Watershed issues and natural resource management
When James Marshall knelt by the tailrace of his lumber mill on the bank of the American River in El Dorado County 150 years ago, the riches foretold by the nugget of gold he had found consumed his thoughts. Today, Californians understand the true, lasting riches around him were the renewable resources: the trees on the hillsides and the water that flowed past. The gold rush was brief; timber and water are still cornerstones of the economy. Not everyone understands the relationship between timber management and water supply, or the relationship between urban water consumers and rural landowners. As a private landowner in the timber belt, as a forest manager, and as an elected supervisor of El Dorado County responsible for maintaining the rural way of life and promoting economic opportunity, I offer my perspective on that relationship.
Rivers and bodies of water throughout the state define the boundaries of and help give a unique configuration to all 58 counties. The American River is El Dorado County’s boundary to the north, producing over 1 million acre-feet of water annually. The Consumes River forms our county line to the south, producing approximately 300,000 acre-feet annually. Forest lands of California receive 80 percent of the state’s precipitation. Approximately 200 million acre-feet of water fall on California in the form of precipitation each year. Vegetative transpiration and evaporation return about two-thirds of this amount back into the atmosphere, and the remaining 71 million acre-feet become the surface stream flow. The moisture content of the snowpack and the amount of rain that has saturated the ground determines how much water will be released into the river system later in the year. Our county plays a critical role in the water supply system of California.
The resources of El Dorado County, like all California counties, have been aggressively managed through human activity for thousands of years. Native Americans used fire to keep the countryside open in order to increase acorn supply. Controlled fire was used to kill off competing vegetation and natural parasites to enhance their crop. The use of low intensity fires rarely allowed the vegetation to become overabundant. This land management technique ceased after James Marshal discovered gold, and hundreds of thousands of people traveled here to seek their chance at wealth. Cities and towns sprang up everywhere. Lumber was in great demand and large-scale commercial timber operations started. Native Americans seldom harvested timber, and the first settlers had their pick of the timber stands. Between 1848 and the early part of this century there was very little oversight of the resource. However, with the passage of state and federal laws in the late 1800s, controlling fire and stabilizing the soil, ravaged by hydraulic mining, became a major objective of the federal and state government.
Timber with huge canopies continued to be harvested, and fire was almost completely taken off the landscape through aggressive suppression. The ground became exposed to more sunlight, and without the natural enemy of “fire,” the exposed ground quickly screamed with a carpet of new growth. This new growth of small, thick timber, natural hardwoods, brush and grasses has not been thinned periodically by fire for over a hundred years. We now have more vegetation growing per square mile in these watersheds than ever before. The fuel load is so great that when wildfires start, instead of burning in a low intensity beneficial manner, they become catastrophic crown fires which destroy all life in the forest. In many cases organic matter needed for new growth is consumed from fire to the depth of 12 inches into the ground.
The cost to put these fires out is astronomical, and the after-effects are felt for decades. On Sept. 30, 1992, the Cleveland fire started in the canyon of the South Fork of the American River. Twenty-two thousand acres were burned and dozens of mountain homes were lost. Two air tanker pilots lost their lives in a plane that crash trying to drop retardant. The total fire suppression cost was well over $25 million. The ongoing cost, now well over a $100 million, with soil stabilization and reforestation efforts, is still mounting. The cost to downstream water users is also increasing. Catastrophic fires denude the ground, resulting in massive erosion; streams crest more rapidly with larger amounts of sediment deposited downstream usually in reservoirs and filtration systems. The loss of reservoir capacity and increased filtration cost to deliver potable water are problems that are expensive for the tax and rate payer to resolve.
Where people live and their relationship to the land has a lot to do with their perception of resource management. As the populations of the United States and California grew, they became more urbanized and more demanding of how the resources were managed. Historically, people living in rural watersheds grazed cattle, mined, and worked in the timber industry for a living. Today their livelihoods are threatened due to restrictive legislation and they are asked to do more with less. There are now 36 million people in California, out of which only 3.8 million live in rural areas.
Urban and suburban California control the state legislative process. More importantly, the Eastern United States controls federal land management policy because most of the population resides in that portion of our country. Thousands of jobs have been lost and direct revenue to schools and for roads are gone. Would they pass such laws for themselves? People and counties that depend on the resources for their lives and ability to deliver services should be given incentives to manage these lands in a beneficial way. Owners of forested watersheds, public and private, can manage their lands to improve water yields and storage for others, but those others must recognize the costs and benefits of this type of management and participate in its economics. Better exchange between forest land owners and water users in California needs to occur.
The water that cascades off the Sierra Nevada is the essence of the California economy. The Owens Valley project which build Los Angeles, and the Hetch Hetchy project which build San Francisco literally drained water out of the natural system without any investment back into the county of origin. The Central Valley Project was constructed and continued to drain the system of their natural flows without regard to county of origin. Reducing fuel loads create a healthier forest that is resistant to catastrophic fire. In doing so we create less vegetative transpiration, which increases water supply; we limit erosion, which improves water quality and keeps reservoirs from silting up quickly. The key is to assist water consumers throughout the state in understanding that the true cost of their water includes the cost of proper forest management, and that they need to invest back into the forests where their water supply is born.
Ray Nuttingis an El Dorado County Supervisor, former president of the Regional Council of Rural Counties and is a fourth generation forest manager.