Logging for water doesn’t hold water
The Nov. 11 Post Independent article about state officials’ misguided notion of cutting trees to increase water yield and reduce fires clearly reveals the many things that are wrong with that concept.
Besides producing silvicultural leprosy and being based on hocus-pocus hydrology, logging for water just does not work. Information from the state’s own forest researchers shows that cutting down trees seldom produces measurable new water and will not provide any new water when Colorado needs it – during drought years.
As noted in your article, meager amounts of extra water can be detected at the edge of clear-cuts for a few days in the spring (when we don’t need extra water) and only during wet years (again, when we don’t need extra water). Even the spare trickle of water that might be detected for a few days in wet years disappears before running downstream to anywhere near where it might be used, and it disappears altogether within a few weeks. During dry years, no new water run-off is detected at all.
This crazy scenario would require constructing expensive, destructive new reservoirs high in our forest watersheds, then watching those reservoirs sit virtually empty most years as they slowly, slowly gather dabs of water during occasional wet days, and hoping that the puddles thus accumulated won’t evaporate before they are needed.
Meanwhile, huge expanses of forest would be cut, leaving open ground exposed to increased evaporation during dry years and dry months, negating any meager and temporary extra water that trickles from them during wet springs. In winter, clear-cut areas would lose snow itself to wind, months before it could melt into water. In the end, you spend a lot of money and actually end up with less water, not more.
Certainly, the research conducted at the experimental forests is carefully done, and its results are accurately and honestly reported. It is that very research, however, that tells us logging-for-water is not a solution in the real world.
When researchers say that water yield might occasionally be increased by cutting 25 to 40 percent of the forest, they don’t mean thinning some of the trees; they mean clear-cutting large swaths of forest on 25 to 40 percent of the land. While they have found that any cutting might render some new water, only clear-cutting makes it significantly measurable.
Researchers at Wyoming’s experimental forest, for example, project that they could increase water yield by 185,000 acre-feet, enough to supply the same number of households, IF they cut down HALF the trees in the entire 1.1 million acres of the North Platte River watershed. That is not forest thinning, that is moonscaping.
To translate that level of new water production to a supply for a million new households, as Colorado’s logging-for-water boosters promise, would require clear-cutting over 3 million acres of Colorado forests!
Escalating this ineffective idea to the absurd, some state officials are now trying to pitch it as fire prevention. Thinning forests to produce mythical new water, they say, will reduce fire danger because there would be fewer trees to burn. Again, it just does not work that way, because logging for water is not thinning; it is clear-cutting.
Clear-cutting forests reduces the moisture content of the forest, making it more susceptible to fire. Worse, cutting down trees high in forest watersheds where even the trickles of new water might occasionally appear does absolutely nothing to reduce forest density and fire danger where it matters – where people live.
Good fire danger management, as explained by the state’s own fire experts and by firefighters throughout the West, involves reducing the density of trees and other flammable materials close to homes and communities. Cutting trees in the high country in pursuit of imaginary water will not protect homes and people from fire.
Certainly, Colorado and other western states need to take new approaches to managing water. Certainly, Colorado and other western states need to improve the natural health and fire resistance of our forests. Clear-cutting those forests accomplishes neither.
State and federal officials need to get real. They should quit squandering time and money in pursuit of illusory magic and get down to the serious business of improving the efficiency of our water use, restraining urban sprawl in fire-prone areas, and concentrating fire reduction efforts where they will saves lives and homes.
Steve Smith is associate Southwest regional representative for the Sierra Club. He lives in Glenwood Springs.
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