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Water quality and forest restoration in the Lake Tahoe basin: impacts of future management options

Mariana Dobre, Department of Soil and Water Systems, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, USA
Jonathan W. Long, USDA-FS Pacific Southwest Research Station, Davis, California, USA
Charles Maxwell, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
William J. Elliot, USDA-FS Rocky Mountain Research Station (retired), Moscow, Idaho, USA
Roger Lew, Virtual Technology and Design, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, USA
Erin S. Brooks, Department of Soil and Water Systems, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, USA
Robert M. Scheller, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-13133-270206

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Abstract

Land managers in the Lake Tahoe basin are considering increasing the use of prescribed fire and forest thinning to restore conditions that will be more resilient to wildfires. However, such restorative treatments also constitute disturbances that could increase sediment and nutrient loads. We examined whether the water-quality impacts from future treatments are likely to be lower compared to the potential impacts from future wildfires under various climate change scenarios. We applied an online interface for the Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP) model in combination with a landscape change model (LANDIS-II) to evaluate the effects of different combinations of thinning and prescribed burning on fine sediment (< 2 mm), very fine sediment (< 16 µm), and phosphorus over time. First, we generated results based on historic weather data for soil disturbance conditions, including: an undisturbed baseline, a uniform thinning treatment; a uniform prescribed fire treatment; and uniform low, moderate, and high wildfire burn severity. Residual ground cover declined in that order, and expected loads of sediment and phosphorus increased. We then combined the estimated loads from hillslopes with projected management-disturbance regimes across each decade of the next century. We found that expected sediment and phosphorus loads were lower under the scenario that emphasized thinning, whereas scenarios that increased prescribed burning resulted in loads that were comparable to scenarios that involved less treatment. These results reflect the finding from the WEPP analysis that prescribed burning is expected to reduce ground cover more than is thinning. Our analysis supports efforts to increase fuel reduction treatments to mitigate future wildfires, but it also suggests that preventative treatments may not avoid a long-term decline in water quality as wildfires increase with climate change.

Key words

forest management; Lake Tahoe basin; landscape modeling; nutrients; soil erosion; water quality

Copyright © 2022 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

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