In the second post of the American Forest Foundation’s (AFF) campaign “Vanishing Pieces of the Puzzle,” which showcases new research on the benefits provided by family-owned forests, authors Don Kennedy, Denver Water and Tom Fry discuss the importance of our nation’s working forests to water quality and quantity. Read the full post from April 2 below, or visit the “Vanishing Pieces of the Puzzle” page.
You know how important water is to our everyday lives, but did you know that more than half of the water supply in the 48 contiguous states originates on forests? Forests are nature’s water filter, capturing contaminants before they reach rivers and streams, holding the soil in place, minimizing erosion and sediment runoff. Simply put, healthy forests give us much of the abundant, clean water we depend on.
Forests provide this service for free, whether the trees are on public or private land. And while National Forests get a lot of the attention, with almost 14 million acres of family forests bordering streams and a third of U.S. forests being family-owned, these lands are a critical piece of this green infrastructure puzzle. For AFF and Denver Water, the bottom line is that to maintain a high-quality water supply, we must also maintain and invest in America’s family-owned forests.
Yet these forests are threatened. AFF’s new Vanishing Pieces of the Puzzle report demonstrates serious threats to our water supply across the country if forests are not maintained.
The report shows that threats to our family forests, including catastrophic wildfire, can significantly compromise the water quality benefits they provide. Fires that burn too hot in unhealthy forests actually bake the ground, creating waterproof soils that can’t absorb rain and lead to damaging erosion and runoff. Then the sedimentation and debris movement choke the rivers that flow into the reservoirs that store our drinking water.
We’ve seen this firsthand in Colorado.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Denver’s watersheds, on which 1.3 million people rely, were ground zero for several severe wildfires. Charred sticks were all that remained of trees; soil baked across tens of thousands of acres. The aftermath of these fires destroyed a significant portion of nature’s water filtration system. Without this green infrastructure in place, the rains that followed the fires caused substantial sediment buildup in reservoirs, which led to water quality issues and higher water treatment costs. Denver Water was forced to spend more than $27 million on water quality treatment, sediment and debris removal, and restoration. Experiences like these remind us why it’s so important to protect our water supply by investing in our forests, public and private.
And as challenging as fire is, we also recognize that there are a multitude of threats to forests all across the country. The biggest single threat to our watersheds nationwide is development, which threatens to reduce the water quality index score for water that runs through family forests by 13 percent alone. Taking into account all threats – from wildfire to insects and disease to natural disasters – this water quality score is in danger of being reduced by 19 percent. This doesn’t just affect people. Our forests also support vital wetland habitat for aquatic and terrestrial animals.
While there’s no quick fix, others can learn from our experience in Colorado. Since the massive wildfires, Denver Water and the U.S. Forest Service have invested millions of dollars in reducing fuel loads by thinning overly dense forest stands on public lands. And more recently, AFF and Denver Water partnered with The Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and others to tackle fire risk reduction on private lands in the Upper South Platte River watershed high above Denver, where there are thousands of family forest landowners.
Our work together in the Upper South Platte River can be a model of public-private partnerships to protect an important public good, and with a greater investment, we can expand our efforts to connect with restoration work being done on the Front Range through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.
We can’t replace water. Nor should we try to eliminate wildfire. But we have to invest in healthier forests to continue to enjoy abundant, clean water. And with that investment, we must work with and through our nation’s families and individuals who own the largest portion of our nation’s forests. Without their help, we cannot mitigate the threats to forests on a scale necessary to protect the many forest values we all enjoy every day.
To learn more about the Georgia Forestry Association’s efforts to improve the connection between working forests and drinking water, visit the links below or contact Director of Communications and Public Relations Matt Hestad at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 478-992-8110.