Earth Operative: Conservationist Kristen Podolak

Competitive paddler and environmental scientist Kristen Podolak works at the confluence of water and fire as The Nature Conservancy's conservation planner


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Kristen Podolak landed a sweet internship at National Geographic right out of college and worked in the magazine’s photo department for five years. It was there, while working on a feature about the long, protracted battle to protect Chesapeake Bay from the ravages of civilization, and another about the landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead, that she felt her vocational calling. If conventional watershed restoration tends to fall short, could it be fixed through a collaboration with urban planners and landscape architects?

Her curiosity landed her at Berkeley, where she emerged with a PhD in river restoration. She began her role as conservation planner at The Nature Conservancy last year. We sat down with Podolak to talk about her work to protect watersheds from forest fires and her feelings about artificial, coal-powered whitewater paddling.

OUTSIDE: So, what’s your day job like?
PODOLAK: I work in the Northern Sierra Nevada range from Battle Creek in the north to the Mokelumne watershed in the south including the Truckee, Carson, and Walker Rivers that flow toward Nevada. Specifically I work on projects related to thinning forests to reduce wildfire risk and potentially increase water yield, protecting land from development, and allowing for green infrastructure solutions to climate change such as meadow restoration which can increase late summer stream flow by storing groundwater.

The idea is to foster the watershed’s natural ability to filter and supply water and provide other functions, known as ecosystem services, that we all benefit from. I am trying to link forest and meadow restoration with healthier watersheds by working with the beneficiaries of clean water.

In the Mokelumne watershed we’re working with the Forest Service and other partners (East Bay Municipal Utility District, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Sierra Pacific Industries, Foothill Conservancy, and others) to see how much money and resources they could save through thinning forests in the Mokelumne headwaters, before a potential wildfire impacts the water supply for the East Bay area and its metro areas, such as Berkeley and Oakland. Post-wildfire fire sediment degrades water quality and fills reservoirs, decreasing their storage capacity. High sediment levels can also impact fish and other aquatic species in the stream.

I don’t think people don’t generally associate forest fires with water quality. But that’s a big part of your focus.
I think people look at the Sierra Nevada forests and say, well that’s a healthy forest. Why would you want to cut trees? I think there is a big hurdle to overcome in raising awareness about the need for forest thinning and prescribed burning to secure the water supply and forest resiliency.

After a big fire, when it rains or the snow melts, a lot of sediment erodes off the hillslopes into the water, which degrades water quality, habitat, and fills reservoirs, reducing water storage. The sediment can be very costly to remove and, in some cases, cities have to find alternative sources of water immediately after a fire. 

It seems like Ecosystem Services is just starting to become part of a mainstream environmental discussion.
I think some cities recognized the importance of headwaters conservation very early—New York City for example in securing their water supply. Additionally, one of the mandates of the Forest Service is to protect the water supply. Today, the concept of ecosystem services has more of an economic focus and the goal is to make a business case for the services.

With increased fuel loading in the forest, fires doesn’t just burn hot, they burns at high intensity and can kill most trees even the large, old ones. The higher intensity fires are a function of our past land use management, from logging to fire suppression. It would be great to get fire back in the landscape but you have to take steps. You have to thin in order to make sure the fires don’t burn at intensities outside of the normal range. 

Today, the Forest Service treats about 88,000 acres per year, or 18% of the land that historically burned in the Sierra Nevada.  There is a lack of funding for forest treatment and a clear need to restore forest health to secure clean and reliable water.   

Is the 2002 Hayman Fire in Colorado, which filled Denver Water’s drinking reservoirs with sediment, a case study in what not to do? 
Denver thought they’d be able to dredge out a lot of the sediment from the Strontia Springs Reservoir, but in reality it was more expensive and difficult than predicted. So in order to prevent future dredging and other wildfire costs, the Forest Service and Denver Water split $32 million in investment over five years to do forest thinning in certain areas to secure the water supply.

Santa Fe was more proactive than Denver and looked at the Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos, New Mexico in the adjacent watershed and said, “We should do something, because our water supply is really vulnerable.” So they invested $4 million over 20 years. The forest treatments were prescribed burning and forest thinning. It’s rare to have such a proactive approach, and the norm is Denver’s reactive approach.

Give us a quick CV on your paddling career.
I started paddling in college, at Dartmouth. I was swimming in college, but then I stopped swimming and started paddling. That was in ’97. I began competing and won silver in the 2005 Freestyle World Championships, silver in the 2007 U.S. Slalom National Championships and bronze and gold, respectively, at the U.S. Surfski National Championships. I still kayak and surfski recreationally and competitively.

As a competitive athlete and an environmentalist, do you see a lot of potential, in terms of reducing the environmental impact of racing? And in terms of using the sports as platforms for getting messages across?
Definitely. This is a really close to the heart topic for me. One of the things I’ve studied is artificial whitewater. These courses were originally created to make water safer for boats and better for fish. But then whitewater slalom became an Olympic sport. In Sydney, Australia, they didn’t have a whitewater river to have the competition on, so they built a whitewater pumped re-circulating course. Not the most sustainable thing.

I was training for slalom and was spending a lot of time on artificial whitewater in the Eastern U.S. and I realized that I wanted to train and go to the Olympics but I was really unhappy about paddling on a coal-fired power plant course. It’s got its use and I understand the competitive need to control flow or the desire to have the obstacles be completely movable but it made me question the sport and realized I wanted to instead spend my time exploring new places which has always been what paddling let me do.

I think race organizers can do a lot more in terms of whitewater course design to be sustainable and in any event.

Are there things that can be done to make artificial whitewater less bad?
The Beijing Olympic course was one really big pump. But in England for the last Games they built two separate courses with two separate pumps: One competition pump, which is really big volume and one with a smaller pump that is used all year. That was their way to get around the issue of always having to run the bigger pump, which consumes a lot of energy. We have two courses in the U.S., but none use two pumps. We have a ways to go.

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