Guest Column | March 14, 2018

Got Water? Thank (And Save) A Forest

By Maggie Hart Stebbins and Paul Summerfelt

Got Water? Thank (And Save) A Forest

“When the well’s dry,” Benjamin Franklin once said, “we know the worth of water.” Today, our freshwater supplies face serious threats — including drought, wildfire, and other impacts of a warming climate. From California to Cape Town, the worth of water has become crystal clear.

We come from cities in the west (Albuquerque, NM, and Flagstaff, AZ) where the worth of water was never in question. But, in recent years, both of our cities received wake-up calls that the well could, in fact, run dry. Our cities mobilized to prevent that from happening — with a surprisingly simple, cost-effective strategy.

For Albuquerque, the wake-up call was the 2011 Las Conchas fire, which incinerated 156,000 acres of forest in the nearby Jemez Mountains, at one point consuming an acre every second. When the flames were finally doused, monsoon rains followed. With no trees or vegetation to hold the soil in place, tidal waves of mud and ash-blackened water roared down canyons into the Middle Rio Grande River, which supplies much of the drinking water for Albuquerque’s half-million residents. The local water utility was forced to shut down its intake from the river because the mud and ash were more than its filtration system could handle. For 30 days, the utility was forced to draw down its limited supply of groundwater to keep the taps flowing.

In Flagstaff, the call came with the deadly Schultz fire in 2010. After the fire destroyed 15,000 acres in the neighboring Coconino National Forest, unusually heavy rains drenched the charred hillsides with 30 million gallons of water.  The resulting floods inundated homes and damaged a water pipeline, cutting off 20 percent of the city’s supply.

These wake-up calls did not go unheeded: they helped raise awareness about the inextricable connection between forests and water.

In Albuquerque and Flagstaff — as in much of the U.S. — the water that flows from our taps begins its journey in a forest. From their canopies to their roots, healthy forests absorb and filter rain and snow, gradually releasing clean water into streams and rivers. And trees anchor the soil, preventing floods and erosion. That’s why wildfires are often followed by massive mudslides like the one that killed 21 people in Southern California last month. 

Unfortunately, we can expect more fire, floods, and mudslides. Decades of misguided forest management suppressed all fires, leaving woodlands overgrown and highly combustible. Combined with insect infestations, and the hotter summers and more-severe droughts of a changing climate, we have a recipe for truly catastrophic conflagrations. Indeed, that is what we are seeing: the fires that raged across the west last year were without precedent in size and impact. And if our forests are in danger, so is our drinking water.

In response, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, and other cities are working to restore our forested watersheds. In 2012, voters in Flagstaff approved a $10 million bond for forest preservation and management — a public investment that has since leveraged nearly $5 million from other sources. And last year, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority made a $1 million investment in the northern New Mexico watershed, which will be pooled with millions of private and public dollars raised by the Rio Grande Water Fund. In both regions, the funds will be used for forest rehabilitation, including thinning to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires. We were deeply involved in these watershed restoration efforts, and here’s what we learned:

Plan for the long haul. Sometimes local government leaders have a hard time planning beyond the next election cycle. But the management of critical resources — and the viability of our cities — demands a longer view. We need to consider supply-side issues, such as climate projections that call for higher temperatures, reduced snowpack, and severe droughts. And we need to anticipate changes in demand from population growth and development. In Central New Mexico, these factors formed the basis of the water authority’s 100-year water management strategy plan.

Do the math. When considering the cost of watershed protection, weigh that expenditure against the cost of doing nothing. For example, an analysis by the Rio Grande Water Fund found that thinning overgrown forests costs $700 an acre, compared to $2,150 per acre for firefighting costs and damages if the forest burns. Last year’s western wildfires cost a staggering $80 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In that light, it is better to think of watershed protection as an investment — or as insurance — rather than as a cost.  We can be proactive and pay a small sum now, or we can wait until disaster strikes and pay much more.

Build broad support. No one wants their water bills to go up or their taxes to rise. But people will invest in protecting critical resources when they understand what’s at stake. In our communities, we worked to educate and build partnerships among a diverse group of stakeholders: residents, businesses, private foundations, water utilities, landowners, and forest managers. In Flagstaff, that broad support helped win 74 percent voter approval for our $10 million bond.

Start right now. If you wait for a disaster, you’re already behind. So, if you’ve got clean, abundant water, thank a forest — and do what you can to protect it. Don’t wait for the well, or the taps, to run dry.

Paul Summerfelt leads the City of Flagstaff’s Wildland Fire Management Division. Past President of the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership, he currently serves as the City’s representative in the Four Forests Restoration Initiative and is the Project Manager for the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.  

Maggie Hart Stebbins has served on the Bernalillo County Commission in Albuquerque, NM, since May 2009, representing the Albuquerque neighborhoods she has called home for more than 50 years. As a member — and now alternate member — of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority Board, she is committed to protecting that city’s precious water resources.

This commentary was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation

Image credit: "Aspens Regrowth," Larry Lamsa, 2014, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/