Watershed Health – July 2010 concepts

A primary purpose for establishing the National Forest System was to protect watersheds. The Organic Act, Weeks Act, Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act, and the National Forest Management Act all discuss protection of watersheds.  Today, roughly one out of five Americans depend on a national forest for drinking water, and 53% of the surface supply of drinking water originates on forest land (national, tribal, state and private).

We have heard from the public, from the science community and Forest Service employees that today, more than ever, water resources must be maintained, restored and protected. Across the landscape, healthy watersheds direct and regulate water flow, filter pollutants, stabilize soils and control erosion, store carbon, provide diverse aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal habitats, and sustainably supply clean drinking water. Healthy watersheds on National Forest System (NFS) lands also nurture a sense of health and well-being; provide social, cultural, and economic opportunities and benefits, including through water-based recreation; and connect people to the land. Everybody lives in a watershed, and everybody has a stake in how well watersheds at different scales function and perform.

Healthy watersheds are more likely to supply desired ecological services in the face of climate change and are more resilient  to disturbances such as floods, fire, insect outbreaks, or human impacts.  However, the quantity and quality of America’s water and aquatic habitat are affected by our changing climate, as well as by non-climate related stressors. Changing conditions or stressors can include: changing water temperatures, variability in volume and timing of precipitation, increased frequency and severity of floods, increased duration and severity of droughts, changing vegetative conditions, increased incidence of insects or disease, increased threats of catastrophic fire, the spread of invasive species, point and non-point source pollution, increased areas with impermeable surfaces, degraded roads, and other human-induced impairment. When watershed conditions are stressed or degraded, critical services can be threatened or compromised.

We propose that the 2011 Planning Rule guide management of NFS lands with a goal of maintaining and restoring healthy, resilient watersheds in order to protect and enhance America’s water resources for humans and the environment. Water is a resource that epitomizes the need for a collaborative all-lands approach: in order to accomplish this goal, managers will need to work closely with neighbors, partners and stakeholders, within the context of the broader landscape.  Maintaining healthy watersheds and restoring damaged or degraded watersheds will help them be more resilient to climate change and other stressors, and will optimize their potential to continue to supply clean water and critical aquatic and terrestrial habitat, along with cultural services, recreation opportunities, and other benefits, far into the future. 

How would the 2011 Rule protect and enhance water resources and guide the maintenance or restoration of resilient watersheds?

As we have previously posted, the proposed planning rule contains a three-part planning framework:  1) Assess, 2) Revise/Amend, 3) Monitor.  The proposed planning framework is a collaborative and continuous cycle that improves learning.

Assessments would be conducted at appropriate geographic scales, using shared data sets, to help us examine existing and foreseeable conditions and trends of water in the region, the function and services of NFS watersheds, and the factors that stress them. When assessing conditions and trends, we would work with partners and stakeholders to assess how watersheds on the unit supply clean water for people and support species that depend on aquatic, riparian habitats and unique water features such as lakes, wetlands, springs and fens.  Managers would also identify other benefits provided by functioning watersheds in the broader region, and then would identify the watershed questions related to land management on the unit that need to be understood and addressed. For example, assessments might identify:

  • the characteristics of functioning watersheds in the region
  • the benefits functioning watersheds are providing (i.e., water based recreation, aquatic habitat, drinking water, soil stabilization, flood prevention)
  • how water is moving across the landscape – where, how, when, and in what condition does it enter NFS lands; and where, how, when, and in what condition does it leave?
  • impacts on and off NFS lands to water resources
  • potential future demands and stressors and how they might affect water quality and availability, habitat, and watershed resilience

 We would seek to build on existing information, such as water quality information stored by the Environmental Protection Agency, relevant state recreation or wildlife assessments and information from local watershed associations. 

As we’ve stated in other posts, the goal of an assessment would not be to conduct an exhaustive review or take on a huge new research and assessment agenda.  Rather, the goal is to use available information to better understand watershed conditions and trends and the role of the unit in the broader landscape, and identify the need to revise or amend a plan to protect or enhance water resources or watershed resilience.

If a plan revision or amendment  is called for, managers would work with partners and the public to establish desired conditions and objectives in the plan for watershed health. The plan may include desired conditions and objectives for restoring watersheds that have been degraded, damaged, or destroyed. It may include standards and guides for the protection of aquatic resources and the protection or enhancement of benefits. A plan could also identify characteristics of watersheds in poor condition in order to determine needs for restoration. 

The Agency would then monitor progress toward achieving the desired future conditions and plan objectives. We would seek to capitalize on national efforts underway to identify data availability, needs, gaps, and protocols at various scales for watersheds, aquifers and aquatic habitat. Monitoring would focus on obtaining adequate information about water resources and needs to inform decisions about management for resilience and watershed function, and balance competing interests and demands. Monitoring would be targeted, collaborative, science-based, accountable through annual reporting, and based on a realistic analysis of what can be achieved. The Forest Service would coordinate with Forest Service research, federal, state, tribal, and local governments and with nongovernmental entities to help to achieve cost-effective broader scale monitoring programs.

Water and the Agency’s Response to Climate Change

In this era of climate change, national forests and grasslands are playing an increasingly vital role in protecting the Nation’s watersheds. Forests and grasslands reduce erosion, recharge aquifers, regulate stream flows, moderate water temperatures, and protect water quality. As the climate changes, America’s forests will become an even more important source of clean and abundant water for people and the environment. A successful response to climate change will entail sound stewardship of America’s watersheds.

The Forest Service has been committed to understanding and responding to our changing climate for many years. The recently published “Forest Service Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change” affirms our commitment to watershed health and resilience.  This roadmap and the accompanying scorecard rating system make the Forest Service better able to bring science and technology into play in order to assess, adapt to and mitigate climate change. The roadmap and scorecard hold the Forest Service accountable for engaging with communities and partners in responding to climate change. Like the proposed 2011 planning rule, these tools reinforce our commitment to make the nation’s forests and grasslands, and their watersheds, more resilient.

5 Responses to “Watershed Health – July 2010 concepts”
  1. Nancey Kenon says:

    What can I do if I feel these kind of policys are unfair. Where would you recommend I voice my considerations to the government? I feel many individuals can be thinking about hearing what you need to say.

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  2. physician assistant says:

    Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

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  3. Kristen Boyles says:

    The following is the summary from a proposal for watershed protection through the NFMA planning rule. The entire piece is available at:



    A Concept Piece by Earthjustice and Pacific Rivers Council
    for the US Forest Service Planning Rule Team (July 29, 2010)

    Earthjustice and Pacific Rivers Council commend Secretary Vilsack for the priority he has placed on water and watersheds in his vision for our national forests. We urge the Forest Service to implement the Secretary’s vision by recognizing and acknowledging water and watershed integrity as the leading forest output on which its neighbors and the larger landscape surrounding our national forests depend by promulgating National Forest Management Act (NFMA) planning regulations that require land and resource management plans to:

    • Establish ecologically defined Riparian Reserves that include minimum default widths of 100 feet, within which all management actions must be restorative of aquatic and riparian values and where special management direction applies.

    • Identify Key Watersheds and prioritize the protection and restoration of areas exhibiting the highest aquatic integrity.

    • Establish measurable watershed conservation Objectives and Indicators of aquatic ecosystem integrity and desired conditions that are directly linked to management standards and monitoring.

    • Describe a Watershed Restoration approach that includes road removal and achievement of road density standards, connectivity within and between healthy watersheds, and re-establishment of stream and watershed ecosystem processes.

    • Provide a Monitoring Framework of sufficient comprehensiveness and accuracy to assess trends in aquatic habitat, water quality, and biological integrity for waters across national forests, and to describe the effects of forest management actions, natural disturbance events, and climate change. Require that monitoring results be used in ongoing project planning and future forest plan revisions.

    • Establish whole watershed assessments as the primary planning tools that shape and inform future management actions.

    Together, these core forest plan requirements will comprise a new, unified national forest watershed conservation strategy that will ensure sound stewardship of the priceless water-based resources entrusted to the care of the Forest Service by the American public.

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    • Fotoware says:

      Watershed health and water quality (and quantity!) are dependent on the health of the forestlands. When unhealthy forests burn catastrophically, the hydrophobic soils don’t absorb rain and meltwater, channeling it into a destructive erosive force, lasting for decades. One could possibly say that disasterous fires, floods and erosion are “natural” but, they surely aren’t desirable. The tragedy in Flagstaff really drives that point home, these days. Blaming “the market” for losing lives and forests isn’t acceptable to me.

      There are a great many products we buy that we could make with American wood, instead of buying them from China, made with Arab oil. Yes, we CAN change “the market”, and our unhealthy forests, for the greater good.

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    • John Potyondy says:

      The proposal by Earthjustice and the Pacific Rivers Council provides many key elements essential to address watershed health including the use of whole watershed assessments, measureable objectives, establishing priority watersheds, and monitoring to assess trends in aquatic habitat, water quality, biological integrity, and the effects of forest management actions, natural disturbance events, and climate change.
      Some of the example assessments described in the Forest Service preamble are in my opinion less useful toward this end including assessing the characteristics of functioning watersheds, the benefits functioning watersheds, and how water is moving across the landscape. While this may be of intellectual interest to hydrologists, it fails to address the management issues faced by the Forest Service.
      The last two example assessments listed in the preamble are closer to what the Forest Service needs to do to address watershed health: (1) assess the impacts of management actions on and off NFS lands to water resources, and (2) assess potential future demands and stressors and how they affect water quality and availability, aquatic habitat and biota, and watershed resilience.
      There are two approaches under development by the Forest Service that merit greater visibility in the planning process because they directly address this need. One is the Watershed Condition Framework which strives to classify watershed condition in a nationally consistent manner followed by the identification of priority watersheds and implementation of integrated suites of activities and monitoring to show improvement to whole watershed condition. A second is a draft Watershed Vulnerability Assessment process designed to evaluate the risk climate change poses to important water resources such as impacts to water diversions, aquatic species, and infrastructure.
      The above approaches show great promise for addressing watershed health issues in a more rational and consistent manner than the agency has ever done in the past. These approaches are in line with the proposal by Earthjustice and the Pacific Rivers Council to use whole watershed assessments as the primary planning tools to inform future management actions. The Forest Service would be well served to use watershed-based planning to address watershed health, rather than continuing to use the undefined concept of landscapes when we talk about water resources.

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