State Finally Admits Its Rivers Flow Downhill From Mountains

Sky Parlor Meadow in Kings Canyon National Park | Photo: Miguel Viera, some rights reserved

It’s not often that newly passed environmental laws are both simple and sensible, especially when it comes to California water issues. But AB 2480, the newest addition to the state’s water law canon, is a refreshing exception. The bill, signed into law by Governor Brown in late September, makes it official state policy to treat the state’s forests and mountain meadows as integral parts of California’s water infrastructure.

This means the state has finally acknowledged that the mountain ecosystems that the state’s water comes from are as important, and as deserving of protection, as the dams and aqueducts that move that water to our farms and cities.

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The new law doesn’t apply to mountaintops outside the state, in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, that provide most of the Colorado River’s flow, around 4.4 million acre-feet of which California uses annually. But it’s an important protection for the California mountain ecosystems that serve as natural reservoirs for snow and rain, from Southern California’s Transverse Ranges to the Klamath Mountains and the Cascade Range in the far north of the state, as well as the massive Sierra Nevada.

Just two mountain reservoirs — Lakes Shasta and Oroville — hold up to 80 percent of the state’s reservoir storage, and they’re supplied by just five watersheds: those of the Feather, Pit, McCloud, Upper Sacramento and Trinity rivers. Those watersheds’ viability is threatened by a host of ills from climate change to ill-considered logging to urban development, as well as overall degradation of forest resources.

Forests and meadows hold water in a few different ways, from storing it as snow shaded by tree canopies to soaking it up in alpine meadows’ thick soil. Under historic conditions, these natural reservoirs would generally release snowmelt relatively gradually, controlling the rate at which spring floodwaters would head downstream.

That becomes even more important as climate change depletes the potential supply of snow, not only reducing winter precipitation but making more of it fall as rain. Without healthy forests and meadows, those winter rains will run right down out of the mountains during winter storms. That  causes downstream flooding, makes our water supply less regular and predictable, and erodes and further degrades alpine ecosystems, worsening the problem for the next wet season.

Under AB 2480, sponsored by Assembly Member Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, the state can apply the same financing tools to ecosystem restoration that it uses to repair dams and canals. The law also makes it easier for the state to protect privately owned forests from logging and development through the purchase of conservation easements. It will also allow funding for stream channel restoration, repair and removal of roads that pose threats to alpine habitat, and vegetation management and restoration in wet and dry mountain meadows.

“This law will make sure that the source of our water is treated just like other basic infrastructure that Californians depend on, such as roads, dams and power supplies,” said Laurie Wayburn, President of Pacific Forest Trust, who sponsored the bill. “We can now move forward on putting a comprehensive system in place to restore and conserve these landscapes that are so critical to a safe and secure water supply.”

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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