Rick Cables: Forest snow leads to faucet flow

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Bringing evergreens into the home in winter is an ancient symbol of renewal. At this time of year, the forest enters many homes in the form of a Christmas tree. If you cut yours on national forests, this thinning of small trees also contributes to a healthier forest.

Renewing national forests is critical to sustaining their function as the source of most water in the Inland West. Forests are nature's sponge, storing and filtering vast amounts of water and slowly releasing it in summer when it is most needed by people and ecosystems. It all begins in winter with snow fall. Mountain snows supply 75 percent of the Inland West's water, almost half of it from the highest elevations.

While starting late, our snows finally are falling. Winter snows will translate into water yields next spring. The mountain snowpack functions as a high-altitude reservoir that feeds headwater river basins. The streams in these basins ultimately flow to our water systems. When we turn on our faucets, we tap into our forests - so our water supply and quality are governed by the health of our forests and their streams.

Securing reliable flows of clean water was a prime purpose of the first national forests. In a sense, history is repeating itself today as we in the Forest Service return to our roots by giving priority to water as the greatest value of national forests. And the stakes are higher than ever.

In future decades, a warming climate is projected with less snowpack, earlier snowmelt and more severe droughts and wildfires that will strain our water supply and threaten our water source. We need to plan ahead. Spring snowpack has dropped abruptly in the past 20 years, and snowmelt runoff now averages 10 days earlier. Large forest fires are four times more frequent and burn six times as many acres.

National forests will remain the water towers of the West, but water is a finite resource with infinite potential demand. It will prove to be a defining conservation issue of this century. Our chief, Abigail Kimbell, has made water one of three top emphases for the U.S. Forest Service. We may squeeze a bit more from the earth and sky, but there is only so much water there. The real answer lies in working together to save our source and reduce our demand.

Rural communities and grassroots groups are integral to the health of national forests - after all, it's your backyard. Advocacy for water issues and forests can take many forms. Some volunteer for watershed restoration to help heal wounds on the land so streams run clean. Others support treating forests to make them more resilient to wildfires so the sponge keeps working.

California Park is a Special Emphasis Area on the Routt National Forest because of its sensitive species, historic uniqueness, and biological diversity. Partners like the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Routt County, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Rocky Mountain Youth Corps have donated time and money to heal its critical watershed. Projects include restoring an old gravel pit as a wetland, replacing culverts on First Creek and excluding animals along lower Elkhead Creek to improve watershed function, riparian health and stream habitats.

Your local forest rangers appreciate your community's contribution to this project and others that help renew forest headwaters.

As citizens of the Inland West, it will help if we understand that each watershed is a dynamic system that receives, stores, filters and yields water to streams, to see each stream as a unit from source to mouth, to make the connection that our water future depends on the health of our forests, at the source.

The water stresses of this century are bigger than any of us individually.

As a Colorado-born, second-generation Forest Service employee with 31 years as a public land steward, my heart is in conserving our forest watersheds. As you enjoy the holidays or think about your hopes for the coming year, please consider your role as a steward of our future water supply. Together we can help renew and protect the earthly source of our water - our local forests.

Rick Cables is the Rocky Mountain Regional Forester. His letters to the editor, focusing on water issues, have run this year in The Denver Post, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today.

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