Logging for Water
A battle is brewing over whether cutting down trees will increase California's water supply.
Marily Woodhouse, founder of the Battle Creek Alliance, says logging for water "is Orwellian 'lies are truth' speak."
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The day after an unseasonal June rain swelled the streams of the northern Sierra Nevada, Marily Woodhouse steered her 2003 Dodge Dakota through 65 miles of winding mountain roads near Mount Lassen. Woodhouse first traversed the area on horseback shortly after moving here 25 years ago. Back then, the land was lush with life, and its towering conifer forests furnished refreshingly cool air on days that were blistering hot beyond the canopy's shade.
Now, acre after acre of land of the Battle Creek Watershed is parched as far as the eye can see. Nonnative plants like star thistle and mullein compete to cover bare ground that was once studded with pines, firs, and cedars. Rather than finding sanctuary in the forests, Woodhouse now collects data that she says demonstrates the epic damage that has been wrought by the state's largest timber corporation, Sierra Pacific Industries, or SPI.
Nearly every week, for more than seven years, Woodhouse has stopped at the same 13 stream locations in the watershed. At each spot, the founder of the environmental group Battle Creek Alliance uses specialized equipment to examine and record water temperature, water pH, soil temperature, and "turbidity": a measure of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in the air.
In 2012, the Ponderosa Fire torched 27,234 acres in the watershed. But Woodhouse says SPI inflicted much greater harm through post-fire "salvage logging," which involved removing virtually every large- and medium-sized tree in the burned area—both living and dead—and deep-ripping the denuded soil to a depth of three feet with heavy machinery in order to accelerate the growth of newly planted trees.
"I used to think clear-cutting was the worst thing, but it's not," Woodhouse said regarding the salvage logging. "They took everything down to bare dirt. The water quality went crazy bad."
SPI officials have repeatedly defended their logging practices in Battle Creek and elsewhere, and have even argued that they eventually improve the health of forests and streams.
For decades, environmentalists have countered that industrial logging, in fact, damages watersheds because it involves removing vegetation that anchors hillsides and constructing logging roads that cause chronic erosion that chokes streams and rivers with sediment.
However, during the past year, a growing chorus of academics and conservationists has given comfort to the state's logging industry by arguing that California would actually benefit from more logging, especially after years of punishing drought.
At the heart of the debate is the increasing realization that forests throughout the Sierra, Klamath, Siskiyou, and Coast mountain ranges—like the forests that once stood in Battle Creek—are important components of California's water system. Not only do the trees store and filter huge amounts of water, but they also provide shade for the mountain snowpack so that it will melt gradually to fill the state's reservoirs with a steady, year-round supply of water.
And an expanding number of scientists and environmental groups are now arguing that many of California's forests, because of years of fire suppression and other unsound ecological practices, have become overcrowded with trees and that these forests are holding too much water in the soil. Cutting or thinning the trees, they say, will release the groundwater into streams and rivers so that California's dams and reservoirs can capture it.
A leading proponent of this thinking is UC Merced chemical engineering professor Roger Bales, chairman of UC's Sierra Nevada Research Institute. The institute operates 1,300 sensors that measure the geochemical balance of water in the Sierra Nevada's forests, meadows, and streams. "Our groundwater is our largest storage reservoir," Bales noted in a May presentation at Yosemite National Park. Given that 60 percent of the water supply used in California comes from the Sierra Nevada alone, Bales encourages people to think of the iconic mountain range as "California's water tower."
Another proponent of logging for water is the environmental group the Nature Conservancy, which is helping to bankroll Bales' work. Last year, the group caused a stir in the state's environmental community when it published a report called "Estimating the Water Supply Benefits from Forest Restoration in the Northern Sierras." The report mainly focused on how thinning national forests impacts the forest's ability to store snow and use water more efficiently.
"The broad point we are making is that the Sierra Nevada and other forested watersheds are the source of most of California's water," said David Edelson, co-author of the report and the Nature Conservancy's Sierra Nevada project director, in an interview. The report concluded that, if the current rate of forest thinning in the Sierra Nevada increases three-fold, there could be up to a 6 percent increase in the average annual streamflow for some watersheds that supply the state's reservoirs.
But many environmentalists reject the idea of cutting down more trees in order to increase water supplies. While some do not oppose thinning forests that are dense with young trees, many agree that the claims of increased water runoff via more logging are greatly exaggerated, and that such an approach could wreak havoc on forests and river systems alike.
"Saying that more logging produces more water is Orwellian 'lies are truth' speak," Woodhouse said.
"It's amazing that this idea has cropped up again," said veteran hydrologist Jonathan Rhodes, referring to logging for water. "I've seen it come and go throughout my career, and it always ends up thoroughly debunked."
Earlier this year, Rhodes and fisheries biologist Christopher Frissell released a comprehensive study that found the Nature Conservancy's report to be deeply flawed. Rhodes and Frissell's study—which was commissioned by the private environmental foundation Environment Now and drew on roughly 230 scientific research citations—concluded that in order to substantially increase the state's water supplies, California would have to do much more than thin forests. "If people really want to take the approach of creating more water runoff through logging, we will be looking at draconian levels of forest removal in this state," Rhodes warned in an interview.
Nonetheless, the logging-for-water idea has recently gained traction in Sacramento and among some other environmental organizations. The conservation group Pacific Forest Trust is currently sponsoring legislation, Assembly Bill 2480, written by Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D-Hollywood, that could increase forest thinning in certain watersheds to release more water for the state's reservoirs.
The state Assembly has approved AB 2480, and it's scheduled for another hearing in the state Senate later this summer. It if passes, it would head to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.
Many of the state's municipal water agencies oppose the bill, however, because it could require ratepayers—California consumers—to pick up the tab for forest thinning. "Our principal concern is the financing methods," San Diego County Water Authority representative Glen Farrell noted at a June 28 state Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee meeting.
Environment Now director Doug Bevington said in an interview that it's crucial for municipal ratepayers to scrutinize claims being made by logging-for-water proponents. "Bay Area water users are being asked to subsidize damaging logging to the Sierra Nevada and won't see any supply benefits," he said. "They may even have to pay more later on to address the damage to watersheds from all that logging."
The theory of thinning or clearing forested areas in order to significantly increase water supplies has been around since at least the 1950s, and has always enjoyed timber industry backing, environmentalists say. Bevington, the author of the 2009 book, The Rebirth of Environmentalism, compares the logging-for-water theory to the logic used by deer hunters as they contributed to the extinction of wolves in the American West.
"The claim that cutting more trees would get us more water is similar to the old idea of slaughtering wolves to improve deer hunting, which actually wound up messing up deer populations," he said. "In both notions, a simplistic mindset ignores natural complexity, leading to harmful results."
Over the years, the logging-for-water arguments never gained widespread acceptance, in part because of the deepening recognition of logging's monumental impacts on watersheds.
A case in point is the primary watershed serving the East Bay. The Mokelumne River is the main water source for 1.4 million East Bay residents, including those in Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and Alameda. The river's headwaters are in the Stanislaus National Forest in the central Sierra Nevada, and a major reservoir—the Pardee—traps the Mokelumne's water before releasing up to 325 million gallons per day into the 95-mile-long Mokelumne Aqueduct, which conveys it to the East Bay Municipal Utility District's distribution system. Research suggests that 60 percent of the Mokelumne's flow comes from water stored in the Sierra soil, as opposed to snowmelt.