Speech

Forests and America’s Water Security

Tom Tidwell, Chief
American Water Resources Association
Hartford, CT
— June 27, 2013

It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here today. This organization is leading the way in addressing America’s water issues. Thank you for inviting me.

There’s a strong connection between water and forests. You might have heard of Gifford Pinchot, a great conservationist and a protégé of President Theodore Roosevelt. Pinchot put it this way: “The relationship between forests and rivers is like father and son. No father, no son.”

I’m here to talk about that connection. But first, I’ll explain who we are, because some of you might not know much about the Forest Service or why we care so much about water.

Who We Are

Our nation has the fourth largest area of forest in the world, behind Russia, Brazil, and Canada. About a third of the United States is forested. The Forest Service manages about one-fifth of that area in a system of national forests stretching from Alaska to Puerto Rico. The National Forest System covers more than 193 million acres, an area almost twice the size of California.

Not all of those 193 million acres are forested. We manage many kinds of ecosystems, including shrublands, grasslands, and arid canyonlands. Forty-four states have at least one national forest or national grassland. Connecticut is a rare exception, but the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire is only about 3 hours north of here.

In 1905, Gifford Pinchot founded the Forest Service and became our first Chief. One of the initial purposes of the national forests was to protect the nation’s water resources. In the words of our foundational legislation, the national forests were partly, and I quote, “for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows.”

Today, we manage the national forests and grasslands for a whole range of values and benefits—clean air and water, carbon sequestration, habitat for native fish and wildlife, outdoor recreation, and more. We also give technical and financial assistance to private forest landowners through the state forestry agencies. We work with the State Foresters to help private landowners manage their lands sustainably—and to address issues like habitat continuity and open space protection.

The Forest Service also has one of the largest natural resource research organizations in the world. There are 81 experimental forests nationwide, with some of the oldest experimental watersheds in the nation. We have more than a hundred years of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, wilderness, rangelands, and other resources.

We also work with other countries to share knowledge of natural resources—to help forest landowners and managers around the world manage their forests and other resources sustainably.

In short, our mission revolves around the sustainable management of all forests in the United States, public and private. We have roughly 35,000 employees working all over the country, from remote boreal forests in Alaska, to forests here in New England, to tropical forests in Puerto Rico, to urban areas like the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles. We also have staff in New York City, Chicago, and other cities who focus on urban forests.

What Role We Play

The conservation challenges we face run the gamut, from increasing intensity of wildfires, to invasive species, to a growing human population and all the associated demands on forests. One of the greatest challenges facing our nation—and, indeed, the world—is water.

Few forces are more important than water in shaping the human condition. Water is a central organizer of ecosystems. Water shapes the physical landscape and governs its vegetation, laying the very basis for human life and civilization. Water is critical to life—without it, we have no hope for food security.

Yet more than a billion people worldwide lack sufficient clean water. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005, up to 25 percent of global freshwater use exceeds sustainable supplies, and global water quality is deteriorating. By 2025, 40 percent of the world’s population could be living in water-scarce regions, especially as the climate changes.

Forests and water are connected, as conservationists have long understood. A hundred and fifty years ago, George Perkins Marsh wrote this, and I quote: “[W]hen the earth was covered with the forest, perennial springs gushed from the foot of every hill, brooks flowed down the bed of every valley.” Conversely, deforestation brought flooding, and it dried up perennial water sources.

In fact, 53 percent of our nation’s surface water supply originates on forest land, even though forests cover just 29 percent of our surface area. Public and private forest lands combined furnish water supplies for more than 180 million Americans.

The national forests and grasslands, the lands my agency manages, are the single most important source of water in the country. These lands have over 400,000 miles of streams, over three-and-a-half million acres of lakes and wetlands, over half the nation’s hydroelectric power supplies, and almost a fifth of the nation’s surface water supply. These lands furnish drinking water to about 60 million Americans living in about 3,400 communities, including great cities like Atlanta, Georgia; Denver, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon.

In a sense, the Forest Service is the nation’s largest water company. For more than a hundred years, a critical part of our mission has been sustaining the health of our nation’s forests to protect the quantity and quality of our nation’s water supply.

Our Framework for Water Stewardship

We take our mission very seriously. USDA has issued a “Call to Action for America’s Forests” to address mounting forest threats. In response, the Forest Service is accelerating the pace of ecological restoration on the national forests and grasslands.

As part of our Accelerated Restoration Initiative, we are developing a comprehensive Framework for Water Stewardship to protect and restore water sources and water-dependent resources. We have a platform for protecting water quality and water supplies based on two principles: sound watershed stewardship in partnership with states, municipalities, and others; and the advancement of science-based knowledge and understanding.

We have taken a number of steps to implement sound watershed stewardship. For example, we have developed a national program of best management practices for protecting water quality from ground-disturbing activities on the National Forest System. We have also proposed a new groundwater policy for working with partners to better protect groundwater resources.

Our scientists have developed a water balance model called WaSSI to track streamflow, evapotranspiration, and soil water moisture across more than 80,000 watersheds in the continental United States. We also developed a process and set of tools called GRAIP for analyzing the impacts of roads on forested watersheds so we can better manage them.

Working with our scientists, we developed a national Watershed Classification Framework. Based on a core set of indicators, we classified watershed conditions across the National Forest System. In May 2011, we finished classifying more than 15,000 12-digit subwatersheds.

By the end of fiscal year 2011, we identified 247 watersheds for high-priority restoration work, and we developed 205 watershed restoration action plans in partnership with local communities and other cooperators. The plans outline activities needed to restore degraded watersheds, including road improvements, culvert replacements, hazardous fuels reduction, and other restoration work.

The 205 watershed restoration action plans have identified over $500 million worth of projects. Nearly 20 percent of the funding will come from our partners and cooperators. By the end of this year, we will have completed all the identified restoration work within 25 of those high-priority watersheds.

Our Watershed Initiatives

Together with our partners, the Forest Service has taken additional measures to better manage and restore America’s watersheds. I’ll give just a few examples.

In the Pacific Northwest, we are working with partners to develop market mechanisms for cooling stream temperatures in compliance with EPA regulations. We know that restoring upstream tree cover can cool downstream water temperatures. We are exploring credit-trading mechanisms for getting downstream communities that discharge warm effluent to pay upstream landowners to restore riparian forest cover in targeted watersheds.

On the Colorado Front Range and elsewhere, we are developing watershed investment partnerships. Denver Water, for example, has invested $16.5 million over five years to help us accelerate our efforts to restore forest health in fire-ravaged parts of Denver’s municipal watershed. In exchange, the Forest Service has matched Denver Water’s $16.5 million investment. We have similar arrangements with Colorado Springs and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In California, we launched the Mokelumne Watershed Environmental Markets Initiative together with a range of partners. Restoration treatments in the upper Mokelumne watershed benefit downstream water users and reduce operational costs for utilities and water delivery agencies. We are building a market structure to connect investors with resource managers.

Our Urban Initiatives

Urban watersheds can also benefit from partnerships. America’s forests form a living continuum, ranging from remote wilderness areas, to front country campgrounds, to a farmer’s “back forty,” to shady neighborhood streets and parks. Urban forests are a vital part of that living continuum.

Roughly 83 percent of our citizens live in urban areas. America has 100 million acres of urban and community forests, an area the size of California. These forests protect our urban water resources by filtering rain and snow, regulating streamflows, and reducing stormwater runoff.

In fact, a city’s green infrastructure is every bit as important as its gray infrastructure—maybe more so.

  • Trees are good for business. People prefer to shop at stores on pleasant, shady streets. People go out more in shady neighborhoods, socializing with neighbors, and crime rates go down.
  • Shade trees can reduce residential cooling costs by up to 30 percent. A large tree in the Northeast will, over its lifetime, provide $5,870 in environmental and other benefits. That’s nearly a 440-percent return on what it costs.
  • A hundred large street trees will catch about 190,900 gallons of rainwater and remove 24 tons of carbon dioxide and 261 pounds of other pollutants.

Accordingly, the Forest Service has joined EPA and other federal agencies across the United States in working with urban neighborhoods to build green infrastructure through the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. We are taking the federal lead in some urban areas, including northwestern Indiana, where we have been working with Chicago Wilderness and other organizations for years to restore urban forests and marshlands.

In 2010, for example, we awarded a grant of $324,000 to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority through the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The grant was to help launch an online auction of green infrastructure. Infrastructure auctioned off to local residents included rain gardens, bioswales, and rain barrels. All this is helping to mitigate stormwater runoff and prevent sewer overflows, improving the health of urban watersheds.

Expanding Our Audience

So there is a lot that the Forest Service can do—a lot that we are already doing—to help secure America’s water supplies for the future. You might already know at least some of what we’re doing, because I know that some of you are partnering with us.

But I think we all need to do more to communicate to those outside the conservation community. The true measure of how clearly our message is understood is what society actually pays for in terms of budgets passed and land use decisions made. These policy decisions do not tend to be made on behalf of conservation unless people outside the conservation community understand the benefits they get from healthy, resilient watersheds.

One indication that this is not sufficiently happening is the sequester. Due to the sequester, the Forest Service is reducing spending by more than 5 percent across the board. That has had predictable impacts, such as reducing our goals for watershed restoration and cutting our firefighting resources—this in a fire season that is already shaping up to be one of the biggest fire seasons in the last 50 years, with predictable impacts on watersheds across the West.

Most Americans tend to take water for granted. The great conservationist Aldo Leopold put it this way: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

The same could be said for water—the danger of supposing that it comes from the faucet. It does not, and Americans need to understand that their water supplies are at risk. Much of the country has been in prolonged drought; the outlook for this summer again is for persistent drought, from Montana and Oregon down to the Mexican border, from the California coast to the central Great Plains.

It is tempting to think of drought as temporary, but in an era of climate change, that is wishful thinking. One expert put it this way: “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.”

Climate change aside, the past century is not a reasonable guide to the future for water management. Over the past hundred years, population and water infrastructure have rapidly grown across the West during a period that was much wetter than the long-term average. Now we could be entering a much drier period in the West, more in line with the long-term average over the past 1,200 years. People need to understand that so we can be prepared.

So what can we do? Forests and water are connected. Across the Forest Service, we are taking steps with our partners to protect America’s water sources in an era of climate change.

  • We are protecting and restoring riparian forests to reduce stream temperatures and increase the quality of aquatic habitats.
  • We are improving or decommissioning roads to reduce erosion, increase flood plain connectivity, decrease peak flows, and reduce temperature impacts.
  • We are restoring meadows, wetlands, and flood plains to improve ecological continuity, increase water storage, reduce flood flows, and raise late summer flows.
  • We are restoring and maintaining persistently wet places as “biological oases” for watershed resilience and for aquatic species.
  • We are removing migration barriers and reestablishing habitat connectivity to help species adapt to changing conditions.
  • We are strategically reducing wildfire risks in watersheds vulnerable to excessive erosion, stream temperature increases, and other impacts.

These steps are also good for jobs and the economy. One study has shown that every million dollars spent on restoration activities generates 12 to 28 jobs, which compares favorably to most other economic activities. Restoration is good for the environment, it’s good for the economy, and it’s good for local communities where jobs might be lacking.

The bottom line is this: Changes are coming in both the quantity and the quality of our water supplies. As a result, our national water security could be increasingly at risk. Because forests and water are so closely linked, there are things we can and should do as a nation through sound forest management to mitigate the effects of global change. For that, we need sound public policy in terms of budgets passed and land use decisions made. I believe we need to do more to help policymakers understand the choices they face.

Why Focus on Forestry?

In closing, our nation has come a long way in water conservation—but we still have a long way to go. In 1957, a conservationist wrote of water as “the orphan stepchild of the entire conservation picture” and of “our polluted streams” as a “national disgrace.”

Partly through the Clean Water Act, we have made great strides since. And yet, as I have traveled around the country and talked with many different people, I hear time and again that water, in connection with climate change and a growing population, remains one of the gravest long-term challenges facing conservation in the 21st century.

As a forester who has spent my career on public lands and in partnership with State Foresters and other land managers, I know that forests can and do make a huge difference in the quantity and quality of our water supplies. I commend AWRA for helping to shine a national spotlight on water-related issues, and I urge you to work with the Forest Service to protect and restore the forests that supply so much of the water we need.

Thank you.

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