What is a Meadow? A meadow is an area where shallow groundwater enables grass-like plants and wildflowers to flourish.
The Sierra Nevada has more than 18,000 meadows comprising almost 280,000 acres of which 102,000 are located in California’s National Forests, with the largest being the Monache Meadow, at nearly 4,600 acres, located on the Inyo and Sequoia National Forests.
Current estimates indicate that meadows cover approximately 280,000 acres within the Sierra Nevada. Although this area makes up a relatively small fraction of the greater Sierra Nevada region, meadows’ unique hydrologic and ecological functions are recognized as being vital to watershed health and are valued for the ecosystem goods and services they provide. However, approximately 50%, or roughly 140,000 acres of these meadows are known or expected to be degraded, resulting in the loss of important goods and services. Stresses such as climate change and development continue to threaten ecologically important meadows. Given the iconic nature of Sierra meadows and the critical importance of the Sierra Nevada to California's water supply, many state and federal agencies have agreed on the urgent need to increase the pace, scale and efficacy of meadow restoration and protection.
The Sierra Meadows Partnership was formed, in part, to address this critical need.
On average, restoring one acre of meadow increases water yield by ½ acre foot of water per year, which is the equivalent of: Enough to cover a football field 6 inches deep, or enough water for an average CA family for 1 year!
High in organic content,
and abundant in roots,
vegetation and microbes,
meadows clean water and filter sediment, breaking down toxins, allowing clean water to flow into important fish tributaries
and crucial habitats.
Meadows Sequester Carbon
Though meadows cover only 2% of the Sierra Nevada landscape, they may contain roughly 1/3 of the landscape’s soil organic carbon.
Preliminary research indicates that healthy meadows are net carbon sinks, whereas degraded meadows are net carbon emitters
to the atmosphere.
Seasonally-moist to waterlogged soils in valleys, flats, gentle slopes, and filled-in lake basins in the Sierra Nevada, otherwise called Montane meadows, are the single-most critical
habitat for many species.
Although the total area of meadows account for only a small percentage of the Sierra, they are biological diversity hotspots and are home to essential habitat for many of California’s endemic species, including inland native trout (Goose Lake redband, Eagle Lake rainbow, Paiute cutthroat, Lahontan cutthroat, California golden, Little Kern golden, and Kern River rainbow).
They also provide habitat for:
Three California threatened and endangered bird species: Willow Flycatcher, Great Gray Owl, and Greater Sandhill Crane.
Meadows also provide important breeding and post-breeding habitat for a large number of other bird species, including Yellow Warbler – a California Bird Species of Special Concern.
Endangered amphibians such as Yosemite Toad, Sierra Nevada and Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs, Cascade’s Frog.
Rare and endangered plants, and among the highest levels of plant diversity of any habitat in the Sierra Nevada
Important habitat for native mammals such as black bear and fawning grounds for migratory deer herds and bighorn sheep
Meadows Store Water
During springtime snowmelt, high stream flows overtop streambanks and flood across healthy meadows sinking into the soil where it is stored as shallow groundwater. In fact, over 60% of the state’s water supply originates in the Sierra Nevada, for which meadows are key components, helping to regulate water flow, temperature, and quality
[In many meadows, streams are confined to deeply-eroded channels that prevent natural flooding. Instead of spreading out, slowing down, soaking in, and being stored as groundwater, springtime snowmelt races down the deeply-eroded channels
and is lost downstream.
When we restore meadows by filling deeply-eroded channels, we restore flooding and seasonal water storage. Some streams that used to dry out during summer now run all year long, even during droughts.
Meadow restoration reduces springtime flow (when reservoirs are spilling and excess water has little value) and increase summer flows (when reservoirs are withholding, during the irrigation and peak energy-use period.
Meadows are Culturally Significant
Meadows have served as important Native American gathering sites for thousands of years, and have been kept fertile and open by burning and regular visits for many generations. During the California Gold Rush the most valuable Indian lands were open, flat, and fertile grasslands and were appropriated by Anglo settlers for farms, ranches,
and mining settlements.
Historically, some meadows in the Sierra Nevada were overgrazed by domestic livestock which impaired the hydrologic function of these landscapes and decimated a reliable food source for California’s indigenous people, as nutritious perennial grasses were replaced with invasive non-native plants.
In spite of these negative impacts to meadows, these landscapes continue to be high priority for the revival and perpetuation of indigenous culture and biodiversity in the Sierra Nevada.
Meadows Provide Quality Recreation
There is increasing evidence that regular contact with nature and greenspace, including forests, meadows, and grasslands positively affects physical health and mental well-being by reducing stress, enhancing mood, and offering a restorative environment allowing people to escape from the stresses of urban life.
Meadows also offer recreation such as walking, bird-watching, hunting and fishing which has been found to contribute to psychological, spiritual, and physical wellness.