Meadow Restoration Increases Baseflow and Groundwater Storage in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California

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In mountains of the western United States, channel incision has drawn down the water table across thousands of square kilometers of meadow floodplain. Here climate change is resulting in earlier melt and reduced snowpack and water resource managers are responding by investing in meadow restoration to increase springtime storage and summer flows. The record‐setting California drought (2012–2015) provided an opportunity to evaluate this strategy under the warmer and drier conditions expected to impact mountain water supplies. In 2012, 0.1 km2 of meadow floodplain was reconnected by filling an incised channel through Indian Valley in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Despite sustained drought conditions after restoration, summer baseflow from the meadow increased 5–12 times. Before restoration, the total summer outflow from the meadow was 5% more than the total summer inflow. After restoration, total summer outflow from the meadow was between 35% and 95% more than total summer inflow. In the worst year of the drought (2015), when inflow to the meadow ceased for at least one month, summer baseflow was at least five times greater than before restoration. Groundwater levels also rose at four out of five sites near the stream channel. Filling the incised channel and reconnecting the meadow floodplain increased water availability and streamflow, despite unprecedented drought conditions.
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