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FS helps with watershed monitoring, restoration for Ecuadorian drinking water

WASHINGTON, DC—Earlier this month, Cynthia Valle, forest hydrologist on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, and Gretchen Fitzgerald, forester for the San Juan National Forest, traveled to Ecuador to provide technical capacity building support to colleagues at the Fund for Water Protection (Fondo Para La Proteccion del Agua, or FONAG) a non-governmental organization based in Quito, Ecuador. The Forest Service has been working with FONAG for the past 10 years on watershed monitoring in the Antisana Area for Water Conservation.

Landscape view of Ecuadorean volcano.
A view of Antisana Volcano and the páramo ecosystem in the Antisana Area for Water Conservation, Ecuador. USDA Forest Service photo.
Experts examine a dried, eroded watershed.
Forest Service and Fund for Water Conservation specialists studied a heavily eroded area caused by decades of sheep and cattle grazing in Antisana Area for Water Conservation. This watershed serves as the primary source of drinking water for the city of Quito, Ecuador. USDA Forest Service photo.

The Antisana area is particularly important as it provides the city of Quito, which has a population of 1.6 million, with a large portion of its water. It covers 8,487.03 hectares and corresponds to the páramo ecosystem, which is characterized by high montane tropical herbaceous vegetation that develops between the timberline and the snowline. Páramo ecosystems are recognized for their capacity to retain humidity and regulate water flows. Before being recently designated for conservation, for many decades the area was used for intensive sheep and cattle grazing. The grazing practices caused severe erosion and altered the water regulation capacity of the unique páramo soil.

Over the past decade, the Forest Service has provided ongoing capacity building trainings for the scientists at FONAG, beginning with simple watershed monitoring techniques like stream gauges, wells and piezometers before advancing to more complex techniques. During this recent trip, Forest Service specialists and their FONAG counterparts set up a series of dye-tracer injection sites that will enable them to evaluate the flow patterns of ground water within the ACHA. The team also developed protocol for sampling the injection sites over the next several months; Cynthia Valle will continue to provide remote support to the hydrologists from FONAG as they analyze the samples.

In addition to watershed monitoring, the Forest Service team also provided recommendations for next steps to restore the páramo ecosystem. By knowing the underground path of the water in the Antisana area and restoring the páramo ecosystem, FONAG can identify important recharge zones and improve integrated water management in the area. These things will contribute to the overall improvement of Quito’s water supply.