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Rivers are moving monitors. As they spring out of alpine meadows, spilling down tree-covered slopes toward the sea, they gauge the health of the land they pass through and carry the results along for better or worse. The water that fills a teakettle miles downstream in a city apartment is a measure of all that has gone on upstream: blizzard and drought, logging and road building, care and neglect.

Healthy watersheds nurture trees and other plants that help stabilize soil and hold water, releasing it slowly to the rivers coursing between forests and faucets.

The link between urban supplies and remote rural watersheds is increasingly obvious to officials who deliver the water. After decades of disconnect, city councils, county commissioners, and other local policymakers are turning their attention to the source. As they try to slake the thirst of more and more people with less and less water, these urban officials acknowledge an ecological reality. To provide safe drinking water in sufficient quantities year after year, they must adopt a holistic approach that treats water as one component of a complex ecosystem.

"The more we understand the relationship between our actions and their effect on the environment, the more we can incorporate that into our decisions. The goal is sustainable management," says Jim Erckmann, watershed resources manager for the city of Seattle.

Municipalities from coast to coast are pioneering programs to improve upstream land and river systems for the sake of their metropolitan drinking water. New York City, for example, is saving billions that would have to be spent on a federally mandated filtration system by protecting the working watershed and family farmers who depend on it (see "A Watershed Paradox," Winter 1998).

What drives these efforts is not sheer altruism. Along with a genuine interest in water quality and its importance to the public, officials are propelled by a growing body of state and federal laws that mandate safeguards for water, air, and habitat. What results are diverse, sometimes contradictory strategies that reflect both the needs of specific watersheds and local controversies over how to satisfy them.

In Seattle the endangered species that inhabit the city's primary watershed, along with their human advocates, prompted a management plan that ends commercial logging for the next 50 years. The city owns around 90,000 acres north of Mt. Rainier in the headwaters of the Cedar River, which supplies two-thirds of the drinking water for the metropolitan area's 1.3 million people.

In the early 1990s, Seattle officials began developing a Habitat Conservation Plan to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act and a void adverse impacts on the spotted owl, marbled murrelet, Puget Sound chinook salmon, and bull trout, all listed as threatened or endangered. The draft plan proposed setting aside 64 percent of the Cedar watershed as an ecological reserve. City officials proposed logging the rest and using the revenue to cover the cost of removing 620 miles of road, building fish ladders, and other environmental protections. But when the proposal went public, it met with fierce opposition.

Seattle residents raffled behind no commercial logging in the Cedar watershed. Instead of using timber revenue to fund watershed protections, they favored raising water rates by around $4 a year--the price of a good latte. The city council voted unanimously in July to make the entire watershed an ecological reserve.

Time will tell how much the Cedar River benefits from the decision, says Erckmann, the Seattle watershed manager. "Walking away from a forest is a management decision. In some places it is the wrong thing to do," he says.

Across the country in Baltimore, officials are considering the converse: reopening their watershed to limited logging after an eight-year hiatus. The 17,000 acres in three separate areas north and northwest of the city produce 480 million gallons of water daily for the metropolitan area's 1.6 million people. Much of the watershed is former farmland converted to white pine plantations that were thinned and logged until the early 1990s, when environmental questions caused a task force to halt timber harvesting.

Last year, a volunteer Friends of the Watershed committee asked the Maryland Forest Service to develop a comprehensive forest plan for managing the land for high-quality water. The two year study could recommend reforestation in some places and selective cutting in others, says Jim Mallow, the Maryland state forester who is coordinating the review. Certain over-mature stands are no longer retaining the groundwater, nutrients, or carbon that younger trees would. Removing some of the older trees would stimulate the growth of younger trees and improve the health of the watershed, Mallow says.

Restoring and maintaining healthy forests in watersheds may involve both planting and cutting trees, says Rick Crouse, senior vice president at AMERICAN FORESTS and a member of Friends of the Watershed. It's critical that the health of the land and the quality of the water determine the activity--rather than how much revenue can be derived from timber. "Restoration and maintenance do require investment--funding--but innovative sources of revenue can and should be found to support them," Crouse says.

A recommendation to cut trees is sure to be a lightning rod, as it was in Seattle, Mallow says, but would offer an opportunity to demonstrate the link between sound forest management and high-quality water.

As he points out, good forestry is part of the solution to nonpoint source pollution. "If we're going to have quality water, we need to look to the land."

Many cities do not have the luxury of deciding whether to log the lands that supply their drinking water. Atlanta, one of the nation's fastest-growing cities, is among those that own none of its own watershed. The city gets all its water from the Chattahoochee River, which streams south from Chattahoochee National Forest through Atlanta on its way to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Once largely forest and agricultural land, the region around Atlanta has mushroomed into a sprawl of suburbs with the pavement, runoff, and pollution common to most American metropolitan areas.

In the 80-mile stretch between the Chattahoochee's headwaters and Atlanta, dozens of municipalities and industries are permitted to discharge waste and effluent into the river. By the time the Chattahoochee reaches Atlanta, it's a sewer, says Sally Bethea, executive director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a grassroots advocacy group.

"What we've got going here is not sustainable. This river can't take this abuse forever and provide a public drinking supply," Bethea says.

David W. Peters, Atlanta's deputy commissioner of public works, blames much of the pollution on development outside city limits. A dramatic increase in asphalt dumps red Georgia clay and other sediments into an already undersized water treatment system, he says. When it rains, Atlanta is awash with water that carries effluent, heavy metals, and other pollutants from upstream counties and towns--places beyond Atlanta's control.

"Rivers don't look at political boundaries," says Peters.

To respond to citizens' concerns--and to litigation flied by Riverkeeper--the Atlanta City Council joined with neighboring jurisdictions to create the Metro Atlanta Urban Watersheds Initiative. Their goal: coordinating efforts to improve the watershed below its headwaters. The group launched a three-year study that aims to plant trees, stabilize stream banks with vegetation and riprap, and build sediment ponds. Peters hopes biotic species planted around the ponds will absorb some of the heavy metals in the water.

More than specific fixes, what Atlanta, the Chattahoochee, and the watersheds of America need are government officials willing to enforce the law, says Bethea. "We are literally fouling our own nest despite laws on the books. The public has got to demand a better system."

One program is so simple that it is often forgotten: water conservation. Using less water is an obvious way to decrease impacts on the watershed. Fran Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, became concerned about water quantities last summer when Baltimore requested a permit to withdraw water from the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna, which flows southeast through Pennsylvania and drains into the Chesapeake Bay 50 miles from Baltimore, is not part of Baltimore's watershed. Instead of using fresh water badly needed by the Chesapeake ecosystem, Baltimore should encourage conservation, says Flanigan.

"We can no longer look just at our own little watersheds. We have to consider how our actions impact the regional watershed," she says.

That's a lesson Los Angeles learned the hard way. Decades after the city's Department of Water and Power began draining Owens and Mono lakes more than 300 miles away, court orders forced cutbacks to protect the environment and repair some of the damage the diversions caused. Faced with inadequate supplies for a burgeoning metropolis, Los Angeles mounted an intense water conservation program. The results have been stunning. Water usage in the sprawling city has dropped to the 1972 level despite a 28 percent increase in population. Today Los Angeles officials call water conservation "a way of life."

Whether the management strategies city officials are adopting will be enough to restore urban watersheds to their natural health is still an open question. What's encouraging is that more and more policymakers understand the connection between the water that comes out of the faucet, the forests upstream, and quality of life. It is their responsibility to enact and enforce programs that benefit entire ecosystems. The rivers will reveal the results.

Jane Braxton Little covers environmental issues from her home in Greenville, California.
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Title Annotation:cities try to protect the watersheds they depend on
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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