Did you know that January and February of this year were the driest they have ever been in California history? Yes, it’s hot and getting hotter, and it is affecting our water supply in a huge way! Scientists agree that as the 21st century progresses, the effects of climate change in California will reduce Sierra Nevada snowpack, prolong urban heat waves, and increase the risk of large wildfires. Manipulation of the natural hydrologic cycle by paving over our streams and damming our rivers makes it impossible for water to do what it wants to do— trickle into the ground or empty into another body of water. In order for us to become more resilient to the already pressing challenges caused by climate change, we need to think about the way we collect and store water. Fortunately, if we look to the high mountain meadows in the Sierra Nevada, we can find inspiring solutions that can be carried out in our own Bay Area backyards to combat the pending effects of climate change!
Beginning in the 1860s, and continuing for decades, Sierra Nevada mountain meadows were intensively overgrazed by sheep. Grazing peaked in 1876 when 6 million sheep grazed state-wide, and by the beginning of the 21st century, these meadows were severely degraded. Restoring high elevation meadows is proving to be feasible, simply by minimizing the causes of degradation and implementing actions to raise the water table. Private ranchers, foundations, utilities, government agencies, and conservation groups are all investing in meadow restoration as it becomes clear what a healthy meadow can provide – increased water storage capacity in a climate-altered future where the Sierra Nevada snowpack will no longer serve this function to the degree it has in the past.
Studying mountain meadow restoration is a great way to come to understand how Low Impact Design (LID) strategies can mend climate change issues in our urban communities. LID projects such as rain gardens and bioswales store rainwater, filter out sediment and pollutants, and provide valuable biological habitat, just like a healthy meadow would! Widespread implementation of LID (which also includes green roofs, rain barrels, and pervious pavement) in the urban landscapes of the San Francisco Bay Watershed would help mitigate the impacts of climate change by collecting and storing rainwater in dry years, replenishing the groundwater, attenuating flooding, and reducing the incidence of urban heat wave days by replacing pavement with green space.
Inspired by the work to restore mountain meadows, here at The Watershed Project we seek to improve water issues intensified by climate change by mimicking natural systems. With our community based solutions, from bioswales on the Richmond Greenway to rain catchment systems throughout the East Bay, we envision ourselves as a grassroots model for greening urban watersheds.