The Natural Water Filter: A Case For A Protected O&C Forest
Simply put, forests serve as low-cost natural water treatment plants. Healthy, intact forests filter pollutants, sediment, and harmful bacteria out of the water, providing high quality drinking water. They also act like a sponge, holding and gradually releasing water, recharging groundwater, and even reducing flood damage downstream.
As Congress considers changes in management to 2.6 million acres of public “O&C” forest in western Oregon protection of clean drinking water should be of paramount importance.
Managed properly healthy forests and their watersheds not only offer a solution to meeting some of our future water needs but they also offer a compelling economic case. The economic benefits or ‘avoided costs’ of forested watersheds in providing water supply is significant. While water treatment facilities can also filter water they usually do so at a greater cost, which means higher utility bills for residents and businesses. Water providers that receive drinking water from mostly forested watersheds have cheaper annual treatment costs than systems which have less forest cover, as highlighted in an American Rivers report.
Oregon cities such as Portland, Astoria, Forest Grove, and Ashland all have joined a growing number of communities nationwide that have recognized the economic advantage of sustainable management for the forests that provide their clean drinking water. Protecting Portland’s Bull Run watershed has saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in avoided secondary treatment costs. The U.S. Forest Service values the water flowing off of National Forest lands alone at $3.7 billion.
To see what happens when forests in drinking water areas are not managed well in the Pacific Northwest see this alarming Seattle Times article. Source drinking water areas, areas with high erosion or runoff potential such as steep slopes or erodible soils, areas that are historically or currently prone to landslides on O&C forest lands should receive special consideration for conservation as well. After all, clean drinking water is our most valuable natural resource.