By John Rosenow
When we think of forests, majestic trees, precious wildlife, and clean, fresh air might come to mind. We probably don’t think about the water we drink.
When you turn on your faucet this Arbor Day, take a moment and think about the important role trees play to make sure what comes out of the tap is healthy and clean.
Most people know that trees produce oxygen that we breathe and clean the air by acting as giant filters, removing harmful particles and pollutants. But you may not be aware that trees work just as hard to protect and purify our water sources, including those that provide drinking water for millions of Americans every day.
Trees improve water quality by slowing rain as it falls to the earth, and helping it soak into the soil. They also prevent soil from eroding into our waterways, reduce stormwater runoff, and lessen flood damage. They serve as natural filters to protect our streams, rivers, and lakes.
Forests in the United States are the source of drinking water for more than 180 million people, 59 percent of the U.S. population. Forests help protect vital water sources such as sparkling mountain streams filled with melting snow, healthy reservoirs and lakes, and our nation’s vast web of rivers.
Our forested areas are shrinking at an alarming rate. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 40 million acres of private forest could be lost in the next 40 years.
Why is that important to us? As U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “While most Americans live in urban areas, most of us depend on rural lands, particularly forest lands, for clean water and a healthy climate.”
One example of an urban area that depends on forested land for water is New York City. In the late 1990s, New York City leaders balked at a $6 billion water treatment system and instead opted to go with natural landscape management to clean the water it receives from the Catskill/Delaware watershed in upstate New York. The focus is on creating conservation easements along streams and reservoirs, and protecting forest lands to keep sediment and runoff from entering the water supply.
The watershed provides most of New York City’s daily supply of drinking water, more than 1 billion gallons each day. New Yorkers enjoy some of the cleanest, healthiest drinking water in the world.
Millions of Californians rely on crystal-clear water flowing from Plumas and other National Forests to quench their thirst. Melting snow and rain water flow from the Plumas into the Feather River and eventually winds up in the Sacramento River. Water from the Plumas relies on the entire ecosystem, which includes trees, to keep it pristine until it reaches taps throughout central and northern California. This is just one example of how our national forests help clean the water.
These solutions are an alternative to manufactured water treatment systems, and are beneficial in so many ways. Unfortunately, the conventional response is too often to pay for expensive artificial treatment systems rather than rely on natural resources.
One way to protect and clean our water supply is to plant trees, and the need to replant our nation’s forests is vitally important. The U.S. Forest Service has identified a backlog of 1 million acres in national forests alone that are in need of replanting because of damage from recent wildfires, insects, and disease.
There is no substitute for clean water. Water is a vital resource that we rely on every day. We can’t create something else to take its place.
But we can plant trees.
We enjoy trees for many reasons – their shade on a warm day, the energy they save when they’re planted around our homes, the bountiful food they provide, the songbirds they bring close by.
Remember the role trees play in keeping our drinking water clean. As you celebrate Arbor Day this year, don’t take your clean drinking water for granted when you turn on the tap. America’s trees worked hard to help deliver that refreshing glass of water.
John Rosenow is the founder and chief executive of the nonprofit Arbor Day Foundation.
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