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National forests deliver almost half of the West's drinking water supply, report shows

 A map depicting the percent of water from from National Forest Service lands in a 2022 NFS report quantifying the role of national forests in the surface drinking water supply.
US Forest Service
A map depicting the percent of water from from National Forest Service lands in a 2022 NFS report quantifying the role of national forests in the surface drinking water supply.

News brief

New research reveals just how integral national forests and grasslands are to public drinking water in the Mountain West and beyond.

The U.S. Forest Service published a report last month showing that while national forests and grasslands make up about 19% of the land in the West, they contribute almost half – 46% – of its surface water supply.

The analysis also quantified communities' level of dependence of surface water from national forest lands.

 Figure depicting the water suppliers of the Las Vegas-Henderson, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside-San Bernardino and greater Phoenix area from a 2022 NFS report quantifying the role of national forests in the surface drinking water supply.
US Forest Service
Figure depicting the water suppliers of the Las Vegas-Henderson, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside-San Bernardino and greater Phoenix area from a 2022 NFS report quantifying the role of national forests in the surface drinking water supply.

“You can use this information to identify which national forests are providing a large portion of the water supply for an area like Las Vegas,” said Peter Caldwell, a Forest Service research hydrologist who co-authored the report.

In that example, the drinking water supply in the Las Vegas-Henderson, Nev., area serves about 1.6 million people and about 68% of its water supply comes from national forests. The report attributes specific portions of that supply to more than 20 national forests, including the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, Fishlake National Forest in Utah, and Carson National Forest in New Mexico.

Almost every Western public water system depends on national forests and grasslands. That dependence is greater than 90% in some towns, including Aspen, Colo., and Portland, Ore. while Albuquerque, N.M, is about 76% dependent.

Caldwell says that local information can help inform decision-making around wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration.

“Really allows you to get down to that smaller scale and think about where you might do your restoration work or prioritize where you might do that work,” he said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Emma Gibson
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