Watershed Investments: 3 Ways to Get More Money into Trees

Watershed Investments: 3 Ways to Get More Money into Trees

Headwaters. Photo: public domain.

Headwaters forests, like this one, provide over 60 percent of the West’s water supply, according to Carpe Diem West, a nonprofit addressing challenges to water resources in the American West. Photo: public domain.

Part two in a three-part series on the value of watersheds. 

You’ve seen the commercials – cold, clear water flowing through pristine mountain landscapes straight to that refreshing glass in your hand. Have you ever stopped to think where those water sources might be? For many of us in the western United States, look out the window to the forested hills and mountains and you’ve got it: our headwaters.

Many of these landscapes that we’ve come to rely on for our water are not as healthy as what you see in the commercials, and people are taking notice of the consequence. Today there is a growing momentum among communities throughout the West to recognize the value of and invest in healthy headwaters as the natural infrastructure for providing and protecting water resources.

Historically, this wasn’t always the case. In part, that’s because it’s hard to articulate the true value of the service healthy headwaters: providing us with abundant, clean water. This has made balancing the trade-offs between headwater health and economic opportunities challenging.

Although healthy headwaters are about restoring and protecting important landscapes, getting there is really about people. Achieving the desired outcomes for forests and landscapes that provide communities clean, reliable water requires the actions and investments that we at Willamette Partnership often see in our work. The following examples illustrate three points that we’ve found to be key in making conservation part of the solution to complex environmental and community challenges and likely to be true for healthy headwaters.

1) Partnerships built on clearly defined goals

The McKenzie River starts high in the eastern Cascade Mountains, east of Eugene, Oregon. The river is the primary source of water for the metropolitan area and its 200,000 residents. Recognizing the high dependency on this important resource, a partnership of several water utilities, the U.S. Forest Service, nonprofits, and local businesses was formed. The goal of the Pure Water Partnership is to ensure the continued provision of clean, reliable water for the communities that depend upon the McKenzie. The programs of the Pure Water Partnership include protecting important headwater lands through conservation easements, restoring riparian forests, and providing financial incentives to landowners who implement landscaping techniques that enhance the watershed. Funding for this work comes from multiple local, state, federal, and private sources combined through the McKenzie Watershed Fund, which provided half a million dollars for on the ground projects and landowner incentives between 2014 and 2015.

This graph shows how high-intensity wildfires impair the forest’s natural ability to filter and absorb water, which then negatively affects the health of water bodies. Leaf litter burns up, baking the ground underneath, and leaves behind a water repellent layer that prevents rainfall from draining into the “wettable” soil. This causes increased flooding and runoff with soil and debris to enter rivers and streams. Graphic courtesy of the American Forest Foundation.

This graphic shows how high-intensity wildfires impair the forest’s natural ability to filter and absorb water, and therefore, negatively affects the health of water bodies. Leaf litter burns up, baking the ground underneath, leaving behind a water repellent layer that prevents rainfall from draining into the “wettable” soil. This causes increased flooding and runoff with soil and debris to enter rivers and streams. Graphic courtesy of the American Forest Foundation.

2) A business case to create the catalyst

Water has been center stage in California over the past several years with record droughts and devastating fires such as the 2013 Sierra Nevada Rim Fire, which burned 257,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. While the state and region have experienced wildfires for years, it has been challenging to get the necessary, proactive investment in forest health to help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and protect important sources of water for major population centers like Sacramento and San Francisco. This prompted the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Forest Service embarked on an effort to build the business case for investing in restoring headwater landscapes, reducing the risk and damage associated with large wildfires, and protecting community water sources. The resulting case study of the Mokulmne River Watershed demonstrated that the total benefits were over 1.5 times greater than the project costs. Such information has helped to shift investment in critical headwater regions. In September, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 2480, which allows funding for traditional built infrastructure, like levees and dams, to be put towards restoring and conserving natural infrastructure, such as the Sierra Nevada headwaters.

3) Tools and information to target investments.  

The importance of healthy headwaters is perhaps best illustrated in the arid region of New Mexico, where more than half the state’s population rely on the Rio Grande and its tributaries for their water supply. Increased frequency and severity of wildfires in recent years has emphasized the importance of restoring and protecting the health of the Rio Grande’s headwaters in Northern New Mexico. That is why in 2014 more than 40 organizations, agencies, and business interests signed the Rio Grande Water Fund charter. To help ensure that the benefits or returns from projects are maximized, the partnership drafted a comprehensive plan, which uses the best available science to understand the hydrologic dynamics of the watershed and the areas of highest risk from wildfire damage. The plan establishes priority areas and lays out criteria that will focus investments on those projects that will have the greatest potential to reduce risk and protect water supplies.

Seeing the value of headwaters as sources for community water supply is still not business as usual for most of the western United States. But, the examples above and many of the partners we work with who support the varied benefits of floodplain restoration and riparian restoration are just a few of an increasing number of communities shifting towards viewing healthy headwaters as critical natural infrastructure. As their success continues, they provide important resources and examples for others to build upon.

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Neil Crescenti
Neil Crescenti is a project manager for the Willamette Partnership’s Clean Water program. In this role, he focuses on development of state level water quality trading policy tools and templates, facilitation of a national conversation on innovative approaches to achieving clean water goals and conducts outreach of national best practices for water quality trading. Neil brings diverse experience to Willamette Partnership in the arenas of water quality and quantity including work in the Lake Tahoe Basin, Idaho and most recently Virginia. Neil holds a Master’s degree in Resource Economics from the University of Maine and a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from Marist College. When not working on conserving the environment, Neil is out enjoying it by bike, skis, or fly rod.

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