Forest management and urban forestry

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With much of the state’s water supply originating in the mountains as precipitation on the forested landscape, the health and management of the upper watersheds are critically important to California’s water quality and water supply.

Toolbox Main Page IconIn recent years, concerns about the impacts of devastating wildfires, disease and tree mortality, the impacts the extended drought, and the effects of climate change on water supply and hydropower generation have focused attention on the importance of forest management for protection and improvement of water resources.

How we manage our forests can affect both water quality and quantity.  Forest management agencies have responsibilities for protecting water quality and beneficial uses, such as aquatic habitat, and most have implemented water quality management plans designed to prevent adverse impacts to water quality from forest management activities.

King Fire USFSRecent devastating wildfires have been shown to have large implications to water resources, especially to water quality.  Since the 1920s, a policy of active fire suppression has allowed the forests to become overgrown, greatly increasing the risk of catastrophic, high intensity fires that kill all vegetation and generate large volumes of soil and ash.  Projects to reduce fuels through techniques such as prescribed fire, thinning, and mastication have been shown to reduce both the severity and frequency of wildfire.

While several studies have clearly demonstrated that the forests protect water quality by reducing erosion and removing pollutants, the effects of forest management on water supply are less clear; however, the potential for improvements in water supply availability through active forest management should not be overlooked.  These include management of forest vegetation and meadow restoration, as well as preventing forest loss and fragmentation.

A pond and plug restored Cookhouse Meadow in the Sierra Nevada mountains on May 16th, 2014.Efforts to manage forest vegetation to improve water supplies have been underway for some time, but have only met with limited success.  Changes in water yields due to vegetation management are highly variable and difficult to measure, and indications are that at least 20% of the vegetation must be removed in order to have a measurable effect on streamflow.  Innovative approaches such as selective thinning of younger trees have shown some promises for limited improvement, but more research is underway to evaluate such benefits.

Meadows may be just a small part of the forested landscape, but they provide substantial important ecological services by acting as natural reservoirs, retaining water in or near the surface during the long, dry summers.  Many meadows throughout the Sierra have become eroded as a result of unrestricted livestock grazing, road building, railroad construction, and other causes, losing their capacity to store groundwater.  Meadow restoration has been underway for several decades, but the effect of restoration on streamflow is not well documented, except in a few cases, but recent research does indicate that meadow restoration would benefit downstream flows during dry periods.


An often overlooked but important component of watershed health are the trees that are planted in our cities and communities.  CWP Forest Mgt CoverThese trees add form, structure and breathing room to urban design, as well as reduce noise and separate incompatible uses.  Urban forests also offer important benefits for water resources and climate change, and are an important means of mitigating heat and air pollution.

A healthy urban forest can help control stormwater runoff by intercepting rainwater on leaves, branches, and tree trunks, which in turn changes runoff quality, timing, and pollutant loads.  The root systems of trees increases soil infiltration rate, and the interception of rainfall by the tree’s canopy reduces soil erosion from the impacts from raindrops.

In the hotter months, urban forests help to reduce energy use by reducing temperatures inside buildings and lowering energy use for air conditioning; they also offset greenhouse gas emissions and provide larger-scale climate benefits through their persistent sequestration of carbon in woody material.

Click here to download this resource management strategy from the California Water Plan.




Helpful documents and websites …

Some of the agencies and organizations working in California’s forests …

More on upper watershed management from Maven’s Notebook …

  • WEBINAR: Water Quality Concerns in Western Forests and Rangelands Posted on: March 21, 2018
    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 – [...]
  • THE DELTA AND THE TRIBUTARIES, part 3: Moving the Delta and the tributaries towards a sustainable future Posted on: February 22, 2018
    The Sierra Nevada plays a critical role in California’s water supply:  Snowpack in the mountain provides a natural form of water storage, and the forests and meadows play a role in ensuring water quality and reliability.  More than 60 percent of California’s developed water supply and more than 75% of the fresh water that flows into the Delta comes from [...]
  • THE DELTA AND THE TRIBUTARIES, part 2: California's salmon face challenges, but there are success stories, too Posted on: February 21, 2018
    In the fall of every year, an incredible phenomenon takes place in the Central Valley: the fall salmon run.  Adult salmon travel many miles from the Pacific Ocean upstream to their spawning grounds, returning to the river where they were born, sometimes even to the same riffle, where they will spawn, laying their eggs in the gravels of the rivers [...]
  • THE DELTA AND THE TRIBUTARIES, part 1: How the health of the headwaters affects California's water system Posted on: February 20, 2018
    The Mountain Counties Area spans over 15,700 square miles, encompassing most of the Sierra Nevada.   Much of the state’s precipitation falls here in the winter as snow, slowly and steadily melting in the spring to support the forest vegetation; then flowing downhill, filling the state’s rivers and providing water for cities and farms, eventually flowing into the Delta, where some [...]
  • Headwaters Health: Obstacles and opportunities to advance forest management Posted on: July 19, 2016
    Panel at ACWA’s Spring Conference discusses forest restoration, biomass power plants, wildfires, and other upper watershed management issues Experts agree there is an urgent need to accelerate the pace and scale of forest management activities.  From development of biomass energy and facilities to on-the-ground projects and watershed-based partnerships, this panel discussion at the ACWA Spring Conference explored the barriers and [...]
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