We used intensive field measurements and data-intensive hydro-ecological modeling to investigate the impact of forest vegetation management on the sensitivity of snow accumulation, evapotranspiration and discharge at seven headwater catchments in the Sierra Nevada. Catchments are located in dense mixed-conifer forest, at elevations of 1500 – 2100 m, and receive a mix of rain and snow precipitation. Management scenarios for reducing forest density by uniform thinning and forest clearings were implemented in the Regional Hydro-ecological Simulation System (RHESSys). Results obtained using inherent model equations to separate total precipitation into snow and rain underestimated snow water content in some of the catchments, requiring manual input of snow and rain for accurate simulations. Modeling precipitation phase accurately was critical for the current forest condition, as the change in vegetation has differing effects on rain, snow and snowmelt. Results using RHESSys show that light, uniform thinning alone (<20% canopy) may not be enough to change water yield significantly, but this threshold of canopy reduction is lowered by creating gaps in the forest alone or in combination with uniform thinning, and has potential to measurably increase water yield beyond background variation. Clarifying these specific impacts of forest vegetation on snow processes and water yield is essential for simulating forest management in the Sierra Nevada and it shows the forest structure has significant influence on the catchment water balance. However, modifying forest canopy density and canopy cover to calculate average levels of snow water equivalent at a basin-scale may not be detailed enough to incorporate all the complex forest structure effects on snow processes in mountain watersheds.
Ray, R.L., Saksa, P.C., Bales, R.C., and Conklin, M.H. (2012): Forest management effects on snow, runoff and evapotranspiration in Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer headwater catchments. Fall Meeting, American Geophysical Union, December 2012. Abstract GC51F-05..