Following significant interest in watershed investment at the May SCALE workshop, this article will provide a bit more background on advancing innovative water-forest partnerships. Creative watershed partnerships are increasing across the country as service providers, businesses, consumers, environmentalists, and others continue to recognize how important forests are to watershed health. After the recent and persistent drought, California is especially focused on water issues: a 2016 law recognizes forests as part of the water infrastructure, and a statewide collaborative of environmentalists and corporations are working on water enhancement projects, half of which are forest focused. Most of the examples discussed below focus specifically on water quality, but there are opportunities for partnerships that address other downstream benefits, such as flood mitigation or recreation opportunities. Consider what services your forest provides to the watershed, and who benefits from them.
Benefits from Healthy Forests in Upper Watersheds
Forests provide a vast suite of ecosystem services, including nutrient cycling, climate regulation, raw materials, erosion control, waste treatment, soil formation, water supply and diversity of genetic resources. The value of these benefits, though often unseen or unquantified, is enormous.
Before an agreement can be made and payments can be collected, there must be a value associated with the ecological benefits. Quantification is how the benefits are measured, and valuation of ecosystem services is the process by which they are given a dollar value. For example, if the forest provides erosion control, then one of the ecosystem services would be reduced sedimentation, a measure could be tons of sediment, and the value could be determined by the avoided cost of water purification. Researchers in some forested areas have conducted willingness to pay (WTP) research to determine appropriate values for these benefits. Such was the case in Santa Fe, when a phone survey determined that 82% of taxpayers were willing to pay a monthly sixty-five cent fee for watershed protection. In other cases, companies with a direct stake in water quality have invested in forest restoration. In Arizona, San Tan Brewing has partnered with the National Forest Foundation on the Tap to Top program. In Fort Collins, Colorado, New Belgium Brewing and Anheuser-Busch have invested in forest and rangeland projects on the Colorado-Big Thompson and Cache la Poudre, respectively.
While there are existing methods and precedent for water payments, most investment has historically focused on manmade infrastructure, and we are still learning about how to properly value, measure, and collect payments that support investment in maintaining healthy watersheds.
Investments in Forested Watersheds across the West
Resilient forests can provide significant benefits for utilities through avoided costs from wildfire. In 2002 the Hayman Fire decimated one of Denver’s most crucial watersheds, costing the city $26 million in treatments and infrastructure repairs. In 2010, Denver Water entered into an agreement with the US Forest Service for watershed improvements, investing $16 million in forest restoration projects. The partnership between Denver Water and the USFS is one of several partnerships between the Forest Service and municipal water along the Colorado Front Range. Following the High Park Fire in 2012 the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District quickly joined the USFS, Colorado State Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation to form the Colorado–Big Thompson (C-BT) Headwaters Partnership. Service providers in Aurora, Pueblo, and Colorado Springs soon formed similar partnerships, and Denver Water renewed their partnership in 2017. In Northern Colorado, the Peaks to People Water Fund (formerly the Colorado Conservation Exchange) was established to help channel investment from service providers and private businesses (particularly breweries) into restoration projects in two crucial watersheds heavily impacted by the High Park Fire.
The disparate nature of sources and users in California presents unique challenges to connecting urban water users to upper watershed management in the manner seen in other locations such as Denver and Santa Fe, but doesn’t diminish the importance of making this connection.
In addition to pursuing investments from beneficiaries, connecting forest management planning to watershed planning is necessary to increase the pace and scale of restoration. One opportunity to make this connection is through the Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) process—a collaborative effort supported by California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) to identify and implement sustainable water management solutions at a regional scale. The regional focus is a key factor in the IRWM approach: the state believes, as outlined in the California Water Action Plan, that regional water managers are in the best position to make decisions for water planning in their region, and organized regional water management groups (RWMGs, but often referred to as IRWMs). A large focus on IRWM planning includes public outreach and involvement, including increasing participation of Tribes and disadvantaged and underserved communities. The issues facing each region differ, especially between urban and rural IRWM regions. Many of the rural RWMGs, whose watersheds are mostly made up of forested land, have begun to take a more holistic approach to watershed planning that addresses the health of the headwaters.
RWMGs are currently administering Proposition 1 funding, which mostly focuses on infrastructure improvements, but is also broad enough to include forest management as it pertains to water quality, ecosystem health, and flood mitigation. Of the 43 RWMGs in California, all but 13 (most of which are urban) include forest management as part of their resource management strategies in their IRWM Plans. Some RWMGs contain only a passing reference to the importance of forest restoration to their watersheds, but others have planned and/or implemented extensive projects on forested lands. While information on completed projects is not readily available for most RWMGs, a preliminary analysis of each plan reveals that there are a number of forest management projects under consideration. Consumnes, American, Bear and Yuba River (CABY) IRWM has identified 16 projects relating to forest management, and considers fire vulnerability and fuels reduction as high priorities. The Upper Feather River IRWM has vetted 13 projects relating to uplands and forest management, including six that are specific to forest thinning. Continued engagement with these efforts is crucial to ensure the IRWM process recognizes the importance of resilient forests to overall watershed health.