With record snowfall in Steamboat Springs this winter and plenty of low temperatures, global warming may not be at the forefront of our minds. However, climate models show that a warming trend likely is to continue throughout this century. There may be longer, warmer summers, extreme weather events and changes in snowfall. Snow, of course, becomes the fresh water that sustains the land, its plants, creatures and waterways.
A significant portion of the western United States depends on the major river systems that originate on National Forests in the Rocky Mountain Region. It includes states with some of the fastest growing populations in the country, including Colorado, where the human population is expected to increase from five million to more than eight million by 2050.
The 11 National Forest units - including the Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests - that make up the Rocky Mountain Region supply more than half of Wyoming's water yield, more than two-thirds of Colorado's water yield, and more than 70 percent of the public surface water supply systems in Colorado.
Healthy forests, including the streams, wetlands, meadows and riparian areas within them, function as natural sponges that absorb, store, filter and then slowly release precipitation. The integrity of ecosystems is dependent on forested watersheds functioning this way.
The loss of trees from beetle epidemics likely will affect the rate of snowmelt and run off and may increase the number and severity of wildfires.
Also, growing human populations, a warmer climate and increased demands on the nation's water supply are all reasons that make it more important than ever that forests be managed to protect water resources.
Watershed management always has been one of the main responsibilities of the Forest Service. One of the principal purposes of the National Forests is to secure favorable conditions of water flows (Organic Administration Act, 1897).
With these changing conditions, the Rocky Mountain Region is renewing its commitment to protect and maintain water sources on the National Forests. The Region's goals are to: protect water resources; promote water conservation; acquire, protect and maintain water rights; and increase public awareness of how forest health and watershed stewardship practices contribute to social and economic well-being of people in the West.
The forest is working with local governments and stakeholders to reach these goals.
Diann Ritschard is the public affairs specialist for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests & Thunder Basin National Grassland.