Watershed still in harm's way

Sean Kriletich, a member of the Calaveras Grown board of directors, and other local volunteers spread straw mulch in the Butte Fire burn area on Saturday morning.

Volunteers continue efforts to protect river

Local volunteers were spreading straw mulch for the 47th time in the Butte Fire burn area on Saturday in an effort to protect the Calaveras River and help the soil retain water. Soon that will have to come to a stop.

“It’s going to be too hot and actually unsafe for fire,” said Sean Kriletich, a board member of the marketing cooperative for agricultural producers, Calaveras Grown. Kriletich has been spearheading the erosion control effort in the burn area through donations and the help of volunteers.

To date, Calaveras Grown has spread straw mulch on roughly 33 properties using a straw blower donated by Richard and Holly Mines and the assistance of volunteers who spread the straw by hand. Kriletich said they still have about 20 to 30 more requests for erosion control from property owners.

Calaveras Grown also recently received $10,000 each from the City of Stockton and the Stockton East water district and $5,000 from the Calaveras County Water District to assist with erosion control. That money has already been spent, Kriletich said, but small donations are still filtering in.

And more needs to be done because the situation remains dire, Kriletich said. The drought, a layer of hydrophobic ash, and a lack of ground cover on the soil are working together to create the perfect situation for another fire.

Generally, rainwater that falls to the ground gets purified as it moves through the soil and works its way into the springs and waterways. This year, however, Kriletich said there is a layer of ash covering the soil that makes it impermeable to water.

“That water was clean because it went through the ground to get to the stream,” Kriletich said. “Now it’s just going over land.”

Additionally, the leaves that would have fallen to the ground and put water and organic matter back into the soil were burnt up during the fire.

“Unless we have mulch on the ground or native ground cover that hasn’t burnt up, that water’s not going to infiltrate into the ground,” Kriletich said. “That also shortens the period that we’re going to see flow in the Calaveras River.”

The area’s trees have already been stressed for years because of drought conditions, and now that the Butte Fire has taken away their mulching system, Kriletich said they are particularly susceptible to pests.

“Just take a trip down to Mariposa (County) and you’ll see where we’re headed next,” Kriletich said. “All the conifers are dead.”

More than 80 percent of the pine trees in Mariposa County have fallen prey to the bark beetle epidemic that continues to move northward.

Kriletich said the bark beetle is always present, but usually trees are able to fight them off by pitching them out with their sap.

“Often you’ll see on a tree that’s being attacked by beetles, but that is healthy enough to defend itself, you’ll see sap pouring out,” Kriletich said. “That sap has little beetles in it.”

However, when there’s not enough water in the soil, the trees cannot produce enough sap flow through its vascular system to pitch the beetles out.

In Calaveras County, Kriletich said the oak trees in the area are susceptible to scale insects and other pests that have started attacking trees earlier and earlier in the year.

Usually they begin attacking the oak trees around November, but now they have begun attacking the trees in June. Kriletich said this is a symptom that the trees are reaching a state of unhealthiness that is usually not reached until several months later in the year.

On top of that, Kriletich said most of the seeds were sterilized in the areas that burned really hot.

“Until either people or the actions of birds and squirrels bring seeds back to areas like this one, it’s going to be pretty black for a long time,” Kriletich said.

As a volunteer effort run on donations, Calaveras Grown is doing as much as it can and is as funded as it could be, Kriletich said. In order to be more, the group would need an exponential growth in donations to employ a full-time staff.

The group’s next step is to engage the local and state government, as well as private landowners, and any other entities that benefit from the watershed and have “a much larger conversation about the health of our forest.”

“These are symptoms of a bigger problem,” Kriletich said. “How are we going to solve that bigger problem?”

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