Large high-severity forest fires release hundreds of thousands of tons of eroded soil into mountain water courses that serve these many uses downstream.
This eroded soil, plus tons of ash and burned vegetation, reduces water quality, clogs infrastructure, collapses roads and fouls habitats. These effects can last for many years after the fire, adding costs and reducing reliability for all users downstream.
The erosion of forest soil also reduces the thickness of an absorptive blanket, which stores water derived from precipitation, releasing it slowly into streams and vegetation during the dry months. Without soil, the water system would produce more floods downstream and store less moisture for slow release throughout the year. Soils take thousands of years to form; one fire can erode tons in one rainstorm.
Protecting headwaters from large high-severity fires serves to maintain a reliable high-quality water supply for California’s integrated water systems.
The French Meadows project also includes innovative research on the link between healthy forested watersheds and water supply, led by the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.
“Researchers are developing information on the water-related benefits of forest treatments, which together with the reduced wildfire risk from forest thinning, is essential for developing local partnerships for treatment programs across Sierra Nevada forests," said Roger Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.
Placer County has the lead on hiring and overseeing contractors to execute tree removal, forest thinning and biomass removal. The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Service are working together to implement a prescribed burn plan to help with clearing overgrown underbrush.
Funding was secured through a variety of sources including Placer County and Placer County Water Agency through the Middle Fork Project, the Forest Service, state grant funding from CAL FIRE and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, as well as private donors through the Nature Conservancy. The Middle Fork Project is a multi-purpose water supply and hydro-generation project designed to conserve and control waters of the Middle Fork American River, the Rubicon River and several associated tributary streams.