Stories, Water, Fire, and Sierra Nevada Meadows

Stream in Reds Meadow, Sierra Nevada

“All right,” said Measuring Worm. “Take your fires off the ground, for I am going up there with the water. I’ll go up in the water.”

So goes an old North Fork Mono story, told in 1918 by North Fork Mono storyteller Molly Kinsman Pimona to the Berkeley anthropologist Edward Winslow Gifford. According to this story, Coyote, Mockingbird, and all others had failed to rescue Prairie Falcon from atop a great rock in the High Sierra. Measuring Worm knew that that after a burn in the forest, surface water and groundwater rise. Needing swift passage from his home in the foothills, Measuring Worm directed the others to take their fires off the ground, and then he rode the rising waters to the higher elevations, “scaled the rock in two steps and brought Prairie Falcon down.”

The Indigenous fire regime of the Sierra Nevada consists of a sophisticated set of interactions — interactions among people, land, and water that took place for innumerable years before the first European set foot here. The fire regime was based on a varied, adaptable rotation of fire frequency and intensity. The results were environmental mosaics – complex, quiltlike environments with multifaceted habitats – teeming with all kinds of food, medicinal, and basketry resources. 

Back in those days, wet meadows, with their finely structured, moist fuels such as sedges, may have acted as firebreaks until late in the season, allowing people to steer and diminish fires by taking advantage of slope, prevailing winds, and fuel characteristics. In turn, these prescribed, cultural fires helped to prevent invasion of meadows by conifers, deciduous trees, and shrubs that desiccate meadow soils by intercepting rainfall.

The ethnobiologist Kat Anderson once interviewed Dan McSwain, a North Fork Mono elder who confirmed that his people‘s traditional practices included carefully designed cycles of burning. Anderson quoted McSwain in a report for the National Plant Data Center:

The Indians used to burn in the fall. They burned in the oaks, chaparral, ponderosa pines, and fir… Different areas were set on fire in the fall, brushy areas, not the same spots every year… In those times it would seldom get in the crown of trees… They burned every two or three years. You could ride a horse anywhere without running into the brush. Now you can‘t even get off the road.

Today, North Fork Mono fires can still enhance the growth of desired plants and, by eliminating competition for water and reducing the interception of rainfall by trees and shrubs, the raise the water table. Fire is an indispensable tool in the maintenance of fertile, functional montane meadows.

And healthy meadows soils act as water storage tanks. The most recent United States Forest Service inventory shows that the 11,000 meadows in the national forests throughout the Sierra Nevada comprise about 220,000 acres. According to the forest management strategies document [PDF] of the 2009 State Water Plan Update, these meadows could potentially store as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water, eliminating the need for new, massive dams and reservoirs such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Temperance Flat development.

Instead of allowing rainfall to immediately run off, undamaged or restored meadows absorb and slowly release water into streams, thereby increasing the amount of summer (dry-season) water available to downstream users. As the Water Plan’s forest strategies document puts it:

Meadows with intact vegetative cover act as natural reservoirs, regulating streamflow… through storage and release of snowmelt and rainfall runoff. …These meadows attenuate flood peaks and prolong dry-season base flows. … Meadows therefore increase available water for downstream farms, communities, and hydropower facilities.

This regulatory function of meadows could become increasingly important for human water supply as the annual snowpack decreases in the high Sierra, due to climate change. Climate scientists predict that precipitation formerly retained in the higher elevations and slowly released through the summer as snowmelt will fall progressively more in the form of rainfall that, in the absence of alternative forms of storage such as healthy, intact meadow soils, would run off at once.

One factor in the historic desiccation of meadows has been the increase of trees and shrubs (due to fire suppression) that intercept rainfall. Much of the water held on the surface of the trees evaporates during or after a rainstorm, instead of infiltrating into the groundwater supply. A dense cover of trees and shrubs intercepts a significant amount of rainfall and prevents the infiltration of water into the aquifer.

In addition, recent research suggests that many meadows could have more connections to upland groundwater than previously noted by scientists, and that the flow of groundwater into meadow soils increases with reductions in the density of trees and shrubs on hillslopes and the concomitant reductions in interception and evapotranspiration.

Meadows and uplands are connected, and fire can sustain these connections. It’s possible to restore meadows and increase their storage capacity. It’s also possible to increase the infiltration of preciptation throughout the watershed by reintroducing the Native fire regime throughout the forest.

The State Water Plan Update also claims that meadow restoration in the Sierra could have global effects as others learn from the efforts in California.

Alluvial valleys in mountainous areas throughout the world, including Africa, Australia, Europe, and South America, are faced with erosion and water-supply problems similar to those facing California‘s Sierra Nevada montane meadows. Many of these alluvial valleys provide water, crops, and forage that sustain local communities and economies. Successful restoration of meadows in California could provide methodologies that are applicable to critical land and water degradation problems around the world.

There’s much to learn from Native Californian fire lighters and storytellers. Just as California Indian artists weave the cultural materials of Sierra hills and meadows into an intricate order, so do storytellers entwine land and water into extraordinary narratives. The next steps are up to those who would continue to listen to and learn from the stories.