Plug and Pond

Fightin’ Words 101710

The buzzword in the world of watershed restoration right now is “plug and pond”.  
There is the understanding, or at least the belief, that all healthy meadows are rich and green, which means they have a high water table and streams that meander.  Healthy watersheds filter and store water.  Humans often change the stream flows, unintentionally harming and drying the watershed.  Runaway streams erode the meadow, making “head cuts”.  Plug and pond makes a series of dams down the eroding stream, saving the stream from further damage and raising the water table in the meadow, making it suitable for grasses, willows and other such plants and the many critters who live on them.  In the end, the healthy watershed slows erosion, improves habitat for fish and other critters, and delivers water to downstream users in a more gradual way.  Maybe.

But, there are a couple of places where that scenario is weak; the first might result in litigation; the second is even more unsettling.

It is believed, assumed, that once the improved watershed fills with water, the amount of water leaving the meadow will equal what it was prior to treatment, but it will be cleaner, and will be released more slowly.  As I recently heard one savvy water-rights holder say: “I know that’s what they say, but I don’t believe it.”  
Find a friend in an urban area with a lawn.  Turn the hose on.  Put it on the lawn.  How much water runs off?  Put it on the sidewalk.  Well?  Which delivers more water?
If getting every last drippy drop of water off the hills is our goal, let’s get in there with some dozers and get all those water thieving plants off the hills.  Scoured down to bare rock, all the water would run right off; it’d be dirty and all come at once, but you’d get it all.  Elect a few Republicans so some dams get built to catch it and the Sierra could become a water generating machine, not to mention all the great topsoil available to level out a canyon somewhere to build more houses.  Correcting watersheds isn’t about selling water.

This matters because doing watershed restoration is expensive work, often requiring hand crews and nearly always requiring yellow equipment.  Increasingly, the agencies who transform money in to wages and watershed restoration are going to the users of water, who are suddenly panicky  
Without even doing much scientific research, we know that grass and willows use water, maybe a lot of water.  True, the entire watershed plan also pulls a lot of trees off the mountains, reducing stem populations to more like what a healthy forest should be, and when that’s done, a significant amount of water will stay on the ground instead of being pumped into the stratosphere.  
In the meantime, though everyone should expect flow to be reduced, even if the water is cleaned and slowed in the process.

There’s a second, rather troubling question.  Why are the meadows so fragile?  If a road or cut or diversion can unravel the whole meadow, how did it form in the first place, and what makes us so sure we can restore it?

Typically, “erosion” is a bad word, but it’s also how meadows are formed.  A thousand-thousand freezing nights, blazing days, driving winds, gnawing lichen; a billion drops of rain and gently falling snowflakes.   
Wind and water bring particles of rock and organic material to the bottom of the canyon and deposits it; plants grow and their roots capture more particles and build more soil, and after a very long time, from a few decades to a few eons, meadows are formed.  

It’s extremely complex, and how and how fast the meadow is formed depends on more things than we can list, but include things like particle size; distribution and density; amount, distribution, temperature and acidity of rain and snow; slope; substrate; vegetation types; insect types; bird types; mammal types.  Bird types?  Different birds distribute different seeds, deposit guano at different sites.  Mammal types?  Some mammals burrow, changing the density of the soil; some mammals eat grass, move seeds around, and nip at growing conifers to keep the grasslands clean.  The introduction or disappearance of fish and amphibians can change the benthos, or mud dwellers like insects, which in turn can change the vegetation types, or water critters can cause turbidity (catfish and carp, or example).  Change any of those features, or others we don’t know about, and the meadow changes.  Maybe it changes a little; maybe it changes a lot and isn’t a meadow anymore, but becomes wetlands or a savanna.  

That’s the second secret about meadows and wetlands: they’re complex creatures which means what we see when we look at a meadow is only a momentary manifestation of all the meadow can and will be.  All reservoirs eventually turn to meadows; all meadows eventually turn into something else.  Further, as complex entities, meadows are reflexive, meaning they are created instant to instant by tiny particles and tiny drops of water, even though we see the whole thing.  Change something at the microscopic level and the entire system can change, and it takes place over a long period of time, though a “tipping point” can be reached and then changes come suddenly.    

Long and short: we can shoot grades and measure flows and bring in excavators and dozers, but in the long run, we can’t be sure that what we did in a few months or years will make much of a difference in something that lives for thousands of years.  We know that a hundred years ago people used donkey engines and cable dozers and even oxen to change the meadows with drags and ditches and levies and roads, but we don’t know what, in a hundred years, our plug and pond systems will be doing.  Meadows, as a complex product of soil, water, sunlight and biota, are unpredictably changed by small changes.  A century ago it was loggers with donkey engines and railroad lines; today it’s well meaning biologists and hydrologists.  Either way, we aren’t sure of the outcome.

Is the point of the last 925 words that we shouldn’t do “stream” or “meadow” or “wetlands” restoration?  Not at all, there is every reason to believe most of the claims of restoring agencies like the U. S. Forest Service, the Truckee River Watershed Council, and the Sierra County Fire Safe and Watershed Council.  It does seem that slowing streams and streambed erosion improves water quality and duration of flow, increases biodiversity and corrects decisions made when the world was larger and nature seemed boundless and humans puny and struggling.  

That verbiage does mean a couple of things though:
1. As human values change, the way we interact with the natural world changes, but it’s folly to think that today’s views will be tomorrow’s views.  The popular view might one-day be to drain Perazzo Meadows to build a Soylent Green factory.  When we consider the changes early residents made to watersheds, let’s avoid the temptation to think of them as ignorant wasters.  They could not imagine, as we can’t imagine now, that one-day their hard work and perseverance would be seen as folly.  Further, the “plug and pond” method might have unintended consequences a century from now, or even less.  We don’t completely understand how watersheds work, and ten years or a hundred years is less than the blink of an eye for a valley that hosted glaciers.  
2. Let’s not let our mouths make promises our watersheds can’t keep.  Exploiting the mountains to bring water to the cities is no more a noble goal now than it was when John Muir (you heard me) ranted about it a century-and-a-half back.  Correcting past modifications, cleaning the water, encouraging native wildlife are sufficient goals; if they are properly done more of the water will stay in the watershed.  That’s bad news for developers, and for farmers and ranchers, but it’s small bad news heaped on a big pile of bad news about water.  If you’re farm and ranch folk, ask yourself, who would you rather have the water if you can’t have it, the meadows and the trout, or the developers “down below”.  

The “Water Bond” was pulled from the ballot this year, because there is simply no way it would have passed, but it’s still required by law, and we’ll see it again.  There will be a flood of dollars in anticipation of a flood of water squeezed from the Sierra streams.  It might be the salmon Fish and Game are saving in the Klamath Watershed, but the technology and procedures will work on the streams of the Sacramento watershed, and even the Lahontan Watershed.  They want our water, and I’m concerned if we take their money to fix watersheds, they’ll take the water they expected from somewhere else.  

And, there you have it, watershed restoration, the ecological and social considerations, made easy.  

Read how cows can help restore meadows, HERE.

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