Importance of the Headwaters

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By Todd Sloat, SRWP Trustee and resident of the Headwaters

Discussion on the importance of the headwater areas within the Sacramento River Watershed is often relegated to the tail end of conversations. About 90% of the population in the watershed resides within the Sacramento Valley, yet it’s the headwater areas that produce nearly all the watershed’s wood products (e.g. lumber, wood shavings, posts and poles), electricity, and water. It would be difficult to imagine how the residents and producers in the Sacramento Valley would survive if the adjacent land mass was the Nevada desert rather that the majestic Sierra or southern Cascades.

Watershed health and the transport of water down to valley areas may be the least appreciated service provided by source water areas. In times of drought — such as the last several years — a functional watershed becomes even more important: California’s water storage, in terms of snowpack, is almost entirely in the headwaters.

Like water, sediment flows downhill naturally from gravitational forces, largely brought with water flows. The amount and rate of sedimentation is greatly affected by the health of the upland areas (e.g. forests, meadows, and grasslands). Catastrophic wildfires, occurring more often in the past decade from climate change and the longer dry season, denude the forest of vegetation and create higher sedimentation rates than would occur if the forest structure was healthy and more resilient. Watershed function depends on the connectivity of ground and surface water flow, the uptake and release of water by meadows and grasslands, and the health of the soil and biota throughout the watershed.

Rural economies are facing difficult times. Dependent upon resource development and extraction, these economies have changed significantly since the 1960s and 70s, and the lumber mills that supported so many communities have closed or are facing shrinking budgets, thus shrinking the workforce. Mills once were common in small rural towns throughout the southern Cascades and the Sierra Nevada, but today it is more common to find abandoned mill sites than active ones.

The lack of active forest management makes it challenging to reverse the negative effects that fire suppression has had on forest health. There are essentially two choices for overstocked forests: 1) letting the forest burn through prescribed fire (requiring manpower and budgets) or accidental, catastrophic fire; or 2) mechanically removing wood volume and biomass to reduce fire fuels. The latter choice can add jobs to the region, resulting in energy production via biomass plants, and mitigating massive greenhouse gas emissions and negative effects on the watershed from catastrophic wildfires.

People visit the headwaters to recreate, find open space, and seek a place to rest and refuel. There are efforts afoot to ensure that all Californians understand the importance of the headwaters to their quality of life including Carpe Diem’s Healthy Headwaters Program, the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association’s Sierra Nevada Headwater Policy Principles and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s Sierra Nevada Forest and Community Initiative. California’s headwaters should be protected, enhanced, and maintained for all future generations within the watershed.

This article originally appeared in the SRWP 2013 Annual Summary and Report.

Publish Date: 
Feb 17, 2015