More and more these days we recognize that clean water is one of the most important products of our forests. Forest lands are the source of nearly two-thirds of water in the 48 contiguous states — the clean water that fills our rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands, sustains our fisheries, or flows from the taps of our homes and businesses. Forests serve as a living sponge to capture, store and slowly release precipitation as well as trapping and transforming the chemicals and nutrient deposits that come in the rain or from adjacent runoff. All the benefits that forests provide—like erosion and sediment control, maintenance of water quality, regulation of flows, and provision of clean drinking water—are called ecosystem services, and in this case can be called watershed services.
Market-based financing of watershed management through payment for watershed services (PWS) schemes –a type of payment for ecosystem services (PES) scheme, is emerging as a promising instrument to connect the forests to the faucet in clear economic terms. In a PWS scheme, landowners are financially compensated for the watershed services they provide. The payment for watershed services helps incentivize watershed protection and leads to net increases in forest protection and improved management.
For example, in New York City, the local government pays landowners for provision of watershed services directly and provides a suite of enhanced services to landowners, in part funded by water users downstream. Through conservation easements, riparian restoration, and land purchase, the city has protected more than 35% of the watershed. A watershed forestry program, run by the non-profit Watershed Agricultural Council in partnership with city, state and federal partners including the U. S. Forest Service, provides the enhanced services and incentives to landowners.
Abundant, clean water is a precious resource and one of the most valuable products provided by public and private forest lands. Drinking water is also one of most direct links between people and the valuable services that forests provide. Private forest owners and the Forest Service clearly have an important responsibility as stewards of not just the land but the nation’s liquid assets as well.