Pepperwood: Island of Water

Appreciating water in an increasingly arid climate

by Tosha Comendant, Conservation Science Manager

Photo Credit – Ian A. Nelson

I rejoiced when the first drops of rain started falling several weeks back. Heading out of my home office – I just stood in the front yard, letting it soak completely through. With each drop, I felt relief that our region was entering the time of year with lower fire danger and greener hillsides. Time for our newts to begin their great migration towards the newly filled ponds and streams! I can’t wait to see how soon the Western pond turtles will start basking in the sun on the new wood raft, complete with housing sensors to monitor water depth, that we put out in our Turtle Pond.

As Pepperwood’s Conservation Science Manager, my natural instinct was to then run inside, all rain soaked, to check our Onerain website to see if our five Pepperwood gauges were registering rainfall and soil moisture data. Our state-of-the-art Sentinel Site system enables us to monitor long term trends in our region’s climate, allowing us to track changes and adapt our management strategies accordingly. I’m often comparing current weather forecasts and future climate projections to better understand how our near term field operations will be impacted, as well as how our land management actions can make our landscape better adapted to changing conditions.

Tosha Comendant. Photo Credit – Ian A. Nelson

As someone who primarily focused on terrestrial focused research, coming to Pepperwood has vastly expanded my understanding and appreciation of the importance of the water cycle. Pepperwood is like an “island of water” because our upland hills store water deep in the soil and fractured bedrock. With varying ecosystems throughout the preserve: oak woodland, grasslands, even redwood forests, we study how different vegetation systems affect water storage. We are located at the headwater of 5 watersheds, so the actions we take to conserve and restore ecosystem health have major implications for the Russian River and surrounding communities.

One of the bright spots of 2020 for Pepperwood was an award from the Wildlife Conservation Board to measure how forest restoration practices in our watershed benefit streams. In collaboration with Blue Forest Conservation, UC Davis, UC Merced, and UC Irvine, we are conducting two landscape scale experiments (Pepperwood and French Meadows in Sierra Nevada) to compare how parts of the water cycle (evapotranspiration, soil moisture, and streamflow) differ in a treated watershed (thinning and prescribed fire) versus a non-treated area.

In order to protect our “island of water” for future generations, we need to understand how our land management actions impact the cycle of water that sustains all aspects of life. These watersheds and streams don’t just sustain people, after all, but animals as well. They serve as movement corridors for wildlife, linking our landscape together and allowing for adaptation to a hotter, drier future for all of us. Pepperwood’s commitment to conserve, restore, and better understand our watersheds will help us thrive in an increasingly unpredictable environment.

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