Forest management policy affects crucial water availability

Bill Wickman
Sustainable Forest Action Coalition
The impacts of California’s historic drought are becoming clear with each dry month. The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences recently estimated the ongoing drought is costing our state a staggering $2.2 billion and the loss of over 17,000 jobs. As our elected officials look for solutions, it’s critical they look to the forests and reconsider well-intentioned policies that are reducing the quality and quantity of our limited water resources.

California’s watersheds are a primary source of our water supplies and the headwaters of these watersheds are located in our rural counties. The current “hands-off” approach to management of our federally owned forests is resulting in several unintended consequences. Due to a century of fire suppression, these forests have become overgrown, dense and more vulnerable to wildfire, insects and disease. When coupled with climate change, the increasing intensity of wildfires is destroying the very ecosystems and watersheds our federal laws and regulations were thought to protect and preserve.

Some environmental groups believe that “nature should take its course” when it comes to our forests. They commonly sue the federal government to prevent implementation of forest restoration projects, including those designed to contain the threat of fires in the future. This constant threat of litigation prevents the federal government from actively managing our forests and watersheds. Over time, these lawsuits come with a cost. Each summer, Californians are witnessing species, watersheds, forest resources and recreational opportunities destroyed or greatly impacted.

These groups have been extremely successful in decreasing restoration on federal forestlands. Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen the impact of this policy shift in many of our rural, forested communities that have not economically recovered from over-regulation related to the northern and California spotted owl and other species. Now our federal forests are growing more trees than they can naturally sustain, and this has serious implications for our environment.

In California there are 8.3 million acres of suitable productive forestland in the California Forest Service region. The annual net growth on these acres is 3.73 billion board feet and of that, 846 million board feet die each year from overcrowding. This means that 23 percent of forest growth goes to waste and becomes fuel for future wildfires. With watershed restoration and forest thinning consuming only 9 percent of annual net growth of our federal forests, it’s no wonder that we have seen such a drastic loss of water yield into our watersheds and state water systems.

There is a growing body of research that addresses forestry, water loss and climate change issues. Everyone understands that trees consume a lot of water, but we are beginning to quantify the impacts when forests are overgrown. Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute found that thinning thick and unnaturally dense forests could increase runoff for urban water users by up to 12 percent in some years.

A study on the Sierra Nevada Watershed Ecosystem Enhancement Project details the influence of forest vegetation and the need for management activities in addressing an ever-decreasing water supply. Jamie Workman, from the Environmental Defense Fund, and Helen Poulos, a fire ecologist at Wesleyan University, estimated that excess trees in the 7.5 million acres of Sierra Nevada conifer forest are responsible for the loss of more than 15 billion gallons per day, or 17 million acre-feet of water per year. Workman writes this is “more than enough water to meet the needs of every Californian for a year.”

Active forest management, including timber harvests and thinning, can improve forest health and should be included in any comprehensive strategy to conserve our water resources. There are several solutions on the table for restoring management activities, with most of them pending further action in Congress. Among them, Congress should pass legislation to end the practice of “fire borrowing,” where the U.S. Forest Service is forced to fund growing suppression costs by raiding accounts that would help contain catastrophic fires in the first place.

To truly increase the pace and scale of forest and water management projects, it’s critical that Congress provide federal agencies relief from counterproductive laws and regulations that encourage endless lawsuits. Federal environmental laws should be updated to reflect the latest science and forest practices that make it possible to remove trees without damaging wildlife habitat and other values. Reforming these laws will draw the ire of powerful interests in Washington, but it’s time to reconsider our approach to forest management if we are truly determined to protect and conserve our natural resources amidst historic drought.

For more information about the Sustainable Forest Action Coalition, visit

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