Farms for Healthy Headwaters

A fire burns in the forest above an Oregon farm

Agriculture is a huge part of the story of the American West. It’s important to our economy, our dinner tables, and for some, our way of life. It’s also a huge water user.

The ongoing drought and increasing impacts of climate change have Westerners thinking about the systems we have in place for both water and agriculture. And even those who aren’t steeped in the quagmire of western water management and farming can see our current systems are unsustainable.

Fixing water management isn’t nearly as simple as saying farmers should use less water. Carpe Diem West doesn’t take sides in the farms versus cities debate, because it’s unproductive to pit one group against the other. Cities need food and clothing and farms need a market to sell their goods.

And everyone needs water.

What Healthy Headwaters do for our Farms

Drink a cup of coffee in California, catch a fish from a river in Montana, irrigate lettuce in Arizona, or hazelnuts in Oregon. You might be surprised to find most of that water came from the same place – a National Forest. So as the climate warms, it is more important than ever that we take care of the forests that supply over 60% of our water in the West.

Hot, dry weather increases the risk of catastrophic wildfire in unhealthy forests. These fires send ash and debris into rivers and reservoirs, clogging pipes and filters and decreasing storage capacity. Catastrophic fires also damage the ability of the soil in these forests to filter and store water. These hydrologic processes are critically important to offset the loss of storage in the West’s dwindling snowpack, as more precipitation falls in the liquid variety. Rainwater runs quickly off of charred landscapes, instead of infiltrating the soil to replenish groundwater – groundwater that is being overdrawn at alarming rates to supplement the paltry amount of surface water afforded to us by the drought.

We may not know exactly what our future climate will be, but with the drought here in California reaching historic levels, it’s easy to imagine the possibilities. Restoring and maintaining the health of our western forests is one proactive step we can take to secure the future of our water supply.

What Farms can do for Healthy Headwaters

Farms can support healthy headwaters in many different ways. The obvious ways are tied to the land and the fact that the farms themselves are part of a larger watershed. Farms can help conserve water and protect water quality by:

  • Increasing irrigation efficiency
  • Maintaining soil health
  • Using less or more natural fertilizers and pesticides
  • Increasing buffers between agricultural activities and waterways

But the less obvious ways farms can support healthy headwaters are what we’re most interested in here at Carpe Diem West. We encourage the agricultural community to get involved with local watershed collaboratives or watershed protection programs. Input and participation from the agricultural community is essential in designing programs that work over the long haul in the American West.

Las Conchas forest fire near Los Alamos, NM, soon after it began on Sunday afternoon, June 26, 2011, as seen from Santa Fe County. Photo: Martha Marks
Las Conchas forest fire near Los Alamos, NM, soon after it began on Sunday afternoon, June 26, 2011, as seen from Santa Fe County.
Photo: Martha Marks

The farming community is a critical component to the success of the Rio Grande Water Fund (RGWF) in New Mexico. When the 2011 Las Conchas Fire destroyed over 150,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest and surrounding areas, the monsoon rains that followed caused flooding and sedimentation of reservoirs, while the Rio Grande ran black with ash and debris. This catastrophe served as a catalyst for the formation of the RGWF in September 2014. The RGWF is building partnerships between public and private stakeholders in the Rio Grande Basin to generate sustainable funding for a 20 year program of large-scale forest and watershed restoration treatments. These treatments include thinning overgrown forests, restoring streams and rehabilitating areas that flood after wildfires.

The RGWF recently created the Rio Grande Wildfire and Water Source Protection Collaborative Charter that gained over 30 signatories, including some key agricultural interests. Signatories – even those who are not contributing money to the fund – have a seat at the table to discuss and identify priority projects in the approximately 600,000 acres of forest that are targeted for treatment. Certainly, not every community has a story like the Las Conchas Fire to move people to action (thank goodness). But the RGWF Charter is a great tool for any community looking to involve more local stakeholders, including farmers, in their watershed investment programs.

Healthy forests and the water they produce are important to all westerners. After all, it’s one water. For fish, for families, and for farms. Click here to read the RGWF Charter and learn if this kind of collaboration can help build your community’s support for healthy headwaters.

Kristiana Teige Witherill

Kristiana Teige Witherill
6-17-15

Photo credit: TFoxFoto/Shutterstock

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