This story is part of NRS reserves transformed by Proposition 84 funds, a series describing the facilities improvements and expansions at NRS reserves supported by Proposition 84 bond funds.
By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
In the world of stream research, the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory is a big deal. Developed as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service site for studying fingerling trout, scientists have used the reach of Convict Creek southeast of Mammoth Lakes to study stream ecology and dynamics since 1935.
Back in the day, federal scientists divided the creek into two channels, complete with pools and meanders. By installing stream control structures where these parallel sections met, they created four experimental stream channels in which they could regulate the flow of water.
The site became part of the UC Natural Reserve System in 1973. When Dan Dawson was hired as the reserve’s first director in 1979, he surveyed what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service left behind. These included a few battered buildings, a lab, and the stream control structures.
“The facilities I inherited were marginally serviceable, at best,” says Dawson.
Over the next several decades, Dawson solidified the reserve’s position as a premier field station for stream and montane studies. He improved existing structures, installed a dormitory to house visitors, bought a nearby church to house the reserve’s public lecture series and serve as a classroom, and added nine replicate stream channels along a bypass channel of the creek.
By the mid-2000s, however, some these facilities needed refreshing. Among these were the reserve’s six stream control structures. Built in the 1940s, the structures had gone through countless freeze-thaw cycles. Ice expansion had cracked their concrete wing walls and piers, enabling large chunks to crumble away.
“They were almost to the point where weren’t going to be able to use them at all, leaving us with no ability to control water flow through the reserve. It would have meant we wouldn’t be able to guarantee control flow to the newer, smaller experimental streams,” Dawson says.
Age had also taken a toll on the pipes supplying water to the dorm and two other reserve buildings, among them Dawson’s own residence. “They were fed by an old galvanized pipe that had gotten corroded and smaller inside over time. I knew we had to tear up the road and run another water line down the street,” he said.
Redoing the paving on the reserve’s access road had become a priority as well. Decades of snow plowing, plus the rigors of a four-season environment, had produced a crazy quilt of cracks in the asphalt, roughened further by years of patching.
And if the road was going to be torn up and trenched for utilities, Dawson rationalized, he might as well add conduit holding fast, modern telecommunications lines to boot.
The temperature extremes in the eastern Sierra also made the reserve’s heating and electrical bills relatively high. The reserve’s open terrain, plus the many south-facing roofs on the buildings, meant the field station was ideally situated to generate much of its own electricity from solar panels—if only it had funds to install them.
The laboratory setup, too, was far from optimal. Several small offices, superfluous since the construction of a headquarters building for the reserve, reduced the space available for specimen analysis and active research. In addition to a redesign, the midcentury building also needed electrical upgrades, a modern heating system and safety features, and accessibility features to become ADA compliant.
Years of field station operations had exposed Inadequacies in the reserve setup. The most glaring was the reserve’s Green Church lecture hall. “It never met our needs well,” Dawson says. “It was noisy, next to the highway and the airport. The furnace was really loud; when it kicked on you could barely hear the speaker.” Classes tended to avoid the structure because it wasn’t near the rest of the reserve’s buildings, and crowded into the dorm common spaces instead.
Those most impacted by the lack of indoor gathering space, however, were local schoolchildren visiting the reserve on class field trips. “They had nowhere they could take shelter in inclement weather. That meant we were always making weather calls at six in the morning for school trips showing up at ten,” Dawson says.
The reserve’s many needs led Dawson to establish a development program in the 2000s to help fund improvements. “My available budget was declining while I was ramping up programmatically. At the same time, more wealthy people were buying luxury homes in Mammoth Lakes. I had an obligation to the station to ask this community to help,” he says
With the eventual blessing of the reserve’s parent campus, UC Santa Barbara, Dawson established a donor group. Member families contributed annually, providing a discretionary budget for reserve programs and building projects.
Dawson made the most out of every donated cent. To update the laboratory, he applied for a National Science Foundation grant. The catch was that the grant required an equal investment from the University. To fulfill this requirement, Dawson was able to tap gifts to the Valentine Reserve Fund.
The same NSF grant that revamped the laboratory also had provisions to install a photovoltaic solar array on the building’s roof. At the same time, Dawson tapped student association funds from UC Santa Barbara to add solar arrays on three other buildings. Together, the four arrays now generate enough electricity to meet 75% of the reserve’s needs, substantially decreasing its reliance on the grid.
Dawson then used the amounts spent on the lab and the solar arrays to qualify for state bond money to repair the stream control structures, upgrade the utilities, repave the road, and build a new lecture hall. In 2006, Californians had passed Prop. 84, providing the NRS with up to $20 million for facilities improvements or land acquisition. Like the NSF funds, the legislation required the University match any funds requested on a 1:1 basis.
“The windfall of these bond measures for the NRS can’t be overstated. I was always so desperate for those kinds of facilities-related funds,” Dawson says. “In the end, we really got a huge bang for our buck.”
While some might consider the match requirement onerous, he views the provision as a strength. “The match requirement provides great leverage that allows you to go to donors and campus and have a strong argument as to why they should put up additional monies,” Dawson says.
The road repaving project happened first, in June 2013. Contractors ground up the existing asphalt on site, buried new water lines 5 feet deep to prevent freezing, and added new electrical and communications conduit capable of supplying high-speed internet. At the same time, the workers repaved the parking lot in front of the laboratory, and installed ADA-compliant parking spots.
Next up was the creation of the Page Center, a lecture hall named for major reserve supporters Kate and Paul Page. Featuring exposed wood trusses supporting the high ceilings, the building has a lobby for visitors to mingle as well as restrooms. In addition, the center is adjacent to the dormitory, providing easy access for both visiting classes and the public.
The building is extremely energy efficient. For one thing, it is outfitted with a ground source heating system. Pipe loops filled with antifreeze and buried 150 feet underground exchange heat with the constant-temperature earth, moderating the building’s climate year-round.
On sunny days, rooftop solar panels generate more power than the center needs to meet its needs. This excess electricity is sent to the grid, where it can be drawn upon at night or snowy days. The building requires no externally generated power, making it a net zero energy structure.
Work commenced on the building in June 2014, and took a year. The grand opening, held May 30, 2015, even merited a visit by UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry Yang.
The center’s energy plan has “worked perfectly,” Dawson says. “In the first year of its operation, the building generated more energy than it consumed, and qualified for a LEED gold seal.”
The center also dramatically improved the reserve’s public lecture series. “With 60 people the Green Church was pretty crowded, while you can put 100 in the Page Center without much trouble. And the state-of-the-art audiovisual system Paul helped design lets you film the speaker and capture the presentation automatically and create a split screen of both, and you can stream all that live if you want to,” Dawson says.
Last up was the complex task of repairing the reserve’s stream control structures. Planned match funding from an NSF research project fell through, meaning the reserve had to scale back the number of structures it could replace. The reserve opted to fix the two structures farthest upstream, which controlled water to both the older replicate channels and the newer bypass channels.
In October of 2015, the contractor dammed the section of creek around the structures and diverted the rest of the water downstream. The work went relatively smoothly, considering the project had to meet 100 separate environmental permitting measures required by three different oversight agencies. The project took a month to complete, and gave new life to the reserve’s longstanding aquatic research program.
All told, the reserve requested nearly $1.4 million in Prop. 84 bond funds, matched by an equivalent amount in NSF grants, donations, student funds, and staff salary time for project oversight.
Soon after the projects were done, Dawson announced his retirement after more than 36 years at the helm of the reserve. “The only reason I could retire was these projects were done—and my wife Leslie was scared I would start something new,” Dawson laughs.