Kayaker in Clear Creek, downtown Golden, Colorado. Photo by David Hunt, Flickr.
We all live in a watershed, no matter how urban or rural the city. For instance, I live in Golden, Colorado, a small community founded more than 150 years ago along the banks of Clear Creek at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
Inarguably, Clear Creek defines Golden – its physiography, character, and economy. We depend on it for drinking water, irrigation, and agriculture (and yes, beer production!). In the winter, we hike to the cirque lakes that crown its headwaters; in the summer, we explore its tributary canyons, and cool off by floating its rapids in inner tubes.
Golden's dependence on national forests for water is not that unusual. In the United States, 66 million people in 3,400 communities nationwide receive most of their water supply from National Forests, and have industries that depend on rivers. In other words, almost a quarter of Americans are directly affected by how the watersheds in our national forests are managed.
John Wesley Powell, the famous geologist, encapsulated this idea when he described a watershed: as "that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course..."
Which is why, when the Forest Service recently asked for ideas about how to do forest planning, we suggested they utilize a watershed-based approach to planning and making decisions that will impact the land they manage. That is, look at the landscape through the watershed lens, deciding where, how and when various activities can occur in order to keep our rivers and streams clean, flowing, and healthy.
We urged the Forest Service to adopt watershed standards to assure they are able to maintain good water quality and fish habitat. It is particularly important now for the Forest Service to adopt this type of landscape health standard, given the predicted (and unpredicted!) stresses that climate change will impose on our streams and rivers. Forest plans should ensure that our rivers and watersheds can absorb disturbance and adjust to change.
We also urged the Forest Service to pay special attention to the harm that its huge road system is causing to water quality. Without question, one of the leading causes of water quality and watershed impairment in our national forests is sediments derived from decaying and under-maintained roads. The Forest Service manages about 380,000 miles of roads, enough to circumnavigate the earth 15 times, yet only maintains to standard on average 20% of this massive system each year. Moreover, the Forest Service readily acknowledges that many of these left-over timber roads are no longer needed.With an 8 billion dollar maintenance backlog, the road system is a major fiscal drain, and a huge environmental headache. It’s time for the Forest Service to "right-size" its road system, and forest planning is a good place to start.
Our recommendations, if adopted, would have the practical effect of directing more agency resources towards restoring and protecting watersheds. Above all, they would help keep our rivers – along with the uplands that feed them and the downstream communities that depend on them -- healthy and vibrant.