March 2017

Meadow Magic, a Tool for Water Management and Increasing Biodiversity


Paul Paryski


Charles Dickens, in his wonderful novel, A Tale of Two Cities, wrote:


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.



Dickens could have been describing the last two or three decades. Poverty has decreased even for those in developing countries, but the income gaps between the very rich and the poor have soared. Humanity faces many unprecedented, potentially devastating challenges, one of the most pernicious being anthropogenic global warming and climate change.


In the arid Southwest, climate change and global warming are already impacting our natural resources, our environment and especially our water supply. According to the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, the American Southwest is predicted to be one of the regions in the world most affected. The region’s ecosystems are slowly but inexorably migrating uphill and northward, decreasing biodiversity and unbalancing native plant and animal ecology. Wildfires and bark beetles are devastating montane forests and watersheds, particularly on Colorado’s mountain slopes. Snowpacks are diminishing, and melting much earlier. Since snowpacks are smaller and often covered with dust, more heat and energy are being absorbed due to the decreased reflectivity (reduced albedo effect). Higher temperatures increase both evaporation and evapotranspiration, which in turn reduces infiltration into aquifers, streams and rivers.


As a result, less water will be available to meet increasing demand. Although population seems to be remaining stable in New Mexico, the population of cities such as Santa Fe is increasing, leading to more demand for water.


Actually, there are many possible solutions to better balance water supply and demand. Water conservation and more effective management of water supply systems have helped reduce per capita use in some cities. But the gap between supply and demand will continue to rise in northern New Mexico, as indicated by the adjacent graph from the 2016 updated Jémez y Sangre Regional Water Plan.


One often-overlooked technique to augment water supply from montane watersheds, the largest source of water in the West, is the creation of small meadows. When snow falls in the mountains, some of it lands on the branches of conifer and other trees. This snow sublimates (evaporates) into the dry, high, windy and sunny air of the Southwest and never reaches the ground.


Montane forests in the West often have very high and unnaturally high tree densities, probably due to ill-conceived fire suppression. Forest fires have always been part of the natural regime and produce numerous meadows. Recently, prescribed burns and forest thinning have become one of the dominant tools of forest management.


It would be relatively easy to create small meadows when thinning forests. Doing so allows snow and other forms of precipitation to fall directly on the ground or on small plants and infiltrate into the ground slowly. In Hydrology and the Management of Watersheds (K.N. Brooks et al, Iowa State University Press, Second Edition, 1997, p 329-336), the classic textbook on watershed hydrology, the authors quote studies that show that in small cleared areas in montane forest watersheds, snow water equivalents (absorption rates) were 15-35 percent higher. Other more recent studies, such as Montane Meadows in the Sierra Nevada: Changing Hydroclimatic Conditions and Concepts for Vulnerability Assessment (J.H. Vier et al, Center for Watershed Science, UC Davis, 2013), confirm these findings.


Small meadows also dramatically increase floral and faunal biodiversity. Meadow ecotones (transition zones) provide food and shelter for animals.


It is relatively easy to create small meadows using machinery or, in places that are difficult to access or where machinery is not allowed, by manual methods. 


One of the most important and effective river protection organizations, American Rivers, has initiated a large project with The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to restore meadows in the Sierra Nevada. To quote from American Rivers’ Mountain Meadows Clean Water Project description:


There are few places as majestic as a mountain meadow, and few landscapes that safeguard our rivers’ headwaters as well as a healthy meadow. Healthy meadows provide many of the outstanding natural benefits that floodplains do:

·        Meadows store spring floodwaters and release cool flows in late summer;

·        Grasses and soil filter out sediment and pollutants; and

·        Flowers and plants provide high-quality forage and habitat for rare and threatened species.

·        As it becomes clear what a healthy meadow can provide, private ranchers, foundations, utilities, government agencies, conservation groups and others are all investing in meadow restoration.


Meadows are also very effective in making watersheds more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Increased biodiversity allows montane watersheds to adapt more effectively. More diverse species means more can survive. Meadows also slow wildfire propagation.


Hopefully, federal and state agencies and environmental organizations will seriously consider creating small meadows as a method of increasing water supply, adapting to climate change and increasing biodiversity.



Paul Paryski, former chief technical advisor for United Nations Development Programme, served on (NM) Gov. Bill Richardson’s Blue Ribbon Water Task Force, the Jémez y Sangre Water Planning Council and the (NM) State Engineer’s Water Wise Development Committee. He helped write and pass New Mexico’s Graywater Act and State Water Planning Act, and organized the first Jémez y Sangre Water Summit in 2005. He is currently on the executive committee of the Northern New Mexico Group of the Sierra Club.





Meadow on My Mind


Written by Ottar


Green moss thick and dark, grows slowly

The wild flowers rise and reach, to catch the breeze

Lichen lie low a lacklustre collect, on the rock and lee


There are no walls, the barriers and possibilities are nature’s ways

The birds sing among the Wisteria, to attract the mysterious

The wildflower petals open sun-wide to receive the bees


The tiniest things of nature, can confound the human mind

Insect, animal, and human are not the only occupants

The birds fly to chase and catch a meal, then return fastidious


E’er so often you may imagine, to see with disbelief, smallish things

Clear blue above, yet does your head not heavy grow, give in

It is not your tired eyes, that fool with faerie-sized inhabitants,    


Did you see the Twinkles moving, from the corner of your eye 

Breathe, soft and become the meadow grasses long and tall

Clouded vision, any friend of nature, finds a pillow, live long 


I have been to this very meadow, seems just recently,                    

Green moss thick and dark, grows slowly

Skin so soft petals enrich all dreams, on waking without the fall

Lichen lie low a lacklustre collect, on the rock and lee




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