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Californians Look To Sierra Nevada Native Americans For Drought Solutions


In the Sierra Nevada above Fresno, a Native American tribe is working to thin the forest. The approach has been used for centuries to restore meadows, and now California's severe drought means these ancient techniques are a possible long-term water-saving solution. From Valley Public Radio, Ezra David Romero has the story.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Ron Goode knows the Sierra Nevada unlike most people. He belongs to the North Fork Mono Indian Tribe that calls the Sierra home. He and I are hiking to a clearing of forest he calls the unnamed meadow about one hour southwest of Yosemite.

RON GOODE: As we look around out here, even though it's foggy, you can see the thickness of the grass, and you can see all different kinds of flowers coming up.

ROMERO: One year ago, the meadow was overgrown with trees and crowded with drying plants. Because of his efforts, today the meadow is green with tall grass. It's surrounded by forest. Natural springs are flowing, and birds fill the air.

GOODE: (Chanting).

ROMERO: As we arrive, Goode sings and burns sage in order to ask his ancestors who once lived in the meadow to welcome us.

GOODE: (Chanting).

ROMERO: Goode's worked with the Forest Service and with volunteers for the last year to restore this meadow using what he calls his ancestors' ancient ways.

GOODE: We as people have not been taking care of the land through all this drought. What we're doing is grooming Mother Earth. She was overloaded with small conifers.

ROMERO: By removing trees, shrubs and non-native plants in what was once a meadow, Goode says the forest won't consume as much water. Thinner forests means snowmelt will pool in mountain meadows and eventually seep into aquifers rather than be consumed by the trees. Also, fewer trees and brush means less chance of large wildfires.

GOODE: We spent nine days on this meadow opening it up so that the snow that did come - it may have been light, but at the same time, it was heavy enough to be able to soak in and allow this meadow now to be a sponge like it was.


ROMERO: That trickle is a sound of water seeping out of a meadow. Much of the water in California comes from the Sierra Nevada. Snow falls in the mountains, melts in spring and summer, trickles down through forests and meadows and slowly fills streams and rivers. Water is eventually collected in reservoirs before reaching cities and farms.

DIRK CHARLEY: We all have something in common. It's called taking care of your land, my land, public land, but it's also tribal homeland.

ROMERO: Dirk Charley is a tribal relations specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. The partnership fostered with the North Fork Mono Tribe and the Forest Service decreases the chance of a devastating fire at the meadow site.

CHARLEY: From a fire management perspective, I look at it as, this is another one of those areas that could be utilized as a safety zone in case there's an event of a fire.

ROMERO: Meadow restoration and forest thinning are a win-win. It's good for drought and fire management. North Fork Mono tribal member Ron Goode says if they can convince more people to help clear the 6,000-plus meadows in the Sierra Nevada, his tribe's ancient ways just may be a solution to California's worsening drought.

GOODE: Our system's been broken out here, so as we repair, it will supply our valley with all the water that they need, even in a time of drought.

ROMERO: According to a University of California study, forest thinning can mean a 16 percent annual increase in water flowing out of the Sierra Nevada and into California's water supply. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Fresno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.