Healthy Headwaters Background

Partnership Sucess Stories

Denver, CO
Seeing the Forest for the Water

Denver’s skyline features the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains, which provide essential drinking water supplies to this large and fast-growing metropolitan area. The Forest Service describes the Colorado Rockies—which  form the headwaters for seven major U.S. river systems—as “the nation’s water towers.” 

But the forested watersheds that are the heart and soul of those water towers are at increasing risk from catastrophic wildfires on a scale far beyond what they experienced under natural conditions. Fuel buildup from century of fire suppression—and in some cases, infestations of bark beetles resulting from a warming climate—mean that Colorado’s forests are primed to burn. Read more

Eugene, OR
Giving Back to the Watershed

The city of Eugene, Oregon, is located in the scenic McKenzie River Valley at the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers. The 200,000 residents of the Eugene metro area depend on the McKenzie River as their sole source of drinking water. About three-fourths of the watershed is in public ownership (mostly National Forest land), but most of the valuable riparian corridors are private—devoted largely to farms and forest products.

As the agency responsible for delivering clean water to residents of Eugene, the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) takes a long view of watershed health. EWEB Drinking Water Source Protection Coordinator, Karl Morgenstern describes it simply: “Utilities have to look ahead 50-100 years, and that means looking at the impacts of climate change”. In the McKenzie watershed, those privately held riparian lands will provide valuable buffers against flooding, erosion, increased water temperature, and other expected changes, but only if they remain essentially undeveloped. Read more

Salt Lake City, UT
Remembering Our Relationship with Our Watershed

Salt Lake City sprawls across the valley floor below the towering mountains of the Wasatch Front. In addition to a stunning backdrop and world-class recreation, the 11,000-feet-high peaks provide clean, reliable water supplies to growing population of more than a half million people.

This water comes almost entirely from melting snow—a virtual reservoir high in the mountains. Unfortunately, that reservoir is vulnerable to the impacts of a warming climate, which means more precipitation falling as rain in the winter, less reliable snowpack, and earlier, more rapid runoff in the spring. These changes could cause the city to face serious shortages and water quality problems in late summer and fall. Read more

Santa Fe, NM
Sustaining the Watershed

More than a third of the municipal water supply for Santa Fe’s 80,000 residents comes from the Santa Fe River, which flows from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just east of town. Most of the river’s watershed lies in the Santa Fe National Forest, including 10,000 acres within the Pecos Wilderness Area. 

Threats to watersheds come in many forms, but in the Southwest the one that rises to the top of the list is catastrophic wildfire. A series of large-scale fires has struck the region’s ponderosa pine forests recently: the 48,000-acre Cerro Grande fire in northern New Mexico 2000, two fires in eastern Arizona— the 468,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2005 and the the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire in 2011—and the 150,000-acre Las Conchas Fire, which burned 60 percent of the Bandelier National Monument in 2011. Read more

Other Information on Western Headwaters

Literature Review

This literature review prepared for Carpe Diem West by the Sonoran Institute examines the available estimates of the value of water produced by National Forest lands in the West:

“Berry-Sonoran Forest Service/Water Literature Review,” Sonoran Institute, September 2010

“Berry-Sonoran Forest Service/Water Bibliography,” Sonoran Institute, September 2010

This 2004 report by the Trust for Public Land and the American Water Works Association has hard numbers showing the link between land protection and water supply costs, as well as case studies from across the United States:

Protecting the Source, Trust for Public Land, May 2004

Articles and Tools

EPA Source Water Protection Page

Managing Watersheds in the Face of Climate Change, Presentation by Dr. Holly Hartmann, September 16, 2010 (13.4 MB PDF file)

“Water, Climate Change and Forests: Watershed Stewardship for a Changing Climate,” USDA Forest Service, June 2010 (9.5 MB PDF file)

“Large Landscape Conservation: A Strategic Framework for Policy & Action,” Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2010 (4.5 MB PDF file)

“Healthy Headwaters Initiative,” Draft Concept Paper, Mike Anderson, November 2009

“Using Forestry to Secure America’s Water Supply,” USDA Forest Service, January 2000

“Managing the PNW Headwaters in a Changing Climate,” Brian Staab (20 MB PDF file)

“Climate Change Impacts on Headwater Systems and Implications for Water Supply,” Jeremy Littell (17.5 MB PDF file)