California Naturalist
California Naturalist
California Naturalist
University of California
California Naturalist

ANR Green Blog

Headwaters

I have the privilege of engaging California's communities with the aspiration of safeguarding the sustenance and well-being that its oak-woodland watersheds and the people that are a part of them provide. This millennia-long integrated relationship of humans and land has parallel histories in other Mediterranean parts of the world. The following blog is the first of occasional installments about working Mediterranean landscapes in California and around the globe. Combined they will explore the concepts of watershed functions, working landscapes and Mediterranean climate, vegetation and management. Join me in experiencing these settings, growing our appreciation for the integrated nature of these landscapes and people, and gaining understanding and tools for our tenure as stewards. - David Lewis, director, UC Cooperative Extension, Marin County

Ghost pines, live oaks, black oaks and madrones, among other trees, make their stand interspersed with annual and perennial grasses at the headwaters of a California watershed. (Photo: David Lewis)

I am standing where stream flow begins, in a nameless tributary of the Russian River to the east of Hopland, Calif. This particular spot and location has been a grazing livestock ranch, primarily sheep, going back more than 100 years (learn more). This is one of thousands of spots in a watershed where water comes to the surface, joins in a channel and starts its path downstream. Many of us have stood at a confluence of two rivers or an estuary where a watershed's outfall meets an ocean. These locations are the stream's or river's end, their terminus. Where I am standing, is the headwaters of a stream system, where water is initially released and visible as a thin, shallow bouncing band.

Watersheds collect, store, and transport water. The transport function is performed by streams and rivers. These are dynamic, pervious channel networks each with a beginning and an end. At any part of the network, the channel is that lowest point in the landscape, stretching from one stream bank to the other, and generally widening in the downstream direction, until the stream mouth empties into another water body. 

At the other end of a network is the channel head, where the channel begins. This is where I am standing. Channel heads are found in small, intimate folds in the landscape. These depressions are referred to by many names — draws, bowls, hollows — the place in hills where the slopes become shallow and coalesce.

Like an amphitheater, the surrounding hillslopes rise around me. Reaching out at shoulder height, I can almost touch these slopes. The mixed oak woodland and interspersed grasslands are in attendance across these slopes. Ghost pines, live oaks, black oaks and madrones, among other trees, make their stand interspersed with annual and perennial grasses blanketing the ground. This mosaic of vegetation is hosted and sustained by the complex mix of marine sediments that have been pushed up, forming these hills, and erosion carving the stream channel. Below the surface are soils one to three feet deep that have developed from the underlying geology.  

It's March 3, 2019, and on the cusp of spring. Between the light breezes, the stream water sings its way downstream. I think back to the intense storms that moved across this part of California the week before and the resulting floods in the lower portion of the Russian River. Those and earlier winter storms soaked into the soil until the soil reached its capacity to hold water. Once the soils were primed, water was released to the channel network. That water is still being released now, days later, and will be for several more months into May or even June. Rainfall for this area and most of California has been substantial, matching amounts not seen since 1983, and definitively ending the nearly five-year drought. This contrast in extremes is the norm for California, meaning the next drought or next flood is only a year away.  

Downstream the Russian River is perennial, flowing year-round. But here at the channel head, flow is intermittent on an annual cycle. Rains begin in the fall, with headwater surface flows starting in late fall or early winter, once soils are saturated. This wetting up process reverses in the spring, until the channel head is dry.  

At some point this year flow in the headwaters will stop. Saturated soils releasing water laterally below the ground surface, will gradually release less and less water to the channel. Trees and grasses will demand more and more water as they leaf out and grow. As soils pores empty of free water, the remaining moisture is held more tightly to soil particles and plant root surfaces through a physical tension. Eventually the channel head will run dry.

While you may not have the opportunity to visit a channel head and experience the place where stream flow starts and stops each year, you are often closer to one than you think. Driving a rural road or hiking in a favorite park or open space will invariably find you crossing one of these unnamed headwater streams. As you do, give a look upstream, from where the water going past you has come. Up the channel into the bowl is one of the channel heads and headwaters for the watershed you are in.

I don't know when I will get to this channel head again. However, this place where surface flow is initiated will be close in my mind, particularly, as I visit the confluences and estuary of the Russian River, during the wet and dry periods and high and low rainfall years to come.

To learn more about these specific watersheds and research conducted in them this article is suggested. If interested in learning how stream flow is generated in California oak woodland watersheds you may want to read this article

Posted on Monday, April 15, 2019 at 9:38 AM
  • Author: David Lewis
Focus Area Tags: Natural Resources

UC Master Gardeners partner with Alzheimer's San Diego in Reminiscence Gardening project

The UC Master Gardener Program of San Diego County has always been open to innovative ways of expanding its mission and passion for gardening into new parts of its community. The San Diego program has a rich history of successful partnering with other local organizations to reach under-served populations. An exciting new collaboration was unveiled in March 2018 when five UC Master Gardener volunteers took their newest public outreach project Reminiscence Gardening to the Alzheimer's San Diego's (AlzSD) social activities program.

Thirty participants, all community members being served by AlzSD, got their hands dirty and enjoyed a day of sensory stimulation through tabletop gardening activities planned by the UC Master Gardener leaders. The 90-minute program gave participants the opportunity to touch, move, smell, hear and see the joys of manipulating soil and plants to construct a simple potted creation to adorn their spring celebration table. 

A UC Master Gardener volunteers and participants touch, move, smell, hear and see the joys of manipulating soil during a workshop with Alzheimer's San Diego's (AlzSD). (Photo: Debbie Handal)

UC Master Gardener volunteers knew it would be important to develop activities that were fun and, hopefully, something those in attendance had previously enjoyed. With marigolds, chrysanthemums and mint varieties in hand, participants and caregivers, worked side-by-side and guided by UC Master Gardeners, dug into the bins filled with soil, pots and tools. Each set of participants was given three plants to pot up. As this first activity progressed, UC Master Gardeners could see that participants were being drawn out and interactions around the worktable were increasing. The physical, intellectual, emotional and social benefits of gardening were being experienced and shared by all. 

Participants constructed a simple potted plant with marigolds, chrysanthemums and mint varieties to adorn their spring celebration tables. (Photo: Debbie Handal)

Other sensory-heavy opportunities, all planned and guided by UC Master Gardeners, were included in the program.  Participants were asked to reach into a bin filled with loose soil and wriggler worms to re-familiarize themselves with that most basic part of backyard gardening – working the soil. A variety of plants in one-gallon containers were passed around. Each container was specially marked with an icon that invited the participants to experience the visual beauty, familiar smell, unique feel and, sometimes, sound and subtle taste of each plant. 

Of particular interest was an activity in which everyone was asked to explore a box filled with hand tools, seed packets and other items typically used in backyard gardening. Clearly, old memories were refreshed. A vintage hose nozzle drew the attention of one gentleman. He held it for a while then began making the motions used in hand-watering the yard, moving the nozzle back and forth while mimicking the sound of water rushing forth from the attachment onto a once green and promising flower bed. Tangible signs of success, such as these, were everywhere during the social activity.

A workshop participant was invited to explore all senses of gardening, with flowers, seed packets and garden tools. (Photo: Debbie Handal)

Jessica Empeño, MSW, Alzheimer's San Diego's Vice President of Programs and Services was in attendance and praised the work of the UC Master Gardener volunteers. 

“Gardening was such a treat for our families. This activity stimulated all the senses – from the gorgeous colors of the flowers, the smell and taste of the herbs and the chatter and laughter that filled the room. Most importantly, those living with dementia and their care partners were able to socialize and have fun in a safe, judgment-free setting. We are so grateful to the UC Master Gardener Program for donating their time and supplies. We hope to have them back soon!” 

A team of UC Master Gardener volunteers were inspired to serve new parts of their community with the Reminiscence Gardening project. Photo: Debbie Handal

The UC Master Gardener Program of San Diego was inspired by its growing understanding of the need for more everyday experiences to address the issues facing members of our community being affected by dementia-related diseases.  Those numbers are increasing at a staggering rate. The National Alzheimer's Association estimates that currently 5.7 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, with nearly two-thirds of those being women, and that number will almost triple by mid-century. In San Diego County, AlzSD offers social activities for individuals with dementia and their caregivers. The “Reminiscence Gardening” project's goal for those individuals is to boost energy levels, build confidence, prolong maintenance of existing skills and perpetuate a sense of purpose and joy through gardening.

Further collaborations between the UC Master Gardener Program of San Diego County and other memory care communities are in the works. UC Master Gardeners want to share their love of gardening and their advanced training from the university for the benefit of those in our community who need it the most. Many of us know first-hand the responsibility of caring for a family member with a dementia-related disease. We know, too, the joys and benefits of being outdoors and sharing time together with people we love.  We want to make a meaningful difference in our community and the Reminiscence Gardening project is a wonderful way to express that.

For a calendar of future events and more information about other programs offered by the UC Master Gardener Program of San Diego and Alzheimer's San Diego, please visit:

www.mastergardenersd.org
www.alzsd.org

Posted on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 at 9:30 AM
  • Author: Debbie Handal
  • Author: Mike Harrelson
Focus Area Tags: Yard & Garden

The worst fire in California history illuminates fire preparation needs

Fire resilient forests have the benefit of offering greater access for recreation. (Photo: Butte County Fire Safe Council)
Four months have passed since the Camp Fire, the worst wildfire in California history, ravaged bucolic communities in the Butte County foothills, including Paradise, Concow, Butte Creek Canyon, Cherokee, Yankee Hill and Magalia. Eighty-five people died, many of them elderly and unable to safely evacuate from an area where a wind-driven fire raced from home to home.

The unspeakable loss of human life and the serious challenges being faced by survivors has dominated the Camp Fire conversation. Now, UC Cooperative Extension is beginning a dialog with many agencies involved to understand how such tragedies can be prevented in the future.

UC Cooperative Extension fire scientists and representatives of many California organizations conduct fire behavior research, study forest treatments – such as prescribed burns, timber harvest and mastication – and share best practices for home and community preparation. In the Butte County area where the Camp Fire took place, cooperating agencies include CalFIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, the Butte County Fire Safe Council, the Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council, Sacramento River Watershed Program, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management, and others.

While the Camp Fire was devastating, it could have been far worse. Working together for decades, the partner agencies have improved community safety and resilience.

They have educated the public about defensible space, fire resistant homes, and evacuation plans. They have coordinated fuels treatments along evacuation routes and around the communities. Through their actions, they saved many lives and structures, protected the town's drinking water supply, and in some cases, provided access for hiking in areas that had been overgrown by brush.

“When you drive for miles through blackened, burned trees and then arrive in a thinning project area full of green tree tops, you know that these efforts are worth it, we are having success and we can make a difference together,” said Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council

Because of the Camp Fire tragedy, the partner agencies learned many lessons that can inform future maintenance and treatments to improve fire resilience in Butte County and other wildland areas. Kate Wilkin, the UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor for Sutter, Yuba, Butte, and Nevada counties, is able to point to projects implemented in the Camp Fire zone that saved lives and structures.

For example, one family in Paradise was featured by the news media for their successful advance fire planning, which even included the installation of sprinklers on top of the house.

“When I think about what saves a house, a sprinkler is a cherry on top of the cake,” Wilkin said. “If a house is constructed with a combustible roof and siding, if unprotected vents allow embers to get into the attic, or the landscape is not maintained, a sprinkler isn't going to save the house. The sprinkler's power from the grid or a generator will likely fail. High winds may even prevent the sprinkler's mist from hitting the house.”

Rather, passive resistance to fires through better building design, materials and maintenance greatly reduce structure loss.

“Maintenance is an unsung hero of fire resilience,” Wilkin said. “Individual actions at our homes matter.”

First 5 feet around a structure

State law requires homeowners in wildfire areas to clear 100 feet of defensible space around their structures. Most towns in wildfire-prone areas also have their own defensible space codes. Wilkin said where she lives in Grass Valley, anyone with less than an acre of land must maintain their entire property as defensible space.

This guideline is a start, but there is more that people who live in wildfire-prone areas can do to make their homes resilient to fire. UC Cooperative Extension scientists recommend creating a five-foot buffer immediately surrounding the home almost completely devoid of plants and anything that can burn - including wooden fences, firewood, deck chairs and pillows, brooms and other wooden tools.

This extra precaution is important as embers from a distant wildfire can land on or adjacent to a house and ignite combustible items which in turn ignite the home. It was evident in the Camp Fire that the first five feet around homes was a critical factor in the survivability of structures.

The zone can include noncombustible materials such as rock mulch, stone pavers, cement, bare earth, gravel or sand. Low combustibility materials, such as irrigated and maintained lawn or herbaceous plants less than five inches high, are okay. All leaves, needles or other vegetation that falls in this five-foot zone must be removed during the fire season.

“The non-combustible space adjoining the house may be the difference between losing it and all the contents to a wildfire versus returning to the property with the home unscathed,” Wilkin said.

Community fire resilience

Fire survival measures can also be taken at the community level.

In Paradise, the Butte County Fire Safe Council funded CalFIRE crews to thin a number of areas in the watershed below Paradise Lake in 2013 and 2014. Taking these actions allowed an area for firefighters to start a defense and start putting out the flame front, Wilkin said.

“A CalFIRE chief told residents, ‘You provide the offense, we provide the defense.' Homeowners and communities need to get everything set up for successful firefighting,” she said.

Forest thinning has the added benefit of improving recreational opportunities. Near Magalia Pine Ridge School, an 11-acre mastication project in 2018 funded with $30,000 from the Butte County Fire Safe Council cleared overgrown vegetation around the school. This helped strengthen the area's public assembly location, which was identified on the community's evacuation map, and opened up access to a forest hiking trail that was blocked by tangled brush.

The open space dramatically slowed the raging Camp Fire when it approached the school, which is now one of the only schools open in the Paradise Ridge community.

Note the No. 9 marker in the lower left corner of each photo. (Click the photo to see a higher resolution version.) The the image on the right was taken after mastication, which opened up the forest for recreation and made the forest more resilient before the Camp Fire. (Photos: Butte County Fire Safe Council)

Forest thinning also protected the drinking water for the town of Paradise. A combination of projects undertaken by U.S. Forest Service, Sierra Pacific Industries and the Butte County Fire Safe Council aligned to allow fire fighters to combat the fire and ensure that the source of drinking water was protected.

Concow wildfire safety zone

In 2013 and 2014, the Butte County Fire Safe Council and Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council created a wildfire public assembly safety zone in Concow. The work was completed by inmate crews. During the Camp Fire, dozens of lives were saved when sheriff deputies, firefighters and citizens were able to shelter in the area.

“Wildfire safety zones are pretty uncommon and we may want to create more in wildfire prone areas,” Wilkin said. “But there is a hitch.”

CalFIRE is reluctant to designate temporary refuges because they don't want people to rely on them in place of evacuation. During a quick-moving firestorm, it could be an area where people can shelter if they cannot get out.

“It's a complex and dangerous puzzle,” Wilkin said. “In Australia, they had a similar idea and some places where people sheltered in a fire caused them to die.”

Wilkin is working with Paradise parks to identify areas ahead of time with enough space to meet new national firefighter standards to protect people's lungs from superheated air.

“Historically, we thought sufficient space was four times as great as the flame heights. If you have a Ponderosa pine that's torching 150 feet high, you would need 800 feet around the people,” Wilkin said. “New research has found that the safety zone calculation must also consider potential wind speed and slope. Significantly more space may be needed.”

A wildfire safety zone at Camelot Meadow. (Photo: Butte County Fire Safe Council)
Posted on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 at 2:55 PM
Tags: Kate Wilkin (2), wildfire (35)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

UC ANR working with USDA to strengthen extension and farmer incomes in Guatemala

Two UC Agriculture and Natural Resources emeritus specialists, two UC ANR advisors and a UC ANR vice provost spent a week in March working in Guatemala to help implement a USDA-funded (UC Davis-managed) project that is rebuilding the extension system in Guatemala.

With a population of almost 17.5 million and a per capita income ranked 118th in the world, Guatemala is working to improve the livelihoods and incomes of it's rural population, which represents nearly half of the total population. The project is being implemented in Guatemala with the Universidad de San Carlos. Universidad de San Carlos is the biggest and oldest university in Guatemala and which - when established in 1676 - was the fourth university established in the Americas. The 150,000-student university includes a prominent and well-known agricultural school. 

The UC contingent delivered modules on extension and marketing, two of five required for the participants to receive a certificate. Jim Hill, emeritus rice specialist based at UC Davis, is leading the second phase of the project.

The rest of the team for the week were Steve Temple, emeritus agronomy specialist, UC Davis; Jairo Diaz, director, UC Desert Research and Extension Center; Ramiro Lobo, advisor, UC Cooperative Extension, San Diego County; Mark Bell, vice provost, strategic initiatives and statewide programs; and Kate Lincoln, CAES Global Engagement, UC Davis.  Bell led the project when he was part of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

UC ANR vise provost Mark Bell leads a classroom discussion in Guatemala.

The interactive week-long course worked with 31 participants, mostly from the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture extension offices, but also included agriculture teachers. The team shared the essential steps and associated skills required for successful extension. The course used the Spanish acronym ASISTE as a framework (previously developed by Mark Bell, Maria Paz Santibanez and Elana Peach-Fine) as an easy way to remember the key steps. ASISTE stands for audience (audience), soluciónes (solutions), información simple (simple information), transferencia (transfer), and evaluación (evaluation).

As part of the course, participants developed and delivered their own mini-workshops using local issues and context to reinforce workshop discussions. As Guatemala has a large indigenous population with more than 20 languages, one of the participants delivered his talk in Tzutuhil, the main language used for his constituents in Santiago Atitlan, Sonora department.

UC Cooperative Extension advisor Ramiro Lobo talks to the group during a field session.
Posted on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 at 11:34 AM
  • Author: Mark Bell

Soil Health Institute scientist visits UC’s long-term soil health experiment in Five Points

Shannon Cappellazzi, Soil Health Institute is project scientist for the Western U.S.
Shannon Cappellazzi, one of six project scientists involved in an expansive Soil Health Institute (SHI) initiative, visited the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in March to take soil samples from research plots managed for 20 years with soil building practices.

The West Side research plots are one of 120 locations in Canada, the United States and Mexico where the SHI scientists are collecting data to evaluate soil health indicators at a continental scale.

The initiative will identify acceptable soil health measurements and standards, as well as launch a comprehensive evaluation program that relates soil health to productivity, economic and environmental outcomes. Cappellazzi is project scientist for the Western U.S. and coordinates the soil health team's pastures and rangeland research.

“Our project at West Side started in 1999 and is a unique research resource in California because of its dedication to reduced soil disturbance and soil biodiversity in food production systems,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and leader of UC's Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation.

Since it was established, the research plots have been managed in an annual rotation of cotton, processing tomatoes and more recently sorghum, garbanzo beans and melons, under four different treatments: no-tilled plus cover crops, no-tilled with no cover crops, conventionally tilled with cover crops and conventionally tilled without cover crops.

“There are few long-term study sites in California where this combination of core principles that underlie soil health have been applied for a long time frame like we have here at the West Side REC,” Mitchell said. “These principles include reducing disturbance of the soil, maintaining cover over the soil through the use of residues and cover crops, and accentuating diversity in crops and soil biology.”

UC West Side REC agricultural technician Tracy Waltrip conducting soil hydraulic conductivity determination in the NRI Project field.
Cappellazzi collected samples that will be analyzed for 39 different soil health indicators.  The sampling included real-time measurements in the field during her visit as well as archiving samples that will be sent to four analytical laboratories for an array of tests. 

“Our research project at the West Side REC has enabled scientists to reach many conclusions about soil health in the past. But this very exhaustive sampling by the Soil Health Institute is perhaps the most comprehensive battery of tests that have ever been performed on any study site in the San Joaquin Valley to date,” Mitchell said.

The research initiative is funded with a $9.4 million grant to the Soil Health Institute, the Soil Health Partnership and the Nature Conservancy to improve soil health and support positive economic and environmental outcomes for American farmers and ranchers.

The goal of this project is to support research and education that accelerates adoption and benefits of soil health management systems nationally. Farming practices that improve soil health can increase profitability while protecting natural resources like air and water for communities.

For more information about the sample collection process at the West Side REC, view a 14-minute video at https://youtu.be/WSNg6rJdvvE 

Posted on Wednesday, March 27, 2019 at 8:43 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture Environment

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