A hydrologist by training, World Water Day and National Groundwater Awareness Week lead me to reflect on the importance of our green infrastructure for ensuring life in the Southwest. Without water, life would be impossible. Here in the southwestern part of the United States, the earth provides us with just enough of this valuable natural resource through its rich green infrastructure of forests, streams and riparian areas. Household and other water supplies are also drawn from groundwater in saturation zones at various depths below the surface, which also keeps perennial streams flowing during periods without precipitation. The green infrastructure captures, stores and releases water delivered to our cities through the physical infrastructure of dams, canals and pipelines that we’ve built in support of our daily lives.
Many of the headwaters of our streams and the recharge areas of aquifers are found on our national forests, and so the Forest Service has a critical role in protecting and maintaining the resiliency and integrity of the water resources associated with those lands. Our national forests in Arizona, New Mexico and southern Colorado are the dominant water-yielding portion of this landscape, serving the population centers of Phoenix, Flagstaff, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Life here would be impossible without water, which is vital for supporting our ecosystems, creating jobs and supporting economic, social, and human development. Adequate supplies of high-quality groundwater from recharged aquifers are critical to our quality of life and to our water security as surface flows fluctuate.
The arid Southwest is on the spear tip for experiencing the effects of climate change, with the vulnerability of our water supplies, the likelihood of drought, wildfire, and flooding from infrequent but intense post-fire rainfall events increasing. The growing uncertainty of our water supply is highlighted by ongoing litigation over the delivery of water from the Colorado and the Gila River systems, as well as by the interstate Drought Contingency Plan to deal with the urgent impact of water delivery shortfalls from the over-appropriated Colorado River. Greater scarcity and unreliability of supplies may be our new normal, which means that greater cooperation is critical to the future capability of our watersheds to meet our needs, both burgeoning urban demands and the traditional uses of agriculture, mining and power.
Can our green infrastructure reliably provide human communities drinking water, wildlife habitat and other critical ecosystem services into the future? Can our forest restoration treatments in part offset the drying effects of climate change and reduce risk of fire damage to communities and watersheds? Can riparian in general - and aquatic ecosystems in particular - produce the expected level of services as populations increase and the Southwest becomes warmer and drier? Healthy riparian and aquatic systems are linchpins connecting land and water – and are integral to future water availability. To manage the watersheds on National Forest System lands, we address all of the water resources on these lands as a single hydrologic system - the continuous movement of water on, above and below the surface of the Earth. In the Southwestern Region of USDA Forest Service, we developed a strategy for restoring and maintaining the riparian and aquatic ecosystems with an eye to the future. We will implement this strategy focusing on “restoring our future” and doing our part to ensure that we have sufficient water to maintain our way of life in the beautiful Southwest.
Green infrastructure and its relation to the importance of water to our region is a critical issue that we all own together. Although the great majority of water in the Middle Colorado River and Gila River basins originates as snowmelt from the national forests in Arizona and Utah, the state of Arizona has the lead for water planning and water delivery to meet the needs of people. The land managers and scientists of USDA Forest Service stand ready to continue working alongside the state to ensure a secure water future for all.