WEBINAR: Water Quality Concerns in Western Forests and Rangelands

Sierra National Forest (Photo by Steve Haze, Sierra Resource Conservation District)

Webinar looks at what is being done to reduce impacts the impacts of wildfires on water quality and ecosystem health

Water quality is a concern for Western states because with the arid climate, there isn’t a lot of water and so the little bit of water there is needs to be protected.  Water quality – or the lack thereof – is inextricably linked to the health of the landscape.  This is most dramatically evident in wildfire-affected areas, where post-fire debris and sediment can affect the watershed for years.

A webinar presented by the Western Governors Association as part of their National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative examined some of the challenges Western states face in promoting forest health and discussed the how federal, state, and local governments are working with private stakeholders to address these challenges.

The speakers were  Fawn Bergen, Global Program Manager, Water and Carbon Footprint for Intel Corporation; and Bruce Hallin, Director of Water Supply for the Salt River Project.  The webinar was moderated by Marcus Selig, Vice President of Field Programs with the National Forest Foundation.

Marcus Selig began by saying it’s important to look at the big picture on water sustainability and reliability because what happens in our watersheds – in the forests and the rangelands will affect downstream water quality, water quantity, and water delivery.  He pointed out that just the national forest lands managed by the US Forest Service provide water to over 123 million people in our country.

The forests and rangelands are the beginning of where our water starts and their health affects how that water gets to us,” he said.  “When our forests and watersheds are unhealthy, our water really pays the price and it can come in a variety of ways.  It can damage our infrastructure, our pipelines, and our reservoirs, the conduits for getting the water down out of the mountains into the cities.  The sediment can fill in the reservoirs and reduce storage capacity, and then the turbidity and other pollutants that get into our water from unhealthy watersheds can increase treatment costs.  This is just a brief glimpse of why our watersheds are so important.”

Wildfire is the ubiquitous problem faced across Western forests, and the reason we’re facing this is because of the trajectory that the forests are on.  In much of the West, they are fire-adapted ecosystems or forests that used to experience fire on a regular interval, but the policy of fire suppression over the last century has allowed more trees to come up than normally would have been reduced in number by frequent fires, Mr. Selig said.

What that means now is that we have higher fuel loads and an elevated risk of high severity fires and stand replacing fires, that we’re seeing more and more across the landscape.  So when these forests burn instead of having the low intensity fires that we used to see historically on the landscape, we see these large fires that are difficult to control and impact a number of resources.”

We end up with landscapes that look like this,” said Mr. Selig.  “We suffer, our resources suffer, wildlife habitat suffers, recreation opportunities suffer, homes are damaged, and lives are put at risk.  When rain and snow falls on this type of landscape, there’s nothing to protect the soil and there’s nothing to protect the flows that go into the streams and down river.”

There are a lot of other activities important for maintaining watershed health from a management perspective, such as sediment and erosion control or controlling what’s coming off our roads and our trails in our forested systems and our rangelands, Mr. Selig said.

We have to make sure we have healthy streams and healthy wetlands; these are our natural filters for our water systems, and we need to make sure it is maintained,” he said.  “Habitat improvement projects, or making sure that there is the native vegetation on the landscape and that things are functioning as intended means that water moving through it moves through it in a better way. Forest thinning and prescribed burning is preventative maintenance, which is making sure we have a healthy forest that isn’t going to go up in flames.”

Mr. Selig noted that in this webinar, they will hear from presenters, with the purpose of highlighting the importance of public private partnerships.  “Our forests and our rangelands are in need of help, millions of acres are in need of help, and it’s too big of a problem for the federal government or state government or local governments to handle on their own,” he said.  “We have to lean on public private partnerships and we have to lean on innovative approaches to get us to a state where we can have healthy watersheds and have sustainable reliable water sources, so we have two presenters lined up to talk to us about how they are putting skin in the game and what they are doing.”

BRUCE HALLIN, Director of Water Supply at the Salt River Project

As Director of Water Supply at the Salt River Project, Bruce Hallin helps to oversee the utility’s delivery of ground and surface water to its 250,000-acre service territory within the greater Phoenix metro area.  Much of the water they serve comes from the Salt and Verde watersheds, which cover over 13,000 square miles of northern Arizona, including northern Arizona’s forests.  His presentation focused on what the Salt River Project is doing to improve their watersheds.

Mr. Hallin began with some background on the Salt River Project. The Salt River Project was formed by a group of farmers in the late 1800s that settled the valley and began agricultural practices.  Prior to Arizona’s statehood, the farmers approached the federal government because they needed a secure water supply which could only be achieved by building water storage as the water supply in the southwest is extremely unreliable without some form of storage.  So the landowners partnered with the federal government in 1903, putting their land up as collateral, and constructed the Roosevelt Dam, which essentially started the Salt River Project, he said.  One of the byproducts of moving water through a dam is hydroelectricity, and so the project began delivering hydroelectricity as well.

Today, the project is a Bureau of Reclamation project which includes seven dams and reservoirs which are owned by the federal government.  In 1917, the Salt River Project took over the operation and maintenance of the facilities, which includes not only water supply but hydroelectric power to over 1 million customers.

We’ve been operating and maintaining the facilities for over 100 years and have a very strong and positive working relationship with the federal government, and in particular, the Bureau of Reclamation,” said Mr. Hallin.

The Salt River Project encompasses 13,000 square miles and two watersheds, the Verde and the Salt River watersheds.  Although they are both about the same size, the majority of the water supply comes from the Salt watershed because that watershed has more square miles at a higher elevation which receives primarily snowfall and it is the snowmelt that feeds the creeks which feed the rivers that feed the reservoirs, he said.  Most of that terrain is National Forest Land; over 95% of the Salt River watershed is federal land, as well as a significant portion Indian reservation lands, so Mr. Hallin said they work closely with the federal government on the management of the watersheds.

Since the 1980s, the lack of a forest materials industry and fire suppression activities have caused the forests to become overgrown.  “When you have an overgrown forest, you have extremely high fuel load,” he said.  “Essentially what has occurred over the last decade is that whereas a 10,000 acre fire was considered to be a large fire, now we’re seeing fires that are in the size of a couple hundred thousand acres, and those fires do extensive damage to the watershed, and extensive damage to infrastructure within the watersheds.”

Recognizing the deteriorating condition of their forests, the state of Arizona has pursued the Four Forest Restoration Initiative.   The Salt River Project works with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Four Forest Restoration Initiative to protect the assets and the investments the federal government has made.

The Salt River Project consists of two dams on the Verde River, four dams on the Salt River, and one dam which impounds water from East Clear Creek.  Mr. Hallin noted that East Clear Creek is a much smaller watershed with only about 64,000 acres of National forest land, all of it at risk of catastrophic wildfire, so they have been working with the Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation, the town of Payson, and the Bureau of Reclamation to go through an environmental assessment and to get treatments done as soon as possible.

He presented a map (lower, left) showing the extent of fire within their watershed, noting that wildfire is a major concern.  Arizona has also been experiencing drought as is much of the southwest; at this time, the watershed is extremely dry and there’s virtually no snowpack.

There are three impacts to water supply quality that are of concern:

  • Reservoir capacity loss: Significant increases in sedimentation can reduce the life of the reservoir. “When you have these large catastrophic wildfires, you lose essentially all the retention capabilities associated with all the soil that is located within all the area that was burned, so when you get rain onto those lands that have been burned, essentially it accelerates, it begins to gouge, and it begins to pick up more material,” said Mr. Hallin.  “That material is ultimately deposited into the reservoirs, so we’re very concerned about reservoir capacity loss.”
  • Damage to water and power infrastructure: Wildfires can damage both water infrastructure and power infrastructure which includes a significant number of large transmission lines that cross national forest lands.  “These catastrophic wildfires don’t happen during the shoulder months when you’re not using a lot of power; they are going to happen during the summer when its 110 degrees or 115 degrees here in the valley and we’re depending on that energy moving through those transmission lines to cool homes, etc, so there’s significant concern about damage to infrastructure,” he said.
  • Water quality degradation: Mr. Hallin noted that many of the cities in the Valley now have had to upgrade their treatment plants to account for increased organics and sediment loading, so they don’t want to see the quality of that water degrade any further.

The Salt River Project has a 250,000-acre service territory that serves the greater Phoenix metropolitan area; Mr. Hallin said there was a real disconnect between the population centers and the national forest lands, so their first efforts were on education.  A component of that education included emphasizing the utility’s involvement in forest management for well over 100 years.

The second component was to connect the valley’s water supply to the forested lands.  “When there is a large catastrophic wildfire, many of the urban people believe it only impacts those who reside within those forested lands or the recreational values or the fisheries, wildlife, etc., but it has a direct impact on their water supply, so that was part of our education,” he said.

The third component of the education program was to build public support for thinning operations.  “The forests need significant restoration and it will require a significant amount of investment to remove this material,” Mr. Hallin said.  “Seeing somebody in the forest cutting trees is a good thing, and seeing a logging truck is a good thing.  There are a couple of generations of folks that are of the opinion that anybody cutting a tree is a bad thing in the forest, and unfortunately, whereas our forests had about 50 trees per acre, today we have forests where that fuel load is in excess of 1000 trees per acre.”

The Salt River Project has been partnering with other organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, which is currently is working on a four year 20,000-acre project with the US Forest Service where they are thinning 5,000 acres per year.  The Nature Conservancy is working on improving efficiencies and cost management when it comes to thinning these forests, and how to deal with a lot of low value material; he acknowledged that much of the material that has to be removed is low value material, so they are interested in the results of the Nature Conservancy partnership.

They have also been working with the National Forest Foundation through the Northern Arizona Forest Fund, which provides a way for individuals to invest in forest restoration projects, as well as cities and businesses more connected and more vested in the improvements in the watershed.  “We’ve raised today probably over $2 million through this program, and now most of our focus is to get the trees cut and to reestablish a large forest products industry,” he said.

Lastly, they are working diligently with stakeholders to attract forest industry.  “One item of concern with forest industries is that they need longer term contracts to make significant capital investments here to build a mill,” he said.  “Currently, the forest service is limited to these 10 year stewardship contracts.  We’re pushing Congress to push these to 20 years so if we can get 20-year contracts, hopefully we can get some additional investments.

There are several benefits to forest restoration efforts, such as the protection of the federal Reclamation project infrastructure assets.  “We’ve had this partnership for over 100 years, assuming the care, operation, and maintenance; it’s been a very positive partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation,” Mr. Hallin said.  “We’re hoping that we can extend a similar partnership with the US Forest Service, when it comes to the care, operation, and maintenance of that 13,000 square mile watershed that is critical to the water supply and will help protect those assets.  We’re working diligently where we can to get industry in here to decrease the risk of catastrophic wildfire and restore more of that natural regime.”

A healthy forest is a healthy watershed,” he continued.  “Drought has become a regular occurrence in the desert Southwest and those trees are competing for water.  If we can thin out more of those trees, we’ll have a much more resilient forest, and of course, decreased risk of impacts to our water supply, and really the quality of life here in the state of Arizona.”

We are very much committed to the communities that we serve and very much committed to not only recreational values but also the rural communities where there are opportunities for economic development,” he said.  “We have some estimates that if we can get to clearing 50,000 acres per year where today we’re only at about 15,000 acres per year, that would produce an annual gross domestic product greater than about $115 million, or an estimated $20 million in payroll.  Those are all jobs in rural Arizona that are critical to those rural communities, and so that’s very important to us.”

And so with that …

FAWN BERGEN , Global Program Manager, Water and Carbon Footprint at Intel Corporation

Fawn Bergen is based in the Portland, Oregon office of Intel and leads two of Intel’s sustainability programs, the Global Water Stewardship and Global Carbon Footprint.  Ms. Bergen is currently leading Intel’s newest water commitment, which is to restore 100% of global water use by 2025.

Ms. Bergen began with some background into Intel’s Water Stewardship Program.  Intel has historically been largely a PC company, but they have undergone a dramatic shift, and like most of the technology companies now, they are in the business of data.

She noted that Intel has about 600 facilities globally across 63 countries, but really only a handful of those are large manufacturing sites.  Intel does a little over half of their manufacturing in the US and the rest is international, and about 98% of all the data in the cloud runs on their silicon.  “We really do touch a lot of the world, and we really feel we are playing an important role even just looking from an environmental standpoint at the advances that our technology brings,” she said.

Ms. Bergen presented a graphic of Intel’s water footprint which depicts the general flow of how Intel uses, consumes, and discharges water, noting that these are the numbers from 2016.  Worldwide, Intel brings in a little over 10 billion gallons of water at all of their sites.  In some locations, they are able to buy reclaimed water to offset their freshwater use.   “Right now, about 80% of the water we bring in is treated and returned and used back in the community; in Arizona, for example, it’s used to recharge the aquifer,” she said.

Intel had a water goal in place for years to reduce water on an intensity basis, meaning the water used per production unit.  Now, their focus is on the gap in the water balance which is two million gallons of water or roughly 20% of the water Intel brings in.  The water is lost to things like evaporation from cooling towers, water used in scrubbers, and plants and landscaping.

What we see as the gap in our balance, meaning the water that we bring in, anything that we don’t bring back to our communities is the piece that we needed to work on,” said Ms. Bergen.

Intel’s water strategy has three steps:

Conserve the amount of water used in operations:  Be as efficient as possible.

Collaborate on water initiatives and return a significant portion of water Intel withdraws: Intel works with local agencies and NGOs on projects, such as donating the land and helping to fund a reverse osmosis treatment plant in Chandler, Arizona.  “When we discharge the water, it’s treated and then they recharge the aquifer,” she said.  “These collaborations have been an important part of our DNA, since one of our primary objectives is to really be a positive part of our communities.”

Create technology solutions to reinvent the way the world uses and conserves water:  “We feel that as a technology company, we can offer these solutions, so as a company, we’ve been creating technology solutions to help others conserve water,” she said.  “If you look at our products, each generation is more energy efficient than the last, so conserving energy with the energy-water nexus is another way that we look at the indirect footprint.”

The first global corporation to make a commitment to replenish the water they used was Coca Cola; Intel has made a similar commitment to restore all the water they use globally by the year 2025.

Ms. Bergen then gave some examples of projects they have been working on to meet their global target of the water consumption, which in 2016 was about 2 billion gallons.

We invest our money in areas that provide long-term positive impacts to the watershed or the water supply,” she said.  “Limnotech helps us by quantifying what the volumetric benefits of those projects are, and so any water that stays protected, treated, or returned is something that we can use towards our goal.”

Intel collaborates with environmental groups such as the National Forest Foundation as these groups are on the ground, implementing the projects, so they work with them to match their criteria to the projects in timing, location, and the benefits of the project.  “There’s a good bit of work up front before we decide to issue a grant on a project to make sure that all of that aligns with what we’re looking for,” she said.  “We prioritize the projects.  Our top priority was Arizona as it’s our second largest manufacturing site globally; we’re also the largest manufacturing operation in Arizona overall, not just for Intel, and so it’s obviously one of our higher water use sites.  That’s where we kicked off most of our projects, we’ve also kicked off a project in California and in Oregon and then New Mexico is on the table for this year.”

Intel has a public website that they update with their progress towards their goals and some of the types of projects that they are funding.  “In the six months that we’ve been working on this goal, we’re already 18% towards our global target,” she said.  “We’re already busy this year in deciding where to invest our dollars.

She then gave some examples of projects they have been funding:

The Mountain Island Ranch project is in Utah near the Colorado border; it is a series of crop conversion and irrigation changes to make it more efficient that when completed, it’s estimated to restore about 141 million gallons per year.

The Lower San Pedro Project is a crop conversion project with Arizona Land & Water Trust that when completed, it is estimated to restore about 62 million gallons back to the groundwater which will positively impact the lower San Pedro River.

The Barley Verde Project is a partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Arizona; it’s a crop conversion with a twist: Not only is it converting to a lower water use crop which is spring barley, but it’s also switching from crops that need a high amount of water in the summer, and so it not only returns about 60 million gallons per year, but it leaves water in during the critical summer months.  Another benefit is that the barley will be used to support a local brewing company.

Vanasche Farm IOT Pilot is a pilot project in Oregon, working with a local farm and their irrigation of their baby hazelnut orchard.  Using Intel technology, sensors measure the real time moisture of the soil as well as local weather conditions; the farmer is able to pull the information up on his computer and see exactly what the moisture is.  The concept is that they will use water more efficiently as well as provides an economic benefit to those farmers because they can know the precise amount of moisture in the soil or the weather conditions.

Long Valley Meadow Project is located in the Coconino National Forest up in Verde River Valley; over time, the flow has eroded the natural storage mechanism of the meadow, which has had downstream impacts.  When the project is completed, it’s estimated to restore about 20 million gallons back to the meadow.

Bird returns is a project in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of California.   As drought and development have intensified over years, a lot of the natural habitat for birds has disappeared, so this project provides an economic benefit to farmers to create seasonal wetlands on their property, so they flood their fields, giving the birds habitat for that season; it may shift to another location the following season.  Ms. Bergen said this one is estimated to restore benefits of about 47 million gallons per year.

Ms. Bergen then concluded with some general details of the types of projects they are considering.  “Given the fact that our goal is a volume basis, it’s really to restore that volume that we’ve lost,” she said.  “We do look holistically at these projects; we look at everything from what are the other ecosystem benefits to is this project going to spur more focus in that area or awareness about conservation or awareness about forest health, so there’s a lot of different criteria that we look at when we evaluate the projects.”

She said that they really want to work with partners that have a track record for implementing successful projects, such as the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the National Forest Foundation, and Arizona Land & Water Trust.

We’re really focused on the watersheds where we actually are impacting or the upstream water supply,” she said.  “There are multiple other components that we look at.  Obviously the cost benefit, that’s important to us.  We’re looking for projects that provide a permanent or a long-term solution.  It’s really important to us to understand the community relation with the project, is the community excited about the work or is it a little bit controversial, so these things are really important to us as well.  We look at the overall big picture.

And with that …

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

The first question was for Bruce Hallin. Bruce, you mentioned the Salt River Project at the beginning was really focused on the education component and helping inform the Phoenix metro area about the importance of watershed health and the activities that need to happen.  Do you have a sense for the effectiveness of that education effort?  Is the Phoenix area community supportive of the thinning activities, the burning activities, and the other watershed restoration activities?

Bruce Hallin:  “This education program is going to be ongoing because not only do thinning activities need to occur but there’s also a lot of prescribed fire and prescribed burns that need to occur, and that means there’s going to be smoke in the air and people respond negatively to that.  But the fact of the matter is that’s part of this ongoing management scheme that needs to occur to protect those watersheds and protect those forests, so we’re going to need to continue educating the local community.  I’ll be honest with you – I was surprised about how effective and how positive the reaction was from the local community, the cities, the local businesses, and groups such as Intel and others that recognize the value of those forests and recognize the length of the water supply, and so from that perspective, I think it’s been very, very successful. … I think you just need to talk to people in practical terms, and once you get in front of the audience and once they see that link, we seem to have that social license and full support that we need to thin these forests.

The next question was for Fawn Bergen.  “As we look more and more to the need for these private partnerships, what it was that really drove Intel to come out in front of this?  Was there an internal champion?  Were you feeling external pressure, was it a Board decision, and can you speak to what motivated such an ambitious strategy?  And then as a followup to that, do you think we’re going to see similar strategies coming from other high tech companies following Intel’s lead?”

Fawn Bergen:  “We were the first technology company to make this type of a global commitment.  It actually started with our CEO; we’re very lucky to have a CEO that recognizes the right reasons to do any type of environmental initiative.  We don’t necessarily have to sell it to him, he wants to do the right thing.  The conversation started in the executive sustainability committee that our CEO chairs with a lot of other executive staff, including our sustainability director.  The question started as, what is next for us and what is leadership in the water space?  Because we continue to drive conservation internally, but we’re still consuming a lot of water, and so the question became, what are other companies doing in this space and what should we be doing as a company?  That’s where we’re able to connect with Coca Cola, and we’re very lucky that they were so willing to share with us.  There’s been a lot of a conversation recently with a handful of other technology companies that are developing some sort of a strategy that’s similar … We’re even talking about starting a technology water solutions based group with the other technology companies, so absolutely, I think you’ll see a lot more.”

The next question was for Bruce Hallin.  You mentioned the extension of stewardship agreements as being one activity that could help spur industry.  Can you talk about the other items that could be addressed that would help engage industry in treating the many acres of forestland in Arizona that need to be treated, and if there’s any of those that are being used through the partnership with TNC on the stewardship agreements that are being affected?

Bruce Hallin: “The 20 year agreement is more aimed at the ability for industry to recover their costs as they invest.  We’re talking about an industry that is really nonexistent today.  We do have some industry in the east side of Arizona where we’ve seen some success, but most of the NEPA approved lands that are available for thinning are located in the Flagstaff area and more on the western side of the state, and unfortunately, we have very limited industry in that part of the state.  So if we want someone to invest a lot of money to reach a goal, the goal right now is 50,000 acres treated per year and a million acres available, but if we want someone to invest significantly, they are going to need some certainty longer-term versus just ten years.”

Bruce Hallin, continued:  “We’re now dealing with a material that’s extremely low value, and essentially the value in the material isn’t in the material itself; but essentially the value is in having the material removed because of the costs associated with costs and mitigation following these large catastrophic wildfires.  The Nature Conservancy has been actively involved with the Forest Service in identifying where there may be existing processes and policies in place that probably need to be removed because they don’t make a lot of sense in today’s environment and with what we’re trying to accomplish. … We also need to find outtake partners for this low value biomass.  Biomass essentially is smaller material – limbs, stems, etc that the Forest Service is asking to be removed.  Are there other policies that we may want to consider in the forest in dealing with that biomass that don’t threaten the health of the forest or the watershed but at the same time, allow us to accommodate removing that material, so we need to get creative, we need to be innovative, and we need to make investment and we need to move quickly.”

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