Photo via Chi King via Flickr CC
A new report by the US Forest Service shows that forests play a vital role in protecting watersheds from the impacts of climate change. After two years of research, Water, Climate Change, and Forests: Watershed Stewardship for a Changing Climate shows that ecosystems that have healthy watersheds can sustain changes and keep ecosystems functioning, especially if they're from forested areas. So, protecting forests means protecting future water supplies. And that means strengthening the role of the Forest Service in everything from hydroelectric power projects to storm water treatment programs."Water from forested lands supports people, ecosystems, agriculture, industry, and energy production and is immensely valuable and irreplaceable," said Michael Furniss, a hydrologist with the PNW Research Station and lead author of the publication. "With a changing climate, the need for stewardship of forested watersheds to secure high-quality water supplies and healthy aquatic ecosystems is more important than ever."
The report states that water from forested watersheds is irreplaceable habitat for many species, and supports human habitat too, from farms to industry to energy production. Ensuring that our forests remain healthy and along with them high-quality water sheds is "fundamental to our prosperity and our stewardship responsibility."
Forest management provides important opportunities for adaptation because forests are the most plentiful source of the cleanest water; are the last refuges of valued species that have been extirpated from other areas; are often located in the mountains and thus provide the first opportunity to store, filter, and release water for downstream uses; and provide the earliest opportunity to measure precipitation and streamflows, thereby allowing water managers to forecast supplies and adjust downstream water storage systems.
The report details the pressures on forests, including booming human populations and problems posed by climate change, from warmer temperatures to invasive species. But it also details the importance of collaboration among forest managers to secure and steward watersheds.
"We face many serious challenges in managing forested watersheds, and it is notable that the Forest Service has remarkable expertise and experience to do this work," Furniss said. "The Forest Service has over 800 water and aquatic ecosystem specialists posted in hundreds of locations all over the country, a robust research base and capacity, and decades of experience in watershed stewardship."
The document lines out practices and procedures that can keep watersheds resilient, from limiting groundwater pumping and keeping storm water runoff and streams separated, to play key roles in hydroelectric projects and participating in water supply negotiations.
A read through the report brings to light the many major ways the US Forest Service does and will help ensure safe, clean water coming from healthy forested areas. Not only is this service branch important now, but as our water supplies dwindle and become increasingly polluted, we're going to rely more and more on the US Forest Service to help keep our water safe.
The stakes for good watershed stewardship are raised dramatically by climate change and population growth. How best to respond is no mystery: watersheds must remain resilient to adapt to land use and climate change, rebound from disturbances, and adjust to new conditions. There is much we can do, and we have a long history and abundant knowledge and experience in doing this work: the science and practice of sound watershed stewardship.
We have good reason to hope and every reason to act.
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