According to an old Chinese proverb, “A crisis is just an opportunity riding a dangerous wind.” With California’s drought reaching crisis level and the long-term weather forecast calling for sunny skies, the Calaveras County Water District held a Water-Forestry Forum at the San Andreas Town Hall Thursday, Jan. 23. The forum was aimed at accomplishing two interconnected goals: implementing forestry practices to increase the state’s water supply and mitigating the risk of large-scale wildfires in the future.
“What we’ve been doing isn’t working,” said Mitch Dion, general manager of CCWD, in his opening address at the forum. “This forum is about getting people together to figure out a path to move forward.”
The forum brought together representatives from public utility districts, private industries, the U.S. Forest Service, environmental organizations and the academic community. In addition, political leaders, including California’s 4th Congressional District Rep. Tom McClintock and a representative from Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office, attended the meeting.
“Conservation is extremely important in managing (water) shortages, but it does nothing to create new water,” said McClintock, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Water and Power. “We’re at a crossroads with water policy and this drought has brought it to a head.”
After preliminary remarks were made, the assembled experts began addressing the objective at hand: implementing long-term forest management strategies that will enhance future water yields.
Dr. Roger Bales, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Merced, described how his research on woodland hydrology illuminates some compelling truths about forest management practices. Bales also described why additional research on the water-forest nexus needs to be done and how funding should be allocated.
“Where the knowledge gap exists is where we want to invest,” Bales said. “We operate by the seat of our pants in California. We need to show people tangible benefits and that means addressing knowledge gaps.”
With Bales’ research goals in mind, the forum participants discussed a project that would involve a cooperative partnership between Sierra Pacific Industries, the largest private landowner in the state, the U.S. Forest Service and the other stakeholders. This project would evaluate the efficacy of specific forest management practices to determine which would be the most beneficial in terms of reducing wildfire risks and maximizing water returns.
Bales explained that his research has revealed that removing vegetation from forests increases runoff and that the regrowth of vegetation diminishes the amount of runoff. Additionally, Bales’ research has established that clear-cutting and wildfires result in earlier snowmelt, because less-dense forests retain snow longer and that snow-dominated areas produce more runoff than rainy areas. Bales went on to say that thinning leaves in a given forest can have a major impact on the amount of water that’s lost to evaporation. However, Bales warned that thinning the leaf cover must be done in a very specific way to maximize water availability.
“There’s a sweet spot in thinning because you want to keep low-angle branches in place to keep the sun off the snow,” Bales explained.
Dr. Kevin O’Hara, a professor of silviculture at the University of California, Berkeley, bolstered Bales’ points. Specifically, O’Hara discussed the importance of leaf area index, or the number of leaf layers between the sky and the ground and how this impacts evaporation.
“We’re talking about the leaf area of a tree and how it impacts evapotransportation,” O’Hara said. “Leaf area is closely linked to water.”
As he continued, O’Hara explained that the arrangement of a stand of trees can also have an impact on the amount of water that’s available. For example, the spacing of trees and the arrangement of their foliage can have a major impact on the amount of water being used within the forest. In turn, this will dictate the amount of water that’s available for human use.
Dr. Bill Stewart, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, described the economic implications of increasing water availability. Stewart pointed out that an improved forest management policy would not only increase the amount of water that’s available to consumers, it would also increase the amount of water that’s available to generate power with hydro-turbines.
While the academic experts held the floor for a good part of the forum, the other stakeholders also addressed the state water crisis and the benefits that could be derived from implementing effective forest management policies. For example, it was mentioned that, along with enhancing the availability of water and reducing the risk of wildfires, better forest management practices would also have the economic benefit of increasing the quantity of forest products that could be harvested.
Overall, area water representatives said that the Water-Forestry Forum was a success because it started the conversation about the direction of future forest management practices.
“In a nutshell, I think it was a terrific group of people and I think the dialogue was enlightening and useful,” Dion said after the forum.
John Kingsbury, executive director of the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association, pointed out that the ultimate implications of Thursday’s Water-Forest Forum could help shape land management policies throughout California and across the western United States in the years ahead.
“The work we do here can be carried on to other national forests in the U.S.,” Kingsbury said.
For the time being, collecting more data on forest management practices in California, implementing specific policies and optimizing water yields are the goals of the Water-Forestry Forum participants. Everyone who spoke at the forum was quick to point out that increased water availability in the mountain counties will produce major benefits for the Delta, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and residents throughout the state.
“There’s no more important resource than water,” said CCWD board President Bob Dean. “If we manage the Sierra for water, everything else will fall into place.”