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If a tree falls in the forest, does it affect the water from our faucets?

Written by Heidi Huber-Stearns, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship.

From the Pacific Coast, to the forests of Northwest, and over the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, the western United States contains a checkerboard of geographic, ecological, and social diversity. These westernmost 11 states (including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) are home to over 73.5 million people (which is 23% of US population), and contain the highest concentration of federal land ownership in the US. This region is also home to historic water rights (western water law principle of ‘use it or lose it’), suffers from arid and unpredictable precipitation, and drought-induced risks such as wildfire, and a contains critically important headwaters of major river systems (the Colorado Rockies alone contain headwaters for seven major US river systems).

Over the past couple decades the western US region has grown faster than the entire country. This growth has been accompanied by complex, expensive, and often poorly defined conflicts, which are fueled by rapid land use pattern changes, such as exurban development, and public land use transitions, and changes in climate, demographics, socio-economic conditions, and decreased funding for land stewards. Particularly on public (federally-managed) lands, significant funding limitations and gaps in forest and watershed maintenance have increased, as budgets are reprioritized to address immediate environmental and social concerns such as wildfire. States and their respective watersheds are not uniformly exposed to all these factors, nor are they only factors pertinent to this region, yet these factors are all cited as playing a role in driving the development of new approaches to addressing watershed stewardship challenges.

There is a clear need for new and creative ways to address these increasing concerns, especially since the majority of drinking water in the region comes from surface water supplies primarily protected by forests on public lands (Barnes, et al, 2009). So what occurs in the forested watersheds upstream is indeed linked to the water most of us in the region receive at our faucet. These new approaches to watershed stewardship have developed hand-in-hand with a shift from historically federally-managed conservation actions to decentralized collaborative efforts aimed at the local and regional scale (Nie, 2008).

One such approach, broadly called “Payments for Watershed Services” (PWS) has increased in the region. We can think of PWS as a set of mechanisms that attempt to address these complex conflicts facing the region, designed in different ways to fit a variety of preexisting institutional and ecological conditions. This kind of expansion in PWS approaches is not specific to just the western US, in fact, PWS expansion is occurring across the globe. Ecosystem Marketplace  (a Forests Trends Initiative) has tracked the development of PWS globally, culminating in the State of Watershed Payments 2012 report, and an interactive map.

Zooming back in to the western US, our recent research included collaboration with Ecosystem Marketplace to inventory existing PWS programs in the region (data used in our work is part of the State of Watershed Payments data set). Our program inventory found 55 programs in operation or in design in the region in 2012; a number that more than doubled from the 20 programs in the region in 2003. These programs and their status (active, in design) are listed on the map to the right. Point map of Payments for Watershed Services in the Western United States (Huber-Stearns et al., 2013-unpublished). Our research resulted in information about the programmatic components of all 55 programs, which is more comprehensively covered in our full manuscript (email me for more information). In keeping with the theme of this blog, we will focus in on one specific subgroup of programs that emerged in our data analysis: Watershed Restoration and Protection programs.

We identified nine Watershed Restoration and protection programs in our 2012 inventory, and this number has increased since, with more programs under design and beginning full operation. Watershed Restoration and Protection programs focus primarily on targeting water quality ecosystem services, including general water quality, as well as some specific concerns, primarily, temperature, sediment and nitrogen. The programs focus on these ecological concerns through management actions, mainly: land restoration (forest thinning, prescribed burning, riparian restoration, and other actions to improve watershed health); and protection actions (outreach and increased patrols to educate public about appropriate activities in key watersheds, purchasing of conservation easements). These management actions are aimed at the protection and restoration of upper watershed lands that directly affect water municipalities’ source water, and in some cases, lands affecting wastewater and storm water discharge.

In all cases, water municipalities and utilities fund these programs. These programs include cities such as Denver, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Tualatin. Due to the inherent checkerboard of land ownership in the region, those conducting stewardship practices on the land for these programs are varied. In the Pacific Northwest, these programs contain mainly private landowners who conduct a variety of restoration and protection practices on their land to enhance and improve water quality. In more arid states, the key land steward in the US Forest Service, who partners with utilities to cost-share restoration and protection actions on public lands.

It may seem unusual that water providers and federal agencies are teaming up to address water quality concerns. However, the Forest Service is increasingly focused on strategies to improve upstream water health, with a specific focus on engaging large water users who are willing to pay for protection, risk aversion and/or restoration practices. Both utilities and public agencies see these partnerships as opportunities to leverage their limited staff and funding towards improved watershed management. The utilities are motivated by source water protection, and other water quality and quantity concerns, while the public agencies and private individuals are motivated by the opportunity to improve overall health of both public and private lands. PWS can serve as a mechanism to work across land ownership boundaries in order to address larger social and ecological concerns.

These watershed restoration actions are often seen as investments in natural infrastructure: as a complement, or in lieu of municipalities increasing technology and treatment within drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities. (Click here to read a recent report: Natural Infrastructure: Investing in Forested Landscapes for Source Water Protection in the United States) As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As one example, investment in natural infrastructure can be worth avoidance of severe wildfire costs (loss of lives and property, forest health effects, costs of fire suppression) and subsequent damage (increased nutrients and sediment in water, increased water treatment costs, negative impact on water security, biodiversity). This approach can address such watershed health issues at their root cause, conducting restoration work along waterways and in headwaters.

Programs such as these PWS show that major urban water users are focusing on proactive thinking beyond their own intake and discharge pipes; investments in such programs are starting to solidify the economic value of upstream forests to downstream water users. PWS provides a mechanism that can facilitate: new partnerships and work across boundaries, leveraging of resources (making a dollar go further), and co-benefits such as habitat restoration, and landscape beauty. The relative newness and increasing popularity of PWS means that the next few years will be key for studying new programs coming online, and existing programs reporting outcomes and program effectives. In conclusion, the answer is yes; the clean, cold drinking water gushing forth from your open faucet can indeed be connected to falling trees in your watershed.

Heidi’s research is supported by the Agricultural Experiment Station. Heidi is also the Coordinator for the Colorado Conservation Exchange, a program of the Center for Collaborative Conservation.

Maps were produced by the Geospatial Centroid at Colorado State University.


Barnes, M., Todd, A., Lilja, R, and Barten, P. (2009). Forests, Water and people: Drinking water supply and forest lands in the Northeast and Midwest United States. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service report.

Bennett, G., Nathaniel .C and Hamilton, K. (2012). Charting New Waters: State of Watershed Payments 2012. Washington, DC: Forest Trends. Available online at

Carpe Diem West. (2011). Watershed investment programs in the American West: An updated look: Linking upstream watershed health and downstream security. A Carpe Diem West Report. California.

Folke, C. (2006). Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analyses. Global Environmental Change-Human and Policy Dimensions, 16(3): 253-267.

Gorte, R., Hardy Vincent, C., Hanson, L., Rosenblum, M. (2012). Federal land ownership: Overvew and data. Congressional research Service 7-5700, R42346.

Majanen, T., Friedman, R., Milder, J. (2011). Innovations in market-based watershed conservation in the United States: Payments for watershed services for agricultural and forest landowners. Ecoagriculture partners. June 2011.

Nie, M. (2008). The governance of Western public lands: Mapping its present and future. University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, Kansas. 

Robbins, Meehann, Gosnell, & Gilbertz. (2009). Writing the new west: A critical review. Rural Sociology 74(3); 356.

Theobald, D. M., Travis,W. R., Drummond, M. A., and Gordon, E. S. (2013). “The Changing Southwest.” In Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States: A Report Prepared for the National Climate Assessment, edited by Garfin,G., Jardine, A., Merideth,R., Black, M., and LeRoy, S. 37–55. A report by the Southwest Climate Alliance. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Travis, W., Theobald, D., Mixon, G., and Dickinson, T. (2005). Western Futures: A look into the patterns of land use and future development in the American West. Report from The Center #6, Center of the American West, University of Colorado at Boulder.

Weidner, E. and A. Todd. 2011. From the forest to the faucet: Drinking water and forests in the US, Methods Paper. Ecosystem Services and Markets Program Area, State and Private Forestry, United States Forest Service.


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