Managing Forest Health for Water Resources
Successful forest management plans and a study that found that forest thinning can increase runoff by 20% demonstrate the benefits of upper watershed management
The Western Governors Association (WGA), established in 1984, represents the governors of 19 western states and the U.S. flag islands. The WGA works to develop and promote consensus-based policy solutions, to exchange information and identify best practices, to collect data and perform quality research, and to educate the public and other policy makers.
In the spring of 2015, the WGA held a series of webinars addressing the issues and impacts surround drought in the West. This webinar, Managing Forest Health for Water Resources, explored the latest science on forest management practices that may increase water availability and add security to water portfolios. The panelists were Alan Hook, Project Manager, Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Management Plan and Water Resources Coordinator, City of Santa Fe; Marcos Robles, Conservation Science Specialist, The Nature Conservancy; and Don Boucher, Project Manager, Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, United States Forest Service. The moderator was Ken Pimlott, California State Forester and Director of CAL FIRE.
Here’s what they had to say …
Ken Pimlott began by noting that the West has over 26 million acres of forested land, almost half of the nation’s forested area. “The primary trends and threats facing western forests, and quite frankly forests across the nation, include changing ownership patterns, increased wildland urban interface, wildland fire, invasive species, and elevated levels of insect and disease mortality, and these trends affect all lands regardless of ownership,” he said. “Similarly, they affect all people, threatening the basic assets we need and often take for granted, such as clean air, abundant water, safe communities, open spaces and economic opportunities.”
The impacts of sustained drought threaten all of these values and assets, and in particular, the threat of fire continues to grow, he said. “The average length of the fire season has increased significantly across the west, and in some areas, fire season is really year around,” he said. “The total acreage burned and the numbers of large fires are increasing in most western states. Montana, for example, has experienced of 4 million acres of forestland burning in uncharacteristic wildfire over the last decade. And in California, over half of the state’s 20 largest fires have occurred just since 2002.”
“The relentless drought has left vegetation parched and ripe to burn again in 2015. These at risk forested landscapes have a direct impact on water storage and quality, which is now a precious and scarce commodity across the west,” he said. “As the threat to forests and watersheds increase across the West, it is more important than ever not to work in silos. We must collaborate at all levels of government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, tribal communities, utilities, academia, and a variety of community based groups. We must leverage all of our resources to be most effective in those endeavors.”
Today we will hear three presentations involving innovative and collaborative efforts to address forest cover and watershed management, and with that I would like to introduce our first panelists, Allan Hook, Water Resource Analyst with the City of Santa Fe Water Division.
ALAN HOOK, Project Manager, Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Management Plan and Water Resources Coordinator
Alan Hook began by presenting a map of the Santa Fe watershed. “We are in the Rio Grande basin,” he said. “The Santa Fe River itself starts in the headwaters, about 11,500 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Santa Fe River runs through the city of Santa Fe and heads west, and then meets up with the Rio Grande.”
Mr. Hook said that he’d be speaking specifically about the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed, which is located in the easternmost portion of the Santa Fe River watershed. “It’s approximately 17,000 acres; the lands are administered by the forest service, and the City of Santa Fe also owns property within the municipal watershed,” he said. “What’s unique about the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed is that it’s been closed since 1932 by order of the Secretary of Agriculture, and part of the reason for that was a lot of inundation and water quality effects.”
“Santa Fe basically receives about 40% of its drinking water from the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed so it’s an important source of our drinking water supply,” he said. “The community, the city of Santa Fe, the U. S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, and a local non-profit called the Santa Fe Watershed Association really recognized the need for protection for our water source so they created a collaborative effort back in 2009 under forest service collaborative of Forest Landscape Restoration Program funding to put together this plan.”
The motivation for the program was community concern over wildfires, Mr. Hook said, presenting a map showing wildfires that have occurred around the watershed in the last forty years. “In particular, in 2011, we had a very large fire called the Los Conchas fire and it burned about 156,000-plus acres to the west of Santa Fe, but the effects definitely could be felt around the community, and the threat to even our watershed of the possibility of wildfire.”
“We’re in a high severity threat watershed, due to the density of the forest around the Santa Fe River watershed, so we have a 1in 5 chance in any given year of a lightning-started fire could occur,” he said. “Basically a 10,000 to 40,000-acre fire could have impacts within our municipal watershed and cost us between $9 million and $48 million, just on suppression costs and impacts. Without forest treatment, wildfire could definitely fill our reservoirs with sediments and ash, so it was calculated what would that cost us to basically dredge 2,000 acre-feet from our two reservoirs within the municipal watershed, and that was calculated to cost between $80 million and $240 million.”
The Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Plan has four main components: Vegetation management, water management, outreach and education, and financial management. “The unique thing of our watershed management plan is the Santa Fe National Forest basically has a 50/50 cost share collection agreement which really allows us a lot of flexibility on treatments, both thinning and prescribed burn at different times of the year, so if the funds are not available from the forest service, we the City match those funds,” Mr. Hook said. “The ongoing project costs are paid for by our water utility customers within their utility bill for each month, because the community felt like they would be the beneficiaries of this plan.”
The City of Santa Fe has dedicated about $5 million in our budget for the next 20 years, he said. “Over 5000 acres have been treated since 2002, and we hope to be continuing the treatments into the future with the commitment of the public and our water rate payers,” he said. “We’ve also started an Environmental Assessment into the wilderness area. We’re looking at some of the treatments to mitigate wildfire from having effects on our two reservoirs within our municipal watershed. That would be in the Pecos Wilderness Area, which again, wilderness area, you can’t do mechanical thinning, there’s a different set of rules, but we’ve started the EA process on that.”
“Just to emphasize, the watershed management program is unique because it includes our utility ratepayers and it’s also a collaborative effort between the forest service, the city of Santa Fe, both our water division and fire department,” he said. “The Nature Conservancy was the group really spearheading this effort, and again the Santa Fe Watershed Association on a lot of our outreach and education.”
Mr. Pimlott asked if rates had to be increased to fund the plan, and did that show up on their utility bill?
Mr. Hook said originally, the idea was to create a source water protection fund at a cost of about $0.65 per customer or connection that would have been a charge on the utility bill. “It ended up being a transition where we actually already had an 8.25% increase because of infrastructure improvements,” he said. “So really the way we are paying for it now, the customer is still paying to our collection agreement and our commitment to this plan, but it’s primarily through CIP funds at this point, and it works out to about $250,000 per year. So yes it was directly paid for by customers, but it didn’t end up being a line item on the board, but part of the rate increase that we had already incurred through our governing body.”
DON BOUCHER, Project Manager, Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, United States Forest Service
The Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project is located in southwest Oregon, adjacent to the community of Ashland, Don Boucher began. “The municipal watershed itself is about 15,000 acres and it’s about 90% operated by the forest service, but there’s a little bit of city owned land in there,” she said. “The project was first conceived in 2004 to try and reduce fuels within the watershed to protect water quality primarily, as well as late successional habitat. The entire project area is located in the Late Successional Reserve, and is critical habitat for the northern spotted owl.”
Mr. Boucher noted that when they first started the proposal, the community offered up an alternative to the forest service proposal developed by community members, and through the analysis process, we actually selected the community alternative to implement in the watershed.
The Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project (or AFR) is a 10 year project to complete 7,600 acres of treatments which includes non commercial work to reduce surface and ladder fuels to keep fire out of the canopy and removal of commercial products that have been used to offset some of the costs incurred. “Prescribed burning is a pretty major element of this proposal in that we intend to use prescribed fire to maintain all of these treatments over time,” he said.
He then presented a picture of Reeder Reservoir, noting that it’s the drinking water for the city of Ashland, a community of about 20,000 residents. “The total income from that is about $5 million a year for the water that’s paid to the city,” he said. “This is all on forest service land for the most part.”
Mr. Boucher said that a number of recent fires put the issue in mind, particularly the 2009 Siskiyou File which occurred on the south end of the city and burned one residence, and in 2011, the Oak Knoll Fire adjacent to the watershed burned 12 homes. “So the community is well aware of the risk of fire, so there is a lot of support for doing the treatments in the watershed,” he said.
The stewardship was developed formally in 2010, in part with funds from the American Recovery Reinvestment Act. “The City of Ashland, the Nature Conservancy, the US Forest Service, and the Lomakatski Restoration Project, all non-profit groups under the stewardship authority, came together and identified roles to implement the project,” Mr. Boucher said. “The Forest Service came with the funding and the oversight of the project. The City of Ashland had done some work on the lands and had technical expertise to offer; a huge part of their effort revolved around the community engagement, going out and speaking with the community and getting feedback.”
“The Nature Conservancy is responsible for the multi-party aspect of it, and so they put together all the interested stakeholders and developed a very rigorous monitoring plan which has been implemented over the first five years of the project, and has been really able to help us tell the story of how we’re changing the fuel profile,” Mr. Boucher said. “The Lomakatsi Restoration Project is a non-profit stewardship group that brought the contracting and workforce element to the partnership.”
He pointed out that in the diagram, the arrows are in the middle and everything is interwoven very tightly. “The partners, not including the forest service, has actually generated a little over $700,000 in matching funds in the initial outlay of $6 million that we had to start the project with.”
The project review process is set up to be very transparent to the public, he said. “We have a circular process to review all the implementation as we do it, so plans are developed, they are reviewed by the forest service and Fish and Wildlife Service, and we’ll get their feedback. Then we go to an independent implementation review team, a three-person team that we identified just to give us an outside look at what we’re doing; ultimately we go to public review, and this includes field trips and public meetings, with just the whole intent of being completely transparent to the process and allowing everybody to have an opportunity to provide input as we’re doing implementation.”
“This has been unique for the forest service in that typically we will set up a contract and we’ll have it all prepped and we’ll go out for bids to implement,” he said. “In this case, the partners are actually designing the project that falls within the ROD that we have, and then also being responsible for implementation, so it’s been unique in that aspect for the forest service.”
In order to engage the community, they have had over 50 either events, tours, and field trips; there is a website and a Facebook page for folks to provide comments; and volunteer group put up some interpretive signs, he said.
Mr. Boucher said that the multi-party monitoring plan was stakeholder driven. “In other words, we asked folks, what is it that we need to know about the treatment, and the result has collected a large amount of information so far that is continuing,” he said. “We have been in this project for five years now, it’s a partnership, we have another five to go and we’re working to get more funding for that to accomplish additional work. The monitoring and the community engagement have created a key role in that.”
He said that over the last two years, the city has contributed $350,000 for work on forest service land, in addition to providing city employees to help with the project.
“The Nature Conservancy performed a very rigorous fire history and stand reconstruction study that shown over history, there was essentially a fire somewhere in the watershed every two years, with typically the average being about 7 year fire return interval,” he said. “To date, we’ve gone since 1959 within the watershed without a large fire. There have been several fires on the outskirts of Ashland, it’s threatened the watershed, but so far, it has survived those.”
“The bulk of the work that we’re doing is trying to reduce some of the intensity of fire, and then also provide an avenue for the ecosystem to recover after a fire, which we think at some point is going to be inevitable,” he said. “The snowpack we’ve had the last two winters has been small; last year Mt. Ashland Ski Area failed to open and this year it’s been open very limited due to lack of snow. So with the drought situation, we’re looking at the potential for fire as well as an increase in insects and disease. We have a lot of Western pine beetle and Douglas fir flatheaded woodbore that are on city lands and are starting to move up into the watershed a little bit, so these treatments are critical, and the partnership that we’ve developed has really allowed this work to move forward.”
“Probably the biggest issue that we face right now is the ability to use prescribed fire, it’s very limited windows for burning, and a lot of area that we would like to implement fire on,” he said.
Mr. Pimlott asked if there was community resistance to using controlled burns and prescribed fire, and if so, how did you respond to those concerns?
Mr. Boucher said that for the most part, the City of Ashland is actually comfortable with fire, due in large part to the fact that the city is actually been using prescribed fire on some of their lands, although on a much smaller scale. “There are obviously those concerns of the idea of controlled burning and whether you can really control fire and what are those effects,” he said. “The bigger issue we have in the Ashland area has to do with smoke. Ashland is part of the larger Rogue Valley which is a sensitive smoke receptor area, and the forest service isn’t allowed to add any additional smoke into the valley when we burn. So with most of the flows coming from the south which brings smoke to the valley, it becomes challenging to find windows when we can actually burn, and so a lot of our work right now is working with the region and the Oregon Department of Forestry to figure out when we can accomplish burns. … Overall the effects of burns are recognized as positive for the most part. The challenge is all that smoke in the air.”
“There’s an endless supply of work to do to manage the forest, and in the process, it generates a large volume of material coming off the landscape,” said Mr. Pimlott. “We are constantly struggling with the ability to help pay the way of that material, whether it’s actual commercial logs or biomass that historically may be burned on site. Are you finding there are markets for the amount of material that’s being removed from these large scale thinning and fuel projects?”
“The challenge that we have is that there are two roads out there, and most of the wood we removed had to be done with a helicopter, and the value of the wood obviously couldn’t pay for the cost of the helicopter, so it becomes a challenge to fund that,” replied Mr. Boucher. “But we were able to get out 3.5 million board feet and send it to local mills under stewardship authority. The receipts that we got from that, we were able to turn back in to offset some of the costs and treat additional acres in the watershed from the original funding that we got. I think one of the unique things that we found in the project was using the helicopter and giving a full treatment in a stand, even though you had to offset some of that cost, the total costs of that operation was very similar to just doing non-commercial work, so it presents a different paradigm to the forest service to fund that kind of treatment where you use the value to offset the cost, as opposed to just giving money to do non commercial work.”
MARCOS ROBLES, Conservation Science Specialist, The Nature Conservancy
Marcos Robles then discussed a scientific study he and his colleagues recently completed that looked at the connection between larger scale forest restoration and water and runoff.
He started by presenting a map of Arizona, noting that the Phoenix metro area is in the central part of the map. “There’s been about 20% mortality of the forest that are the headwaters for the Verde and Salt watersheds, which in turn, provide about 40% of the metro area’s water supply,” he said. “This includes two of the largest wildfires in state history; they were both over 500,000 acres. So essentially forests in our area are experiencing essentially regional drying trend, due to a combination of dense forests, drought conditions, and warmer temperatures in recent years. And this trend, if it continues, could have very serious consequences for both people and nature.”
The biggest question asked in the study is can large or bigger restoration efforts improve forest resilience and runoff?, he said. “There is an ongoing restoration initiative called the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, which is composed of four national forests in the central Arizona which are highlighted in the darker green,” he said. “In phase one of this 4FRI project over the next ten years, almost 600,000 acres will be treated.”
The impetus for the forest restoration project to reduce fire risk, but also to improve resilience, so we wanted to look at what the effects of this might be on runoff.
The study area was the Salt and Verde watersheds, and in particular, the Ponderosa pine forests in these watersheds which are shown in green on the map. The treatment areas are shown in red; it’s about 150,000 acres that will be thinned over the next ten years.
“We looked at the two biggest factors that drive runoff,” Mr. Robles said. “We have a lot of variability in winter precipitation, so we picked out dry periods and wet periods from the 20th century and ran that through to get a range of runoff estimates; we also looked at the scale and pace of restoration. We ran scenarios that considered the 4FRI project as a basis, but we also asked the question, what would happen if you increased the scale and size of acres that are treated – how would that have an effect on runoff.”
For the study, Mr. Robles said they adapted and refined an empirically-derived model from studies done within the watershed in the 1950s to measure runoff response to forest treatments.
“Overall, our main result is that all the scenarios that we ran led to about a 20% increase in runoff in the headwater watersheds where thinning would occur,” he said. “This actually included considerations of both drought and wet conditions; the symbols on the left were simulations that were under drought conditions for winter precipitation, and the symbols on the right are assuming wetter conditions. In both cases, there was about a 20% increase in runoff.”
“Our study found at least in the case of watershed health and runoff, accelerated thinning that’s been contemplated in 4FRI and even at scales beyond that could improve forest resilience and it could increase runoff in headwater watersheds by 20%,” he said. “The benefits would be more modest for downstream users, potentially increasing the current municipal supply in Phoenix by 1 to 9% and overall flows in the Salt and Verde rivers by 1 to 3%. Those numbers are lower just because these are huge watersheds, the majority of the watersheds are not Ponderosa, and so as you increase the scale, there are significant but modest effects on supply.”
Mr. Robles said that there is emerging evidence is showing that forest thinning can increase resilience in other ways in terms of reducing drought stress and fire risk, but more studies need to be done. “We concluded on our paper that accelerated thinning is basically a way to hit the reset button on ecosystem resilience that provides managers and cities and towns more options in the future, whereas the current pace of restoration might lead to more risk for the larger wildfires that we’ve been seeing,” he said. “Also thinning may be one of the only and perhaps most effective management options at our disposal to help these forests to continue to provide benefits to people and recover from wildfires, drought, and water stress.”
The report is available at azconservation.org. Mr. Robles noted that other Nature Conservancy chapters in the west are working on the forest-water connection. “In New Mexico, there is an effort to create a Rio Grande water fund, which would be a financial vehicle to generate to more funding for restoration treatments,” he said. “In California, our colleagues have just published a new report on the Sierra Nevadas, and found that the increased value of hydropower generation and water supply could cover between one-third and the full costs of thinning, depending on a low or high water response.”
Mr. Pimlott noted that the Salt Verde paper said that the water runoff declined after about six years. Could you elaborate on that?
Mr. Robles noted that it’s an important caveat. “The historical watershed experiments in this area did show the effects of thinning on runoff diminish over time and sort of disappear after about six years,” he said. “The thought is that these forests sort of regrow, and the evaporation and transpiration benefits decline over time. So let’s say we ran a 10 year scenario in which we had a certain number of acres treated per year; we estimated that the 20% increase would be over a 15 year time frame, and so if you can imagine in year 1, you would get the benefits of that thinning in year 1. In year 2, you would get the benefits of year 1 plus year 2, etc. but after about five or six years when the thinning stops, then the increases in runoff will go away. That’s why we wanted to emphasize that this was a more of a reset button on resilience in terms of providing a short-term temporary benefit; there is some thought that maintenance treatments such as prescribed fire which are planned for all of the acres in the 4FRI program will sustain those benefits, but more study needs to be done on that to see if that’s actually the case.”
Mr. Pimlott asked if he would explain the 20% increase in runoff, even during a drought. Why do you think the result occurred and what are the ramifications?
“Our scenarios were 15, 20, 30 years, where there are below average conditions in winter precipitation, which was a big driver of runoff,” he said. “But when we looked at the historic droughts, relying on the historic record in this watershed, we found that even in historic droughts of the 1950s or the current droughts, there are years within that time span that have above average precipitation. That’s what the black bars are showing in the lower left hand panel and it was those years that have above average precipitation in an overall drought that led to the increases in runoff in our modeling exercise, so interannual variability, variability driven by El Nino and La Nina can actually have a benefit in terms of leading to these increases in runoff and droughts.”
“The second thing I would say is that the absolute increases during drought periods were much less than the increases during wet period, that makes a lot of sense, so there would be less benefit for downstream users, but it would be really important for water-dependent natural resources and wildlife in those headwaters that would be suffering from those drought impacts,” he said.
Mr. Pimlott asked him to briefly touch on the concept of ecosystem services. How can forest managers, ecologists, and water managers come together to strengthen the messaging behind the economic benefits of forest restoration to acquire funding for projects like those in Ashland or Santa Fe?
“For our paper we focused on runoff because we had an opportunity to look at that using these historical experiments, but really the framing of our whole paper became much more about that large scale restoration can have multiple benefits and also some constraints as well that need to be looked at,” he said. “Typically usually one benefit is emphasized when really we think the point is that in terms of runoff, in terms of reduced wildfire risk, in terms of reduced erosion and sedimentation after large wildfires, there are many ecological benefits and also economic benefits to that a large scale forest restoration can bring to bear. We at the Nature Conservancy with collaborators are trying to show all those benefits both on the science side and on the economic side, and then we’re bringing that information to municipalities and cities … to really make the case that the sum is greater than the parts, and it’s only when you think about these things all together that your recognize what the benefits are.”
“Another way to answer that is the increases in water yields in and of themselves are probably not enough to warrant the level of investment that would be required to reach the scale that’s needed to see those runoff benefits,” he said. “However when you package it with the reduced fire risk and erosion and sedimentation and the cost of cleanup, etc., it’s hard to argue that doing this large scale forest restoration is not only needed but also can be beneficial for multiple services that the forests provide.”