In 2014, the U.S. Forest Service, Southern Group of State Foresters, and U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities jointly created the Southeastern Partnership for Forests and Water (Partnership). Recognizing that healthy forests equal clean water, this first-ever initiative’s purpose is to strengthen watershed stewardship by developing strong partnerships between the forest sector, drinking water sector and other stakeholders. The mission of the Partnership is to ensure healthy southeastern forested watersheds that provide safe, reliable drinking water through strong partnerships, collaboration, funding and action.
The Connection Between Forests and Drinking Water
There is a well-researched and documented connection between forests and water quality. Forests provide a natural water filter, removing sediment and other contaminants. Heavy forest cover within watersheds is associated with stable hydrology and clean water. Forests help reduce impacts from flooding, regulate stream flows, recharge groundwater and help support both the quality and quantity of surface drinking water available for growing communities around the country and the Southeast. Public health impacts associated with forest losses include increased contamination of water supplies and fisheries, increased flooding, and decreased drinking water availability.
Over 50 percent of the nation’s water supply originates on forestlands that are in both public and private ownership. This makes long-term stewardship of healthy, productive forests imperative for current and future drinking water supplies. In the Southeast, forests make up nearly one-third of the total land area and provide a quarter of total available water yield.
We are at a crossroads in the Southeast when it comes to the important connection between forests and drinking water. According to the 2013 Southern Forests Futures Report, over the next few decades the Southeast will experience increasing forest land fragmentation, conversion, and urbanization that will lead to declines in drinking water quality and quantity. The report cites forestland conversion, climate change and forest diseases as increasing threats to southern forests. Healthy forested watersheds and long-term forest stewardship can help minimize declines in both drinking water quality and quantity.
Goals and Desired Outcomes
The Partnership maintains strong forest-water collaboratives in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, focused on priority forested drinking water watersheds, also called source water protection areas.
The goals of the Southeastern Partnership for Forests and Water are to:
- Help maintain or expand healthy forests in drinking water source watersheds;
- Maintain and improve water quality and quantity through healthy forest retention and stewardship;
- Initiate and develop working relationships among water utilities, the forest sector, state and local agencies, Rural Water Associations, and conservation groups;
- Identify watersheds and initiatives that have high potential for cooperative forest conservation and long-term stewardship;
- Explore pilot projects to implement creative long-term stewardship strategies such as Payment for Watershed Services and forestry best management practices that demonstrate the interdependence of healthy forests and drinking water.
Now in its seventh year, the Southeastern Partnership for Forests and Water continues to build momentum through funding from several USFS grant programs, which leverage matching funds from the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities and state forestry agencies in Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas. Priority watersheds the Partnership is focused on, especially for creating long-term funding mechanisms to support forested watershed stewardship, include: Catawba-Wateree (NC and SC – including City of Charlotte, 16 other drinking water utilities and Duke Energy); Pee Dee-Winyah Basin (SC); Savannah River Watershed (GA and SC); the Florida Panhandle; Oconee Watershed (GA); Middle Chattahoochee (AL and GA); Beaver Watershed (AR); Central Arkansas-Lake Maumelle (AR); Austin-Hill Country (TX), and Houston’s source watershed.
Long-term Desired Outcomes of the Southeastern Partnership for Forests and Water:
- Forests are not converted to non-forest uses, are healthy and sustainably managed, and landowners who are stewards of these properties are compensated for their actions that achieve healthy watersheds and clean water.
- Increase understanding that sustainably managed forest lands are the best land use for clean water and watershed health.
- Increase awareness that good forestry includes active management (and harvesting) in compliance with Best Management Practices.
water utilities include partnerships with private landowners in their source
water protection programs.
- Water utilities contribute to improved forest management by supporting technical assistance/forest management plans leading to certification by Tree Farm USA, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).
- Water utilities dependent on surface water supplies will conserve open lands from development in sensitive/high-priority areas of their source watersheds using the full range of available tools, ideally in concert with improved management practices and storm water management on agricultural and forestland.
For more information about the Southeastern Partnership for Forests and Water, please visit the website at www.southeasternpartnership.org or contact the author, Kitty Weisman, at (360) 481-2544.