Pond It and Plug It: Restoring Wet Meadows in Northern California

This aerial image of Ash Creek Wildlife Area shows the Phase I area that was constructed last fall (background), and the Phase II area scheduled for construction this year (foreground).

Human activity unquestionably alters a landscape. However, some human practices can mimic natural processes and create a mile-wide banquet hall for many a migrating bird.

In northern California, a diverse coalition of conservation partners are implementing relatively low-cost methods to restore wet meadows to provide habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds, restore floodplains, and re-charge underground aquifers.  This area is part of what is collectively referred to as the Southern Oregon Northeastern California (SONEC) region, one of the most important areas for wetland dependent birds in the Pacific Flyway. 

Meadow restoration has been increasingly implemented across the West in recent decades, but few projects are of the scale that is underway at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Ash Creek Wildlife Area. As one of the most remote of all state or federal wildlife refuges in California, waterfowl and other migratory birds use Ash Creek and the surrounding private lands of the area as a key stopping point in their northward spring migration. The valley’s wetlands provide critical food resources and allow birds to build fat reserves for their long flight to breeding grounds. 

On the left is the Ash Creek Wildlife Area prior to the pond and plug meadow restoration project. The right image was taken after the first phase of restoration.

Ash Creek’s meadow system includes a mix of degraded and pristine wetlands. Previously, water from spring snowmelt would plunge down deeply entrenched stream channels. These oversized channels, the result of past human activity, completely contained high flows, lowered the area’s water table, and eroded valuable habitat. As such, the partnership (see list below) is implementing a series of projects to fully restore the meadow system using the “pond-and-plug” meadow restoration technique.

The pond-and-plug technique eliminates these oversized channels by designing and constructing a series of strategically placed ponds that provide the volume of dirt necessary to backfill the oversized channels.  The stream flow is then re-directed into much smaller historic channels. During annual or biennial high flow events the water overflows its stream banks and spills onto the floodplain rather than being contained in the down-cut channels. The result is slower water velocities, reduced erosion, sheet flow on the floodplain, restored ground water levels, and rejuvenated wet meadows.

“The Ash Creek project is the largest, in acres, meadow restoration project of its kind,” said Jim Wilcox, Project Manager with Feather River Coordinated Resource Management. “The many partners involved in the project have made all the difference in bringing the project to fruition.”

While it took many years to design the project, obtain necessary environmental permits, and cobble together sufficient funding, the first phase of actual construction work was accomplished over several months in late summer and fall 2012.

The first half of 2013 was especially dry in northeast California, according to John Ranlett, IWJV’s California State Conservation Partnership Co-Chair.  But with this restoration, several thousand acres of meadow that would have dried up were instead shallowly flooded and provided valuable spring migration habitat to scores of waterfowl, waterbirds, and shorebirds.

Black-necked stilts have rapidly colonized the shallow flooded areas of Ash Creek Wildlife Area and are nesting in very high numbers. Willets, killdeer, Wilson’s phalarope, American avocets, curlew, and white-faced ibis are also abundant and will use these areas to feed and nest.

“With refuges in the Klamath Basin portion of SONEC experiencing on-going water shortages that reduce spring migration habitat availability, meadow restoration projects such as those at Ash Creek become even more important regionally to our Pacific Flyway birds,” Ranlett said.  “Restored floodplain wetlands here will provide reliable spring migration habitat that will offset some of that lost in Klamath or elsewhere in SONEC, especially during drought cycles.” 

Phase One of the Ash Creek WA project is complete with 1,232 acres restored.  Project planners anticipate that Phase Two and Three will restore an additional 1,200 acres of important wetland habitat. 

“It’s a pretty amazing project,” said Project Manager Todd Sloat with Pit Resource Conservation District. “It has completely changed the waterfowl and shorebird distribution in the area, and only after a few months of implementation.”

The Ash Creek project is already providing multiple benefits for people and wildlife. The restored wetland habitat continues to attract a myriad of migratory birds, which will bring additional bird watchers and waterfowl hunters; in fact, some birds are already utilizing the restored habitats at levels previously not seen.  Livestock producers in the area will also see improved forage production due to the area’s now higher water table. 

List of partnering organizations on the Ash Creek Wildlife Area restoration: California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Pit Resource Conservation District
Sierra Nevada Conservancy
Wildlife Conservation Board
California Department of Water Resources
Feather River Coordinated Resource Management
Plumas Corporation
Ducks Unlimited
Army Corps of Engineers
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
North American Wetlands Conservation Act
California Waterfowl Association
California Regional Water Quality Control Board


Read more articles in the Fall 2013 issue of the Conservation Roundup: 

The Shorebird Character of the Intermountain West

By Brad A. Andres, National Coordinator, U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Blanca Wetlands: The Importance of Science-based Management When Resources Run Dry

By Hannah J. Ryan, IWJV Communications Specialist 

Partners Persevere for Rio Grande Despite Colossal Drought

By Alan Hamilton

Farm Bill Conservation Programs Take Root in the Palouse

By Kurt Merg, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and Don Larsen, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife