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Our Drinking Water and Forest Service Research

Posted by Shannon Kelleher, Research and Development Knowledge Management and Communications, USDA Forest Service in Forestry Research and Science
Aug 02, 2021
A lake lying below the Minarets in the Ansel Adam Wilderness Inyo National Forest
A beautiful lake lies below the Minarets in the Ansel Adam Wilderness Inyo National Forest, California. (Courtesy photo by Ediza Lake)

Behind every drop of water from the tap is an entire forest ecosystem. And while it’s easy to take drinking water for granted, you might be surprised to learn that the nation’s largest single source of water is the National Forest System, the network of national forests stewarded by the USDA Forest Service. Many of these national forest lands overlay the source areas for important rivers and aquifer systems, and more than 60 million Americans rely on them for drinking water.

Scientists from Forest Service Research and Development, or R&D, investigate the quality and quantity of water from forests and conduct research that informs water stewardship and reduces costs. For example, one R&D study showed that nearly 21 million people in the South receive their drinking water from national forest lands – roughly equivalent to the population of Florida!

These study results can support efforts to conserve the forests that protect the area’s clean water supplies. Sustaining forests both on and off national forest lands is an efficient and cost-effective way to protect critical water infrastructure compared to investing in flood control, water purification, and other man-made infrastructure.

In partnership with NASA on the SnowEx project, R&D is helping improve forecasting of the production of water from spring snowmelt. This research is significant because much of the western U.S.’s water supply is derived from mountain snow. Better information about this water supply can improve hazard forecasting, water availability predictions, and agricultural forecasting.

Whether developing camp sites for visitors or restoring stream habitats, work on national forests sometimes involves disturbing the ground. In these, and similar projects, care must be taken to avoid sedimentation and other negative water quality impacts.

People in hard hats
Research and Development played a key role in developing Best Management Practices (BMPs) protocols and has trained hundreds of Forest Service employees in how to implement these protocols. (Courtesy photo by USDA Forest Service)

In fact, R&D pioneered the first national program to monitor the implementation and effectiveness of Best Management Practices, or BMPs, which are techniques that help control and reduce water pollution and protect aquatic ecosystems. The resulting consistency and streamlined approaches of BMPs throughout the National Forest System promise to improve water quality and save millions of dollars.

For instance, forest buffers are strips of vegetation along streams, lakes, and wetlands that stabilize banks and filter pesticides, animal waste, and sediment from agricultural runoff. A software tool produced by R&D helps land managers design buffers that are wider along banks where pollution inputs are higher. Such variable-width buffers can more effectively and cost-efficiently trap pollutants than standard, uniform-width buffers.

By investigating how forested landscapes foster watershed health and contribute to water supplies, R&D continues to build a solid scientific foundation for informed forest management decisions, including those designed to protect U.S. water supplies. We must understand the forest’s role in supporting life on Earth so it can continue to sustain us. To learn more about where much of our drinking water come from, watch “Your Best Waters,” a video produced through a FS/Freshwaters Illustrated partnership.

A riparian buffer lining a waterway
A riparian buffer lines a waterway. (Courtesy photo from the USDA National Agroforestry Center)
Category/Topic: Forestry Research and Science

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Jun 10, 2018

This is a great article and these programs deserve precious money to make them work. Water sustains all life.

This is exactly why the Forest Service must stop Twin Metals from copper/gold mining near the most precious freshwater treasure in the National Forest system, the boundary Waters canoe area wilderness. They will mine in this watershed and leave us with the cleanup like times before.

David Jackson Ingraham
Jun 14, 2018

Most folks think of Wilderness as the beautiful mountain landscape of a full forest stretching to the tree line of the mountain pinnacles with snow still glistening on their peaks. What they do not see is the over grown fuel load waiting for the next match for the next great wilderness bonfire that will reduce that beautiful forest to a blackened panorama of sticks standing out from the slop. Wilderness is not land management, it is justification for negligence to the duty of The forest Service to protect our natural resources.

Danial James Ray Hunt
Jun 14, 2018

Concise, straight to the point, full of information, and most likely over looked by a lot of people. Regardless, I appreciate the information and thanks for the new perspective as well as the software to put it to use.

LOrna Flowers
Jul 11, 2018

IS there a particular drinking water that is more safe for purchase

Ben Weaver
Jul 12, 2018

@Lorna Flowers - The Forest Service has no regulatory authority in setting and testing drinking water standards. In the U.S., bottled water and tap water are regulated by two different agencies; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates tap water (also referred to as municipal water or public drinking water). EPA sets regulatory limits for the amounts of certain contaminants in water provided by public water systems. FDA has set Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) specifically for bottled water.