Hydro-ecological modeling provides a cost-effective method for evaluating the effects of vegetation change on water cycling within a catchment. In mountain watersheds, change in forest vegetation not only has direct effects on transpiration rates, but also energy exchanges that influence patterns of snow ablation. In this study, treatment scenarios were implemented using the Regional Hydro-Ecological Simulation System (RHESSys) to estimate impacts on key elements of the hydrologic cycle affected by forest harvesting - snowpack accumulation, ablation, transpiration, and streamflow. Twelve headwater catchments (0.5 - 2.6 km2, 1460 - 2450m) in the mixed-conifer zone of the central Sierra Nevada, within the Sierra and Tahoe National Forests, were included for analysis. These research sites are part of the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP), located in the headwaters of the American and Merced Rivers, and the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) in the Kings River basin. Two methods of forest harvesting were simulated in the study watersheds: 1) uniform canopy thinning, through reduction of Leaf Area Index (LAI) values and 2) strip-cut treatments, suggested as the best method for retaining snowpack. Results from this study compare the influence of vegetation on water cycle dynamics through the two harvesting treatments, initial vegetation densities, and individual catchment size. Model simulations for pre-treatment snow depth, soil moisture, and streamflow were validated with SNAMP and CZO in-situ measurements. Preliminary results show that a linear reduction of forest canopy reduces transpiration accordingly, but produces a non-linear increase in streamflow. Peak discharges also increased, occurring earlier in the spring and having more pronounced effects in the smaller catchments. Based on these results, harvesting thresholds required for obtaining increases in water yield are evaluated. Investigating the impact of forest management on these elements of the hydrologic cycle is essential in the mountain west, where ecosystem services are provided by the snowpack acting as a natural water reservoir, and streamflow which supplies a significant portion of water for hydropower, agricultural irrigation, and urban areas during the spring melt period.
Saksa, P.C., Bales, R.C., Ray, R.L. (2011): Forest management for water: a hydro-ecological modeling exercise of headwater catchments in the mixed-conifer belt of the Sierra Nevada. Fall meeting, American Geophysical Union, December 2011. Abstract H51D-1230. .