What we do to help Elder Creek’s flow and vitality:
• Minimize water use and eliminate wasting water.
• Never pump from the creek.
• Size our garden and mini-orchard to our rainwater holding tanks.
• Grow gardens in the winter and spring, not the summer.
• Revegetate bare land to minimize or eliminate rainwater run-off.
This land, which is adjacent to the South Fork of Elder Creek, was purchased in 2002 under the belief that Elder Creek was a year-round creek. The USGS water data from 1949 to present supports this, and historical information indicates that good summer flows used to be significantly more reliable.
Unfortunately, in the last decade the creek has been going dry (or nearly dry) in the summers as often as not. While climate change seems to be giving us a much drier rainy season, this is just one of many factors affecting stream flow.
Of the other significant factors, logging and its associated road-building leaves much more earth bare than in a natural forest, making water absorption in the critical headwaters much less efficient. This means that rains run off the mountains more quickly, meaning the water rushes down and through our area faster than it used to. Much of the water that used to be absorbed and stored in the mountains, then slowly released over the long summer months, now moves past us to the Sacramento River during the rainy periods.
Most of the other factors causing the deterioration in creek flow and riparian plant and animal community health are common practices most local landowners have engaged in regularly. We were guilty of some of them in the early years ourselves!
Every well drilled and used within a couple hundred feet of the creek potentially reduces stream flow because most of a creek’s water is actually coursing through the soils, shale and other subterranean rocks below and adjacent to the surface water. For this reason, we have reduced our water use and now capture rainwater for most of our needs. It turned out to be cheaper to invest in water tanks to hold harvested rainwater than to drill a new well, which would have required the ongoing cost of electricity. Our rainwater system relies solely on gravity, further reducing the life-long cost of our water use.
Pumping out of the creek, especially during the non-rainy periods, directly reduces stream flow and volume, and therefore extends the duration of dry creek beds, so we never do it. But since storm flows can be quite high, we suspect that one way to capture rainwater from the creek is to pump only during periods when the creek is in high flow during the rainy season. In effect, this is a method that slows, spreads and sinks the water into the ground, as a mature forest would, albeit rather unnaturally.
Regionally speaking, perhaps one of the most important strategies to improve the chances of Elder Creek once again becoming a dependable year-round creek is to manage vast areas of land with the specific goals of native bunchgrass and oak regeneration, so that is what we do here in hopes of inspiring others to join us. It is critically important to maximize native tree health and native grass cover, as trees and perennial grasses play very significant roles in the water cycle. Large areas of tree-covered land receive and hold more rain than do large areas of cleared land, extending the flow season of creeks in their watershed.