Securing America’s Water Resources Through Effective Land Management

Gail Kimbell, Regional Forester, Northern Region
American Water Resources Association, National Conference
New Orleans, LA
— November 19, 2008

It’s a pleasure to be here today. The events convened by AWRA have helped people share and challenge state-of-the-science findings, understand their individual responsibilities, build constituencies around common interests, exchange ideas for collaborative action, and inform institutions and policymakers about critical needs associated with water resources. I commend you for hosting and participating in these vital dialogues.

There’s an old Scottish proverb: “We’ll never know the worth of water till the well go dry.” We’ll never know the true worth of forests, either, until rivers and streams go dry. There’s a strong connection between forests and rivers, and I’m here to make that connection. First, I’ll explain who we are, because some of you might not know much about the U.S. Forest Service or why we care so much about water.

What Is the Forest Service?

About a third of the United States is forested—the fourth largest forest estate in the world. The Forest Service manages about 20 percent of our nation’s forestlands in a system of national forests that stretch from Alaska to Puerto Rico. It 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 most U.S. forest ecosystems, plus shrublands, rangelands, and canyonlands. Forty-three states have at least one national forest or national grassland. Louisiana has the Kisatchie National Forest, and there are national forests not far from here in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas. We manage more than 133,000 miles of trail; 35 million acres of the National Wilderness Preservation System; municipal watersheds; permit use for ski areas; guides and outfitters; and critical wildlife habitat for mammals, reptiles, anadromous fish, insects, and plants. Public lands, and especially the national forests and grasslands, have become a last refuge for some endangered species—some of the last places where they find the habitat they need to survive.

In the East, 83 percent of the forestland is in private ownership. The U.S. government has no direct role in regulating private forestland. Individual states govern private forestry through state forestry laws, which vary widely. But the Forest Service does give technical and financial assistance to private forest landowners through the state forestry agencies. We work with the State Foresters in all fifty states and all five territories to help private landowners manage their lands sustainably—and to address issues like habitat continuity and conservation of open space.

The Forest Service also has one of the largest natural resource research organizations in the world. We have research stations and labs, and we share positions with many universities. There are 81 experimental forests nationwide, and some of the oldest experimental watersheds in the nation. We have 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.

Connecting our research with our management responsibilities gives us a strong forestry organization. Our research and land management professionals work hand-in-hand to create new knowledge and to use science to solve the most vexing conservation problems we face—and to open up exciting new management opportunities. Our mission extends to all forests in the United States, public and private. We have roughly 35,000 employees working all over the country, in remote areas of the Chugach National Forest in Alaska, tropical forest in Puerto Rico, and more urban areas like the Angeles National Forest outside LA and the Pike and San Isabel National Forests outside Denver, Colorado. We also have staff in New York City, Chicago, and other cities who focus on urban forests.

What Water-Related Challenges Do We Face?

What conservation challenges do we face? They run the gamut, from increasing intensity of wildfires, to invasive species, to a growing population and all the associated demands on wildlands. One of the greatest challenges facing our nation—and, indeed, the world—is water, and forests have a critical role to play.

Few forces are more important than water in shaping the human condition. Water is a central organizer of ecosystems. It shapes the physical landscape and governs its vegetation, laying the very basis for human life and civilization. Yet an estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide lack sufficient clean water. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 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.

American water supplies are also at risk. Much of the Southwest is in long-term drought; one study found a 50-percent chance that Lake Mead will go dry by 2021. 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.”

Water shortages are also reaching into the eastern states. In 2007, the Southeast reportedly had the worst drought in a hundred years. At one point, Atlanta’s main source of water, Lake Lanier, had barely four months of water left; Georgia established statewide, year-round restrictions on outdoor watering that remain in place today. The Government Accountability Office projected that at least 36 states would face water shortages by 2013.

Climate change is part of the problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that runoff and water availability will decrease by 10 to 30 percent at middle latitudes around the world, including much of the United States. The West will likely see smaller snowpacks and more winter flooding, with earlier snowmelts contributing to lower summer streamflows. As temperatures warm and streamflows decline earlier each year, fire seasons are already becoming more severe.

At the same time, demand for water will continue to grow. From 1950 to 2000, water used nationwide for electricity rose by almost 500 percent and for irrigation by about 50 percent. Water withdrawals have stabilized since 1985, but the U.S. population is projected to rise from 300 million to about 570 million by 2100. Already, many water tables have fallen due to unsustainable use, particularly on the High Plains. The Ogallala Aquifer has been reduced to half of its original volume, because withdrawal rates are 14 times greater than recharge rates.

Increasingly, water quantity issues are tied to water quality issues. Ground water withdrawals have led to saltwater intrusions into municipal water supplies in Texas and almost every state along the Atlantic seaboard. Drawdowns in the urban corridor along Lake Michigan have reduced water quality for millions of urban residents. In suburban Milwaukee, for example, radium in the aquifer exceeds safety standards for drinking water. Surface water pollution has also caused illness and even death. From 1990 to 2000, there were at least 10 instances of contaminated drinking water due to cryptosporidium, a waterborne pathogen. The worst case was in 1993 in Milwaukee, where about 403,000 people became seriously ill, resulting in 69 deaths.

What Role Can the Forest Service Play?

So what role does the Forest Service play in all this? Forests and water are connected, as conservationists have long understood. A hundred and fifty years ago, George Perkins Marsh wrote that “when the earth was covered with the forest, perennial springs gushed from the foot of every hill, brooks flowed down the bed of every valley.” Almost a hundred years ago, Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief, put it this way: “The relationship between forests and rivers is like father and son. No father, no son.”

In fact, 53 percent of the water supply in the lower 48 states originates on forestland, though forests cover just 29 percent of the surface area. The national forests and grasslands are the single most important source of water in the country, with over 400,000 miles of streams, over 3 and a half million acres of lakes and wetlands, over half the nation’s hydroelectric power supplies, and almost a fifth of the water supply in the lower 48 states. Public and private forestlands combined furnish water supplies for more than 138 million Americans. One of the reasons that our forebears made the decision in the 1800s to set aside forest reserves, now our national forests, had to do with needing to protect the water supply. A critical part of our Forest Service mission remains sustaining the health of our forests to protect the quality of our nation’s water supply.

We take our mission very seriously. The Forest Service is preparing a national strategy for helping to secure the nation’s water supplies by managing forests and other wildlands on a watershed basis for long-term ecosystem health. Our emphasis is on providing effective watershed stewardship, serving as leaders and innovators, and advancing and exchanging science-based knowledge. For more than a century, the Forest Service has managed the national forests and grasslands for water and other uses. We also contribute through our research and development—by studying watersheds, monitoring trends, and helping land managers and policymakers make decisions about forests and water resources based on sound science. In addition, we have contributed by working through the states to improve watershed management on private lands. We also work in urban areas, where 80 percent of Americans live. Finally, we have contributed on a global scale by working with partners across borders and boundaries to improve watershed management worldwide. We will continue pursuing all of these goals through our national strategy.

In literally hundreds of places, the Forest Service is already working with partners in various ways to achieve our goals for water resources. On national forest land, for example, we restore degraded streambeds in high mountain meadows. We are working with EPA to streamline procedures for cleaning up lakes and streams, and we are working with states to agree on allocation of water resources. On private lands, we are helping to establish markets for ecosystem services delivered by forests, such as improved water quality. We are also working with partners in a few urban areas to restore wetlands. Across the nation, we are working with states, tribes, municipalities, and others—and after last night’s conversation, I dare say with many of you—to prevent or limit water pollution, to restore impaired waters, and to alert people when their water supplies become undrinkable. We have developed policy for ground water on national forests.  With more than 35,000 employees, we use a lot of water ourselves—more than a billion gallons a year—and we are looking for ways to reduce our own ecological footprint. We work with local communities to address changing ecological conditions and explore opportunities for water conservation. These are just a few examples of what we can do together to secure America’s water resources.

What Is the Forest Service Doing Along the Mississippi?

Since we are here in New Orleans, I will end with some examples of work along the mighty Mississippi River. The Mississippi basin drains 41 percent of the lower 48 states. The Mississippi itself, from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, supplies water to more than 50 cities with more than 18 million people. It has 25 percent of all fish species in North America, and it is used by 60 percent of all North American migratory bird species. It’s a critically important part of our transportation system. This is a tremendously important system in our country for so many things, and the Forest Service is involved in multiple partnerships in the region.

In the north, the Forest Service is part of the 22-member Upper Mississippi River Forest Partnership. It covers 800 miles of the Mississippi River, from Lake Itasca to the confluence with the Ohio River. This area includes parts of six states—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Our goal is to improve water quality and migratory bird habitat by restoring riparian and floodplain forests … and by improving the condition of existing forests throughout the watershed. Through quality forest management, we are working to reduce the quantities of sediment and nutrients that enter the river and contribute to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. By keeping and planting more forests along the river corridor, we are also working to improve habitat for migratory birds. Finally, we are working with partners to stop the loss of forestlands to development. From 1997 to 2007, for example, the state of Minnesota lost more than 50 acres of forestland per day. We are working through the states to help stop the loss.

The Forest Service is also part of the 21-member Middle Mississippi River Partnership, 200 miles from the confluence of the Missouri River to the confluence of the Ohio River. This part of the Mississippi contains no locks or dams. The partners are focusing on restoring functions of the river’s alluvial floodplain, from bluff to bluff, rather than the entire watershed. The Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois is the lead Forest Service player in this partnership. Since 1995, the Shawnee has acquired 3,000 acres in the floodplain. Working with NRCS, Ducks Unlimited, and the American Land Conservancy, the Shawnee is restoring bottomland hardwood forest on hundreds of acres more. All these lands are used for public recreation—for hunting, fishing, birdwatching, nature viewing, and river access.

In the Lower Mississippi Valley, from the confluence of the Ohio to the mouth of the Mississippi, the Forest Service is engaged in a number of partnerships. I’ll focus on two. This area also includes parts of six states—Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. One partnership, the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley Joint Venture, focuses on protecting, restoring, and managing habitat for migratory birds, particularly bottomland hardwood forests. The other partnership is just getting started; it includes Forest Service scientists working with the Nature Conservancy, Duke University, and NRCS to lay the foundation for an ecosystem services market for the restoration of flood-prone agricultural lands in the Lower Mississippi alluvial valley. The partnership is characterizing and quantifying ecosystem functions and services related to wetlands restoration, determining economic valuations of the ecosystem services. This is to help identify and prioritize opportunities for restoration. A key part of the project is the comparative analysis of the potential landowner income streams from agricultural operations versus ecosystem service enhancement. This partnership is creating the information base and innovative strategies we need to restore bottomland hardwood forests on millions of acres. Our ultimate goals are to help mitigate climate change, the nutrient enrichment of the Gulf of Mexico, and flood hazards along the Mississippi. This would also bring back wildlife habitats and other ecosystem services for the public and provide a new source of income in one of the poorest parts of the United States.

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 then. 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 professional forester who has spent all of my career on public lands and in partnership with State Foresters and other landholders, I know that forests can and do make a huge difference in the quantity and quality of our water supplies—and in the quantity and quality of the habitat available to native species of all kinds. 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.