Seeing the water for the trees

Rocky Mountain residents cherish their outdoor lifestyles and the mountains and forests where they live and recreate, and forest health and water provided by public lands in this region are vital to the survival of their communities.

Wildfire, insects and drought have impacted millions of acres of public lands across the region, but there is evidence that active, pre-fire forest management has a strong connection to decreasing post-fire impacts to water. Everyone agrees healthy forests/watersheds provide quality water.

I spoke to NWTF Western Water Conservation Coordinator Travis Smith, who is based out of southern Colorado, to find out if and how managing forests before a major fire or other disturbance hits the area can affect water availability.

“In a brief, scientific answer: It depends!” he quipped. “There are a number of views on how forest treatments and the timing of those treatments affect water yield.

“In 1986, while working for the State of Colorado as a water commissioner, I attended a Forest Plan Revision meeting with the [USDA] Forest Service, which brought in experts promoting an idea that certain timber practices — clearcutting,  for instance — could increase water yield.”

From there, a whole new discussion emerged and has been heavily debated ever since.

“What we do know is forest disturbances — wildfire, disease and drought — impact water supplies, both quality and quantity, differently, depending on the characteristics of the watershed, the forest type, topography, slope direction, etc.,” he said. “How downstream communities are affected vary, as well.”

In Colorado, as in other Rocky Mountain states, much of the state’s water supply comes from winter snowpack, which melts during the spring and flows from the higher elevations through a network of natural and manmade infrastructure. This water runs down the slopes to the streams and rivers and then is collected in reservoirs. Any challenges to this system can severely impact water quantity and quality.

“Catastrophic wildfires are the biggest threat and can severely impact the surface-water infrastructure in the West,” Smith said. “Fire kills trees, brush, undergrowth, grasses, and all of these things normally prevent erosion. Without organic structure in the soil, it becomes unstable, and as the surface water flows toward the streams, rivers and reservoirs, it picks up silt and debris, carrying it into the downstream infrastructure, which creates additional problems. Silt and debris reduce reservoir capacity, and municipalities don’t want to divert this poor-quality water.”

This is why active forest management is so important in the Rocky Mountain region and why the NWTF is actively promoting stewardship work on public lands, most recently, with the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative in Colorado.

Removing standing trees that have been killed by insects and disease is one piece. Another is regular thinning prior to prescribed fire to remove fuel loads that have built up over decades. This can help create a forest landscape that can easily withstand a natural wildfire cycle: a wildfire-resilient forest.

In the West, water is the one natural resource that gets the most attention because of its scarcity. Water supply concerns are politically charged because western states representing millions of people depend on this limited supply, as do agricultural practices, industry and wildlife.

In Colorado, water supplies and conservation has evolved into a collaborative effort involving a variety of water-user groups. In 2015, the Colorado Conservation Board engaged and invited Colorado’s municipalities, government agencies, agriculture, tourism, recreation, environmental and conservation organizations to create Colorado’s first Water Plan to prepare Colorado for a secure water future.

The most important aspects of these collaboratives recognized in the Colorado Water Plan are the sharing of information and the understanding of the variety of water needs, as well as the work needed to protect it.

“Municipalities that have experienced catastrophic wildfire know first-hand how it impacts water supplies,” Smith explained. “Sharing those experiences through the Colorado Basin Roundtables, which include municipalities that have not had that experience, leads to more proactive and more inclusive planning throughout the state.”

As a result of these collaboratives, there is broad public awareness in Colorado about the connections between public lands, active forest management, wildfires and water.

“Cooperation is key,” Smith said. “This process has broken down silos within the water-user groups and the environmental and conservation communities, as well. It has really become a grassroots effort, and because of that, people recognize building partnerships, relationships and trust is the best way to make an impactful difference to the landscape and the water and forest resources.”

Article Category