What we do to help Elder Creek’s flow and vitality:
• Minimize water use and eliminate wasting water.
• Never pump from the creek.
• Capture rain and phase-out using our well.
• Size our garden and mini-orchard to our rainwater holding tanks.
• Changed our gardening habits: grow in the winter and spring, not the summer.
• Legally prohibit water-intensive businesses or hobbies.
• Restore beaver habitat to encourage beaver population growth.
• Build small check dams in the creek (like a beaver).
• Revegitate bare land to minimize or eliminate rainwater run-off.
• Use targeted grazing with goals that include restoration of native flora.
• Minimize necessary areas of bare and/or compacted ground.
• Never kill any healthy native trees.
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.
One of the greatest shapers of this and most other watersheds in North Amercia prior to the arrival of Europeans was the beaver. Beavers are masters of slowing, spreading and sinking water into soil, creating a sponge-like land lining the creeks they inhabit. These wetlands not only provide excellent habitat for thousands of species of plants and animals, they also keep creeks flowing much longer than in creeks where beavers are absent. Beavers are now commonly used to restore salmon and trout habitat in Oregon and Washington, and their reintroduction in areas of Utah has made formerly seasonal creeks perennial. We encourage beavers by allowing dense stands of willow and cottonwood to develop naturally and we have plans to plant other native trees along the creek. We also build beaver-like dams of sticks, logs and stones in hopes of attracting beavers to our site each spring. Even when these fail to attract a beaver family, small check dams have the beneficial effects of slowing, spreading and sinking the water, thereby extending the flow season.
Above the floodplain, there are other things we do to improve the health of the creek. We use rainwater harvesting earthworks, specifically small check dams in seasonal drainages and berms and basins in our garden. All earthworks are covered in vegetation or mulch. We highly recommend Brad Lancaster’s book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, as it details why capturing rain as high as possible in your watershed is so valuable, and it tells you how to do it.
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.
It has been standard in this region and all over California to graze animals using the set stocking method or to not graze animals at all. Set stocking, which is allowing the herd to roam freely within a large area, leads to overgrazing of some plants and no grazing of others, both of which cause a decline in soil health and its ability to hold water. In arid regions, not grazing land, or resting it, may ensure the same decline, sometimes with the eventual endpoint being desertification, as has happened in some national parks in western North America. For a thorough look at this, we suggest Allan Savory’s Holistic Management.