Archive for October, 2016

Worth of Water – Part III, The Benefits

  Date Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”
— W. H. Auden

Californians invest a lot more time and money pursuing love, than we do water.

As the first two installments in this series have explained, the Sierra Nevada watershed is threatened. It supplies 60% of the water used in California, yet a century of wildfire and forest management practices have created a forest that is overcrowded with trees.

Those densely populated forests drink more water than a naturally populated forest would, and their tightly bunched canopies prevent snow from falling to the ground to become part of our watershed’s vital snowpack. Instead, much of the snow collects atop the trees to be evaporated or blown away.

Further, four years of drought has weakened the trees, making them prone to disease and insect infestation. Nearly 70 million trees have died.

Wildfires in these densely packed forests have increased in intensity, frequency and scale. They now burn so hotly that huge forested areas can be sanitized of living matter, leaving a barren, ash-covered, lifeless landscape that is subject to erosion.

The ash and soil beneath dead and burned forests eventually washes downstream. Sediment is deposited in streams, meadows and lakes, suffocating life and reducing water quality and enjoyment of the Sierra.

Presently, hundreds of thousands of acres of dead trees in California cannot be felled or removed, because we no longer have a timber industry. The loggers and mills have been put out of business by environmental regulations and cheaper foreign lumber.

Thinning the forest is the answer. It would reduce water consumption, improve water quality, reduce fire danger, restore a more natural mix of trees, plants, wildlife and openings, attract recreation and tourism, revive the logging industry, and increase the amount of water available for an increasingly thirsty California.

Of 200 million acre feet of water in the watershed, trees drink 120 million. Cutting one of every three trees in the Sierra Nevada, would increase the amount of water available to Californians, industry and agriculture by 50%.

But, what would we do with the logged timber? Presently, there is no market for all that timber, even if it were salvageable and there were loggers and mills to clear it. A solution advocated within the Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s Watershed Improvement Program (WIP), is to use biomass energy plants to process the trees into renewable energy.

One source estimated that $500 million a year is needed to restore the watershed. Compared to the billions being spent on other forms of alternative energy (solar and wind) and high-speed rail, $500 million is inconsequential. Though, unlike solar, wind and rail projects, the Sierra Nevada Watershed has few advocates or politicians fighting for it.

In 2002, the California Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) established that sellers of electricity seek to purchase 33% of energy from renewable energy resources by 2020. In 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order that the state produce 75% of its biofuels by 2050.

Biomass energy plants convert dead timber (biofuels) into power. These plants generate not just power, but jobs in construction, logging, hauling and energy production, and they help sustain Sierra Nevada recreation and tourism-based economies. To operate efficiently, biomass energy plants are small and located near the sources of timber. To build, they cost about $6 million per megawatt.

A study by the El Dorado County Fire Safe Council in 2008 established that El Dorado County has between 128,630 and 358,395 bone dry tons (BDT) of woody biomass fuel available annually for use in energy production, “more than sufficient to support a proposed (biomass power plant) in Camino between 12 and 14 megawatts.”

In neighboring Placer County, plans for a $12 million, two megawatt plant are well along. Though, progress is stalled, because the price of power is at an historic, all-time low. That prevents biomass energy from being competitive with natural gas, hydroelectric or other forms of renewable energy (solar, wind and geothermal).

Biomass power is tied to the health of the Sierra Nevada watershed and that is a factor that should be considered. Yet, that connection isn’t being made in the statehouse or White House.

One of the missing elements keeping watershed restoration from being a bigger political issue, is a study that would establish exactly how much water quality or water production has been reduced by damage caused to the watershed.

Dr. Roger C. Bales, of UC Merced, an authority on mountain hydrology, has proposed such a study. He estimates it would cost $3 million and take several years, but if completed, it would provide policy makers with a better understanding of the situation and possible solutions.

While hydrology studies are planned, energy plants are considered, and foresters discuss how to manage the forest, the Sierra Nevada watershed continues to languish. To paraphrase W. H. Auden, “If our watershed continues to live without love and investment, no one will live without water.”

© John Poimiroo, 2016


Worth of Water – Part II, The Solutions

  Date Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
— Albert Einstein

A century of wildfire suppression, four years of drought, and restoration practices that replanted burned and harvested forests with plantations of similar trees have led to a crisis in the Sierra Nevada that threatens a watershed that supplies 60% of the water used in California, sustains 60% of the state’s wildlife, and is essential to our populace, economy, environmental quality and way of life.

This is a manmade problem whose solution, as Einstein stated, cannot be achieved with the same level of thinking that created it.

The Sierra Nevada forest became unnaturally overpopulated primarily because of years of wildfire suppression that allowed forests to become more congested than is natural. In the late 1900s, fewer trees began being cut after environmental regulations and cheaper foreign lumber put loggers and mills out of business. The result is that high-intensity wildfires have increased in size and frequency.

Today, not a single active saw mill is processing raw timber into lumber in El Dorado County. Very few remain anywhere in the Sierra. Eldorado National Forest Supervisor Laurence Crabtree said, “If I were to offer a sale (of timber) today, there’s no one locally to buy and process the logs.  The cost of trucking logs to a distant mill substantially reduces the value of the public’s timber.”

The decline of California’s forest products industry has had serious consequence on the ability of local contractors and wood processing companies to compete successfully for U.S. Forest Service (USFS) contracts against larger, often out-of-state businesses with lower overhead and operational costs.

Not only are there fewer and smaller companies of loggers and saw mills to reduce fire danger and improve forest health, but the USFS has lost revenue from timber sales that previously helped fund forest restoration.

The USFS manages 6.3 million acres in the Sierra Nevada, about 60% of the range’s total forested area. It estimates that 500,000 acres of forest will need to be treated annually (two to three times greater than current efforts) in order to restore the watershed.

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC), a state agency, reports that very little progress is being made in the pace and scale of watershed restoration, quoting the USFS that “only an environmental restoration program of unprecedented scale can alter the direction of current trends.”

To help build a consensus on what to do, the Sierra Nevada Forest and Community Initiative (SNFCI), established five years ago, brings together diverse perspectives from local government, environmental and conservation organizations, the wood products industry, fire safe councils and public land management agencies.

Their biggest impediments are funding and what to do with the biomass cleared from the forests.

Presently, when a forest is thinned or cleared, logs are piled and burned (as there are few mills to process the timber and no market for it), but doing so on 500,000 acres of forest annually would ruin air quality, create a massive release of greenhouse gases (GHG) affecting climate and greatly damage recreation, tourism and quality of life in the Sierra.

In its report, “The State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests,” SNC states that diverting the biomass generated by these forest treatments from pile and burn to bioenergy could reduce GHG emissions by 3.15 million metric tons annually. Over ten years that would be the equivalent of eliminating the emissions of 3.9 million cars.

There are 14 biomass power plants in the Sierra Nevada today, with inadequate capacity “to handle the pace and scale of restoration” SNC reported. It described a 2013 incident in which the Honey Lake biomass power plant stopped all chip deliveries in mid-summer at a time when forest restoration was in full swing and places that would accept forest biomass were in high demand.

Without a place to dispose of the biomass that summer, a number of proposed restoration projects could not be completed.

Limited options to restoring the watershed, through logging, result in publicly unpopular choices, such as increased use of planned or prescribed fires (set intentionally to remove unwanted vegetation).

Local air districts impose very tight burn windows and durations of prescribed fires, which can complicate their implementation, resulting in the unintended consequence of enabling larger, more damaging fires, which emit more pollution than would have been released by controlled burns.

Despite funding, biomass disposal and prescribed fire limitations, a number of collaborative watershed restoration projects have been conducted in Fresno, Amador, Calaveras, Shasta, Placer, Madera, Plumas and El Dorado Counties, including $5 million allocated by the USFS to reduce fuel and help restore the Eldorado National Forest watershed.

In the Caples Lake watershed, Eldorado National Forest and the El Dorado Irrigation District are partners in trimming selectively, creating fire breaks, conducting controlled burns with ground crews and by helicopter in remote areas to create multi-age stands, and restoring the forest and its watershed to a more natural and fire-resistant condition.

Nevertheless, what’s being done to restore the Sierra Nevada watershed is virtually a drop in the bucket. It is a problem that only can be solved by thinking and acting at a different level.

© John Poimiroo, 2016


Worth of Water – Part I, The Problem

  Date Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”
— Thomas Fuller, 1732

California’s well is drying up. After four years of drought, the Sierra Nevada watershed has been damaged by forest fires and bark beetle infestations (Beetles 101, Property Owners Take Note, Dawn Hodson, Mountain Democrat, June 24, 2016). And, if more isn’t done to restore the Sierra Nevada watershed soon, all Californians will truly know the worth of water.

California’s Sierra Nevada watershed provides over two-thirds of the water used by Californians and irrigates some 750,000 acres of farmland. It is essential to our populace, economy and way of life.

Healthy watersheds do more than supply water. They support healthy forests, meadows, rivers, streams, lakes and ecosystems. They nourish plant and animal life, collect and filter water, store carbon (which helps regulate climate and improve air quality). And, the Sierra Nevada watershed is an essential source of forest products, recreation and tourism.

Considering how vital the Sierra Nevada watershed is to California, one would think the State would be doing all it can to maintain the watershed and restore it, but that isn’t happening.

In 2014, California voters approved $7.5 billion in general obligation bonds (Proposition 1) to increase water storage, water quality, flood protection and watershed protection and restoration. In comparison, they have approved $64 to $98 billion for a bullet train that will, once it is completed, serve a small fraction of those who depend upon the Sierra Nevada watershed.

Where will we go on that train, if there’s no water at the other end of the line?

Considering the importance of a clean and abundant water supply for a growing population, industry and agriculture, the restoration of the Sierra Nevada watershed should be a priority, though it doesn’t appear to be.

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC), a state agency, states, “Right now, the Sierra Nevada region is at a critical point. A century of fire suppression, a shortage of restoration efforts, and years of drought have placed Sierra forests, lakes, meadows and streams at incredible risk.”

Last year alone, more than 29 million trees in California died as a result of drought, insects and disease, up from 3.3 million the previous year. Eighty percent of those trees were in the Sierra Nevada, and a dead tree does little to prevent erosion.

Wildfires are becoming larger and more severe, as well. SNC reports that between 1984 and 2010, the number of wildfire acres that burned at high intensity rose by 50%. The 2013 Rim and 2014 King fires continued that trend with about half of the acreage burning at high intensity.

These high-intensity burn areas experience runoff and erosion rates five to ten times greater than low or moderate-intensity burn areas, resulting in sediment that degrades water quality, damages hydropower infrastructure, fills reservoirs, prevents fish eggs from hatching and reduces storage capacity.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) estimated following the King fire that during a five-year storm event, the equivalent of 226,000 dump trucks full of sediment can be expected to enter the Rubicon River watershed.

Similarly, Pine Flat Reservoir, downstream from the 2015 Rough fire, is vulnerable. SNC predicts that should a ten-year storm event occur, upwards of 2,000-acre-feet of sediment could get deposited in the lake, displacing enough water to supply 2,000 families for a year.

Those trees are not just essential to preventing sediment from being deposited in the watershed, but also to cleaning the air by absorbing carbon dioxide. Almost half of the carbon absorbed by California’s forests is stored by Sierra Nevada forests, enough to offset the annual emissions of more than 1,000 coal-fired power plants.

Sierra Nevada meadows are as threatened as are reservoirs; they’re important to capturing snowmelt and releasing it slowly through dry months. Meadows also filter sediment and pollutants, contributing to higher quality drinking water. However, many Sierra meadows have become degraded by wildfires and dead forests, diminishing their capacity to filter and store water.

The USFS regional forester estimated in 2011 that 500,000 acres need to be restored each year to improve forest health and watershed reliability. However, that’s two to three times greater than what’s being restored today.

Funding has been the primary barrier to increasing the pace and scale of restoration across the Sierra, though other challenges exist. Among them, the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program lists: improving coordination between federal, state and local agencies, adjusting air quality regulations to allow controlled burns that help thin forests susceptible to holocaustic wildfires, dedicating funds to restoration so that they are not used for other purposes, faster processing of environmental assessments, and establishing mills and plants necessary to process the timber and create new profitable and sustainable markets and uses for it.

What Thomas Fuller wrote 284 years ago, has never been truer. Let’s not wait till the well is dry to know the worth of water.

© John Poimiroo, 2016