Image: Tour group gathers around the eddy-covariance gas flux tower at Providence Creek. Photo by Michelle Gilmore, October 2017 [Click image to enlarge]
By Michelle Gilmore and Leigh Bernacchi
Ever wonder how we know what we know about water? Twenty-five intrepid water and forest managers, political officials, and local landowners recently visited the headwaters of Kings River to find out.
On October 20, a morning full of mist, the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory, UC Water and USDA Forest Service hosted an in-depth tour of the instruments and ecosystems of the Providence Creek area in the Sierra National Forest.
Led by University of California, Merced, faculty Dr. Martha Conklin and Dr. Mohammad Safeeq, along with Dr. Joe Wagenbrenner from the USDA Forest Service, the group toured an array of instruments measuring and monitoring the water cycle, from the weather to the streams, through soils, trees, and meadows.
Discussion of streamflow and water quality at the P304 double-flume stream gage and sediment basin. Photo by Michelle Gilmore, October 2017
Site stops included a meteorological station and a transect of snowpack and soil moisture sensors that send information over wireless communications. We had lunch under the Critical Zone Tree, a now deceased White Fir. As Dr. Safeeq said, “I’m a scientist. It’s still interesting to monitor its sap flow and water use after it’s officially dead.”
We also visited the forest-scale gas flux tower, meadows brimming with Sierran treefrogs and wells, and a coupled streamgage flume and sediment basin. Many of these instruments are solar powered and collect data that are publicly accessible.
At each stop, tour guides told the story of the drought and most recent wet year through the locally-produced data. Important properties of the landscape along the tour were also discussed, including misconceptions about these landscape features. For instance, Dr. Conklin explained why meadows do not actually facilitate increased water storage, but rather change the timing of water flow into stream channels. Conklin also detailed the other positive impacts of meadows, including carbon storage, biodiversity, and lower evapotranspiration rates compared to forested areas of similar size.
One of the best aspects of the tour was energizing conversations among all attendees about land management decisions and the important role that measurement and partnerships play. Measurements of water contained in the snow, soil, streams, and vegetation in the Sierra Nevada headwaters can provide critical information for water and forest management decisions across the state. As California’s largest water tower, understanding more about quantity and quality of the Sierra Nevada’s waters is vital to the prosperity of California's communities, economies, and ecosystems.
A graphical agenda made for this tour is available online.
Graphical Agenda: Southern Sierra Headwaters Tour
(5 MB pdf)
Instruments and other information about stops along the October 20 tour.
Hundreds of instruments and sensors have been deployed in the primary SSCZO research site of the Providence Creek watershed as well as in Wolverton basin. Additional SSCZO flux towers and instruments have also been installed at the San Joaquin Experimental Range, Soaproot Saddle, and Short Hair Creek.
Explore more photos of the intstuments and sensors used by SSCZO.
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